We’ve had some typically hot days this summer in Northeastern Iowa, a combination of high temperatures and high dew points that make simply being outdoors a challenge for many. It’s what we dream about in the depths of winter, but the dream often becomes more of a nightmare in its reality. How soon we forget! On one of those recent days of high heat, my wife and I took our morning walk with the dog early, so that we might capture whatever cool airs of the night might remain. It was a sweaty hike, nonetheless, and I know that all three of us were looking forward to getting back home to air-conditioning.
As we approached the midpoint of our walk through the local college campus, we passed by the twin dormitories rising up from the valley and towering over the upper campus. The roof of the buildings caught our attention, as they had brightly-colored banners around the entire perimeter of the roof; workers there were busy with preparations for their day’s labors. Up on the roof.
I’m not sure what the temperature might have been up there at 8:00 in the morning, but I know that the summer sun was already intense where I was standing, in the shade of some trees below. The forecast for the day called for temperatures near 100 degrees Fahrenheit. I felt an immediate empathy for these guys knowing that, “up there,” without access to shade and with the additional stress of physical work, they would endure a real threat to their health this day. I said out loud, “Boy, I’m sure glad that I don’t have to up there, doing whatever they’re doing.”
And then my wife and I engaged in an effort at one-upmanship, trying to think of the various jobs that might prove to be most challenging on a day like this: road construction people, field workers, fire fighters, farmers, roofers, cement workers, and so on. In each case, we responded with an exaggerated respect for the people who filled these important roles in our lives, and rejoiced in the knowledge that neither of us would likely ever have to bear the agony of such work in an oven atmosphere.
By the time we had exhausted our lists of grueling work in hot conditions, we had moved on through the campus. In front of the main administration building, a man stepped outside. Wearing a crisp white shirt and colorful tie, he moved quickly to his car parked in front, probably eager to get the air conditioning turned on. The contrast with the outdoor workers was not to be missed.
The episode got me to thinking about how we value people and their skills, and how we value work in our society (and in most others). There aren’t many of us who would choose to repair a roof or walk a field on such a day as this. For those of us working in more forgiving environments, we are very grateful that we have never been forced into such labors, or at least for longer than a summer’s job. But somehow the value we place on such efforts tends to be modest.
Most of us have never walked a farm field in the hot summer sun. But we eat the food that is grown in those fields. We drink the coffee that is nurtured in the rural outreaches of Nicaragua. We wear the clothes of cotton spun from vast fields that may be picked by hand. We treasure our cell phones imbedded with silicon and other raw materials which often are mined by physical labor. We have a difficult time envisioning our lives without our amenities, and yet ascribe only moderate value to those who provide us with them. And yet it is their work that foundationally holds us together in many ways, and allows us to do the other things that we want and need to do. (I know little about milking cows or fixing a toilet.)
It’s too bad that it takes a blistering hot day or a frozen winter’s night or water gushing into our homes to suddenly and fully appreciate the importance of some work. The practitioners of such work are undervalued, until the moment we need them. And while I certainly don’t intend to discredit anyone else’s work, whatever its makeup may be, I carry inside an unwavering respect for those whose work is done with physical strength and integrity of purpose and sometimes in uncomfortable conditions. Some say that it’s menial work. I say that it’s essential service.
I suppose that’s what Labor Day in the United States is all about. We just seem to have forgotten about it on most days. My train of thought may seem to have little to do with a foundation working in Nicaragua. But I wonder how many Wall Street bankers or CEOs could raise a crop to harvest?….