Where I grew up few things are more admirable than hard work. Calluses, blisters, and sore muscles are signs of worship to God. Short grass, clean cars, and weedless gardens are the result of extreme holiness. Waking up before the sun or working long after dark are indications of piety.
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There’s a legend that circulates here in Lancaster County. It says Amish women have an unspoken competition with each other on Monday mornings to see who can get their laundry on the line first. I don’t know if the legend is true or not, but I’ve driven in a car with friends past those orderly stretches of clothes waving on a long line between a house and a barn, and the feelings of guilt experienced by those of us in the vehicle have been palpable.
“I have so much to do around the house,” my friends mutter under their breath. “Look at all that laundry that woman has already done today, by hand.”
I think about how I I slept in until 7:30 that morning, and the remorse is so heavy that in that moment I am certain my eternal fate has just been sealed.
* * * * *
When I was a kid, there were only two reasons you ever sat down: to eat supper, or to adhere to the Sabbath. Even on Sunday the sitting was only acceptable if it was on a hard bench, or the floor. During the week you could start breakfast at the table but the last few bites must be eaten on the fly as you’re walking out the door, an illustration of how sorry you were that you hadn’t started working as soon as you stood up out of bed that morning.
Armchair recliners were clearly of the devil, as were pillows and cleaning ladies. Of course you could be a cleaning lady, but you couldn’t pay one to come clean your house. Pay someone else to scrub your toilets or wash your windows? What were you, some kind of lazy city-slicker?
I often found myself sitting around on Sundays listening to the adults humble-brag about how hard they had worked that week, how many hours they had put in, how many fingers they had lost.
Yes, that’s right. How many fingers they had lost. One particular man I remember had a hand missing at least six digits.
“It’s a pity about all those missing fingers,” someone said after he left.
“Yeah, but he sure is a hard worker,” their neighbor replied, getting up and walking around the room just to keep the feeling of relaxation from settling in too deep.
* * * * *
“The Lord helps those who help themselves” was a regular saying in these parts, although it can be kind of a silly thing to say if you think about it, as if God’s willingness to act is somehow tied to my ability to put in a 16-hour day. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not against hard work. I’ve inherited my share of Anabaptist genes. I still get a kick out of sweating, of working the earth, of maintaining order.
But I’ve also seen how this little idol of hard work saturates the minds of those who worship it. Many a father went before the idol of hard work and laid his family on the altar. Many a judgment was made about those in poverty, that they don’t work hard enough, that the answer to all of their problems is a little dirt under their nails, a little ache in their shoulders. Many a beautiful moment was missed, because the enjoyment of that moment would have required a pause in the action or an “unproductive” minute.
We still joke about it, though, how much we love to work. We laugh at ourselves, because we know that we often take it to the extreme. But after the jokes settle, we still whisper in admiration, “That guy sure knows how to work,” or “I don’t know how she does it all.”
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“I don’t know how to live in this county,” someone from the west once told me, “because all people ever talk about here is work. It seems like no one has any hobbies. It seems like no one does anything just for the fun of it.”
I’m learning how to rest. In fact, just the other day I sat in my arm chair for no apparent reason. On a Thursday. At 2:00 in the afternoon. I’m pretty sure I felt the rumbling of my grandfathers rolling over in their graves, but that’s okay.
They’ll get over it.