(This column first appeared in the Weekend Post n 24 May 2014
I was planning to write this column on Workers Day, but I was too busy working. Make no mistake, I took the public holiday. Like everybody else, I was out of the office, but I was physically working with my gumboots and my chainsaw, clearing alien vegetation that has come to clog up the dam and the stream. Call me crazy, but I love to do physical work. I love the feeling of using my muscles, my arms and my legs. I love the rhythm of thinking and doing. I love the feeling of physical exhaustion in the evening. I love the supper time retelling of the achievements of the day and I Iove the deep satisfied sleep that follows it. It seems strange to me therefore, that I have put so much time and effort in my life to ensure that I don’t have to do any physical work at all. My twelve years of schooling in maths, literature, history and science required no “doing”, no lifting or pushing. It did though; prepare me for another five years of study at University which would eventually deliver to me the degrees I required to become an Architect and be guaranteed of never having to push a wheel barrow, thrust a spade into the ground or cut firewood.
On leaving University, life as a young professional was clear, nobody ever handed out a rulebook, but the understanding was that we must put in time at the office to earn our money, but if we put in too much time we will break down, so we must take some of that money to buy “leisure”. That leisure must not involve doing anything productive or meaningful. We may choose from a vast array on mindless sporting or cultural pursuits. We may participate or spectate. If the mindlessness of the leisure becomes unbearable, we may numb ourselves with alcohol, sugar or nicotine. This is just how it is.
I can see how in the headlong rush to get to the ‘top of my game” I have moved further and further in my career, away from actually doing any work. Like lifting a pencil, to sketch a chimney detail or calculating the fall and cover of a drainage installation. All of that is “outsourced”, because that is the law of competition and the law of competition says that, if I am an expert at running an architectural practice, I can’t be “wasting” my time actually being an Architect. I must spend my time delegating , checking what others have done, motivating, admonishing, fighting with debtors, apologising to creditors because that’s what we do when we get to the top of our game.
Does any of this ring true for you in your life? Perhaps, what each of us needs to do is sit back and look at the route we have walked to get where we are in our careers. Each of us needs to get down and do the dirty work of thinking through how we have been conditioned to look down on anyone doing physical work. Even in our homes, when we can’t resist the instinct to get our hands in the soil that we are married to, we make every attempt to dress up our gardening activities as “leisure”. We call gardening a “hobby”; we don’t call it “work”. When we can absolutely not resist the instinct to grow fruit and vegetables, a productive pursuit, we hide these away in the back yard.
So, what I am doing in my life about my dysfunctional relationship with work? I suppose, I am slowly beginning to participate, wherever I can, in actually doing stuff. I am also looking for family traditions and practices that involve real work, even if it just taking the time to cook the mother’s day meal. Some families in our region are fortunate to belong to a tradition where work is still honoured. If you drive through the streets of New Brighton or NU 7, on any given Saturday you will find clan groups participating in “Imisibenzi” (literally translated as “works”). These traditional functions mark a range of special occasions, but what is interesting, is that everybody attending the function, works. From the slaughtering of the beast, to the processing of the meat to the brewing of the beer and the peeling of the carrots. Hosts and guests work together. Honouring tradition and honouring the idea of work and how it is in fact not separate from leisure. To a lesser degree, but not entirely dissimilar, on any given Sunday in the suburban backyards of Summerstrand and Sherwood we find family groups around the braai, spicing the meat, turning it on the flames. The hosts and the guests working together, some in the kitchen with the potato salad and toasted sandwiches and others outside with the chops and the wors. These are important traditions to hold onto, where the tendency is toward the American situation where 43% of all meals are no longer prepared at home and where work is generally regarded as something you sell in exchange for cash.
So more and more I come to see that any activity that helps me understand that work is not separate from leisure and that work is more than just a commodity for sale, is where I want to be spending my time.
In fact, I think I am going to braai tonight. It’s the least I can do!