Labor versus work

I’ve been reading Lewis Hyde’s The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World for that last couple of weeks.  It is providing context and depth to my intuitive understanding of generosity and gift-giving, helping me to appreciate the rich history of gift-giving, which, I had forgotten, forms the social underpinning of most societies throughout history (except for today, of course).

Hyde is very specific with his language, and in his chapter on The Labor of Gratitude he is quick to clarify the difference between “labor” and “work.”  There’s enough great stuff here that the right approach seems to be to quote liberally:

Work is an intended activity that is accomplished through the will.  A labor can be intended but only to the extent of doing the groundwork, or of not doing things that would clearly prevent the labor.   Beyond that, labor has its own schedule.  Things get done, but we often have the odd sense that we didn’t do them.  Paul Goodman wrote in a journal once, “I have recently written a few good poems.  But I have no feeling that I wrote them.”  That is the declaration of a laborer…

…One of the first problems the modern world faced with the rise of industrialism was the exclusion of labor by the expansion of work.”

Labor isn’t better than work, but it is characteristically different, its product is different, the conditions for creating it are different.

The simple question for reflection is: will your success (short and long-term) and happiness require you to labor or just to work?  And if labor is part of the equation, do you create the conditions in your life that will allow you to labor?  Are you not doing things that would clearly prevent the labor?”  Has your work grown so much that it has essentially crowded out every last moment you had to labor?

This is one of the big fights of the modern era.  Email, meetings, Facebook, Twitter, blogs, jokes from your buddies, news and TV and, of course, all the actual work you have to do….these mountains are big and growing, and we’ll never finish scaling them.

I for one feel like I’m in the trenches every day, fighting to labor.  Some days I win, a lot of days I lose.  But I’m positive that I have to keep on fighting.


The gift economy and commerce

In biblical times, money was treated in radically different ways depending on whether you were dealing with someone inside or outside the tribe.  For example:

To a foreigner you may charge interest, but to your brother you shall not charge interest.

– Deuteronomy 23:19,20

Within the tribe, it was forbidden to make money on money you gave to someone (this is the genesis of usury laws).  It was known and understood that what mattered was the collective wealth and well-being of the tribe, and so there were established norms and expectations around the giving and receiving of gifts.  It was known that as a recipient of a gift it was your job to return what was given to you or its equivalent, whether to the person who gave to you or to the next person in the tribe who had a need.  This is how the needs of the members of the tribe were addressed. Gifts flowed in a circular fashion.

Outside the tribe, on the other hand, all bets were off.  You could lend, charge interest, even ask for a goat as collateral if this would help ensure payment.

I visualize it like this: within the circle, we have the gift economy; outside of the circle we have commerce.

Without judging what is good and bad here – indeed without commerce where would we be as a world? – it’s simple to observe that, year after year and century after century, the purview of commerce has gotten broader and the space for the gift economy has shrunken:

What was once the tribe became the extended family became, at least in the West today, the nuclear family.  Community ties weaken, religious ties weaken as many (but certainly not all) parts of the world become more secular, and the gift economy, the economy where generosity and helping first and asking questions later, gets whittled down so much that it’s just a speck in an ocean of commerce.

The irony of course is that, thanks to the amazing power of commerce, we’re wealthier than we’ve ever been.

Which means we have a choice.   Our first, most obvious option is to separate more and to insulate.  We can shop online and hide from the world; we can only associate with people who (socially, economically, politically) are just like us.  We can have Google and Facebook give us search results and friend feeds that systematically reinforce our beliefs.  Indeed there’s a great gravitational pull in this direction.

Our other option, the one that’s been nagging at us and sneaking up on us oh-so-quietly, is to recognize that what we desire most of all is to connect with others, to break down barriers and rip out the insulation, to experience the world and people and one another in a fuller, richer way, and to use our own wealth to heal the world.

The success of Generosity Day this year and, I’m hoping, in years to come is proof of the hunger for the second path, the one that leads to openness and connection, the one that allows us to take all our wealth and power and opportunity and build a different world, one in which we use our great capacity for change and for wealth creation to help one another.

In the end both paths will have to co-exist, but the false promise that’s being served up is that the first path alone will be enough.  It won’t.