What do we think of when we hear the word labor? And what might those things have to do with Labor Day? As we all kick back, eating hamburgers and drinking beer in that holiday vibe that says “one last hoorah” for summer, let’s keep a few things in mind.
Labor as work. We so often associate labor with work or economics (the labor market). In this view, we see labor as a required element of our patchwork existences: each of us labors and contributes.
A weekly Labor Day. For Christians and Jews, Labor Day should serve as a bonus day, since we get a weekly labor day: the Sabbath. A day of rest every week. If we aren’t getting that, there must be something wrong.
Labor as moral commitment. Nothing seems to have caused as much psychological harm in the U.S.than the Protestant work ethic. This is the belief that working hard is the most important activity we can do, even more important than worship (ask a Protestant of puritan stock who is more righteous, Martha or Mary?). This has led us to a paradigm of working harder, not smarter. For a great discussion of this, check out The Hacker Ethic by Pekka Himanen.
The Labor Movement. Today millions will celebrate the time off won for them by a movement they attempt to destroy. The movement has a simple premise: helping collect people with the same needs to bring about a more balanced system of work.
Labor as negative. For many, work is a negative word (“I hate to go to work”). Labor bears even more negative connotations, requiring strenuous and difficult experiences: we labor toward our goal.
Labor in childbirth. We take all of this other stuff with us and place it on the act of childbirth: the working hard, the stress of doing it “right,” the certainty that this process makes you a good person, and, of course, working harder, not smarter. We take all of that, undereducate the mother, and place her in a situation in which she is treated as if she has a disease that must be cured, and we call that experience “labor”. For many women, that exact same moment of “labor” is an ecstatic and amazing experience that is much more than perseverance and getting through it. In fact, it is the fear and misplaced anxiety that makes childbirth an agonizing experience for millions of women. Every human should read Ina May Gaskin’s Birth Matters for a better understanding of what birth means and the part labor plays in the process.
Perhaps Labor Day isn’t about reprieve from agony, or of the self-imposed torture of toiling away, but the opportunity to engage in what matters most in our lives. Because when we name these things; for me, it is family, friends, and vocation; it is hard not to reorient our work to match. That seems like the true purpose of Labor Day.