As we slog into the New Year, I want to share one of my personal enthusiasms with readers.
This pastime requires little or no expense, can be done with minimal or no equipment, and engaged in wherever you happen to be. It can be practiced in solitude or with others. No batteries or instructions are required.
Let us welcome 2009 with a celebration of Drudgery. I admit Drudgery does not evoke any of the glittering promises of advertising and the media circus, the words that invariably arrive with an exclamation point. Sexy! New! Fun! Cool! Exciting!
Drudgery is none of those things, and takes a certain quiet pride in the fact. Rarely does the word arrive with an exclamation point at its side. Samuel Johnson, the great English essayist and creator of the first comprehensive English dictionary, defined “lexicographer” as “a harmless drudge.”
The painter Gauguin wrote in his journal, “Work is leisure.” Yet when I think about it, his might be an exceptional case. “Monsieur Gauguin, what do you do for a living?” “My profession is painting beautiful partly clad native women in the tropical paradise where I live.” It would be superfluous to ask if his job came with a good 401K program.
One reason to accept the beauty of Drudgery is that it comprises much of what we call work, and not a little of what we call recreation. The author Logan Pearsall Smith wrote, “The test of a vocation is the love of the Drudgery it involves.” (I wonder if he was a gardener).
Do not confuse Drudgery with its sibling Hard Work. There are certain people who complain, with great self-satisfaction, about all the Hard Work they do.
I do not deny the existence of Hard Work. I do not begrudge a soldier assigned to deactivating land mines that his is Hard Work. I concede to the Emergency Room physician who tends to patients nonstop for 18 hours that this is Hard Work indeed. Hard Work is the lot, too, of the diamond miners in Africa who work in unspeakable conditions. Working three jobs to support your family can be called only Hard Work.
There are other kinds of Hard Work that are less extreme or debilitating. To labor at a task which is altogether uncongenial is Hard. Working in a nasty and unsupportive workplace is most Hard. To work at something for which you have no aptitude: Hard again. It is sure hard to accomplish one’s task without adequate tools or guidance.
But when an executive or politician preens himself on his Hard Work, what he’s really talking about is diligent application, the persistence needed to accomplish a task. For him to complain of this as Hard Work is like a cow complaining of all the grass it must chew, or a hen kvetching about the ordeal of laying eggs.
If you consider your day’s work and grade the degree of difficulty of each task from 1 to 10, you will probably land in the sweet spot of Drudgery, somewhere between Gauguin’s 1 or 2 and the land mine remover’s 10.
In decision-making, sometimes the Hardest thing to do is also the easiest. Often the greatest challenge is to step away from the task for a time, and come back to it later, with fresh eyes and a rested, open mind.
Many a military, investment or marketing blunder might have been averted if one brave soul had the temerity to propose that the assembled company of Hard Workers go home and play with their children.
It was as he was lowering himself into his bathtub that the Greek scientist Archimedes had his “Eureka” moment. I doubt the discoverer of specific gravity grumbled about the Hard Work involved in bath taking.
Contemplating drudgery brings to mind the image of Japanese Zen monks sweeping the sand in a temple garden. They look happy. There is contentment in their movements. They turn sweeping into poetry, a chore into an exercise of mindfulness.
We are, all of us, fated to lives filled with Drudgery. How very lucky we are.
Happy Gardening New Year!