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Giving Thanks for Hard Work

November 20, 2011

Lindsay Brown delivered this Chapel talk on Friday, November 18. He celebrated his 25th year at St. Andrew’s in 2011. You can listen to him give the talk via our podcast page.

Lindsay Brown during his History of the Middle East class.

I own a chain saw.  A Stihl MS 290 Farm Boss with an 18 inch bar, and I like using it.  Most every summer at our house in Manchester Vermont there is some work that I can find to do with it.  This past summer I needed to re-stock our supply of firewood, so I took some time to walk through the woods around our house, locating trees that were in distress or overcrowded for possible removal.  After selecting two trees to cut down, I geared up with my safety equipment – Kevlar chaps, steel toed boots, safety glasses, a bright orange hard had with mesh face guard, and leather gloves.  The day was sunny and hot, and the extra gear definitely added to the discomfort level, but it was cheap insurance in my mind.  As much as I might want to think of myself as a rugged woodsman, I was only a sporadic user of this powerful and potentially dangerous tool.

I filled the saw with gas and oil, checked the chain tension, and set out to work.  It was hot and sweaty bringing the tree down, and there is some technique to getting the tree to fall where you want it, and more than a little pleasure and pride in seeing it go down in exactly the open lane of trees, just as you planned.  Then I had to remove the small limbs and cut it into fireplace lengths.  I stopped for drink of water, and on the hot day that water tasted so sweet and refreshing.  I was able to shed the Kevlar chaps and helmet before beginning the next steps of the firewood project, which actually took most of the time and effort.  I pulled out my wheelbarrow and used it to move the logs I’d cut over to our woodshed, where I split them and stacked them.  This process of moving, splitting and stacking actually took several mornings of work.  Lifting the heavy lengths of wood, pushing the wheelbarrow up and over the small undulations of our yard, and swinging a heavy splitting maul was also good, hard physical work, and I kept thinking to myself, “Who needs a fancy gym membership when there’s wood to cut?!”   After a school year of reading, teaching, thinking, talking, learning, and intellectual work, this purely physical activity of woodcutting was a welcome change of pace.

At the end of all this effort I had a nice, neatly stacked pile of good firewood in our shed, and I knew we would enjoy it this winter and spring when we were there on vacation.  It was a good feeling, and if someone were to stop and ask me, “What did you accomplish this week?”  I could point to that pile of firewood and simply say, “That.  I did that.”  It was clear and tangible and easy to understand, and it wouldn’t take too much imagination to visualize the work and effort that went into accomplishing that task of setting aside firewood for the winter.

Now this Chapel talk is the annual and traditional Thanksgiving talk, and you might be wondering what in the heck does Mr. Brown’s obsession with his chainsaw and his woodpile have to do with Pilgrims, the Mayflower, or holiday thanksgiving.  Here’s my answer.

When I think about the Pilgrims, and all those first settlers who came to this new world, I think about how difficult it must have been for them, and how hard they had to work, just to survive.  We talk about a Protestant work ethic as being part of our national heritage, believing that hard work is good and necessary, and we look, through rather misty, myth-obscured eyes, at the Pilgrims as exemplars of this state of mind.  The ethic says that it is Godly to work your hardest, and that all work of all types has value.  Whatever your place in life, and whatever job you have to do, do it to the absolute best of your ability, and by doing so, you will please God.  Our Chapel speaker earlier in the fall, Muqtedar Kahn, said something very similar exists in Islam, where Allah wants all people to seek excellence in their lives, and I thought to myself at the time how similar this idea was to the Protestant Work Ethic.

Personally, I do very much believe in the value of hard work, and I enjoy hard work of body, mind, and spirit.  I think that is one of the reasons why I have remained at St. Andrew’s for so long.  Here we value hard work and the learning that comes from the struggle with challenging academic, artistic, athletic, and spiritual teaching.  As a school, we demand a lot of you the students, and we tell you the challenges we put in front of you are good for you.  And they are!

We also look to the Pilgrims, and celebrate the first Thanksgiving, in honor of the hard, physical work they endured and exemplified – building shelter and gathering food to survive.  Of course the settlement at Plymouth Mass was not the first English settlement in what would eventually become the United States, and as a nation we tend to look past the Jamestown settlers who arrived here years before the Pilgrims partly because the people of Jamestown didn’t seem to like hard work in the way the Pilgrims did.

When we think of Jamestown we tend of think of people like Richard Frethorne – and everyone here should be thinking to themselves now about the letter of his that we study in U.S. History – and how Richard Frethorne whined to his parents in his letter about how miserable he was, how so many people suffered from terrible illnesses including the bloody flux, how everyone at Jamestown treated him so badly, how he never had enough to eat, how someone stole his cloak, and how he begged his parents to please, please send cheese.   In contrast, those Pilgrims were models of virtue and care and hard work; at least that’s how we like to remember them.  William Bradford, governor of Plymouth for 30 years, wrote his history of Plymouth and reported that in the first winter there:

half e of their company dyed, espetialy in Jan : and February, being the depth of winter, and wanting houses and other comforts; being infected with the scurvie and other diseases, which this long vioage and their inacomodate condition had brought upon them; so as ther dyed some times 2. or 3. of a day, in the foresaid time; that of 100. and odd persons, scarce 50. remained., And of these in the time of most distres, ther was but 6. or 7. sound persons, who, to their great comendations be it spoken, spared no pains, night nor day, but with abundante of toyle and hazard of their owne health, fetched them woode, made them fires, drest them meat, made their beads, washed their lothsome cloaths, cloathed and uncloathed them; in a word, did all the homly and necessarie offices for them which dainty and quesie stomacks cannot endure to hear named; and all this willingly and cherfully, without any grudging in the least, shewing herein their true love unto their freinds and bretheren.

That attitude that Bradford commends is the one we want to celebrate at Thanksgiving – the spirit of cheerful hard work and care for others.  I’m purposefully ignoring all the complicating evidence about the first Thanksgiving and the behavior of the Pilgrims in order to focus on this lasting ethic of hard work (do we really think those few healthy Pilgrims were cheerful as they washed clothing soiled by their friends so sick with the various illnesses?)  Probably not, yet I do think that these Pilgrims saw that an important task needed to be done, and so they did it.

Many times hard work does not have a clear or tangible result that you can point to, and these are the times when it is more of a challenge to value hard work, or even to pursue it.  You’ve probably spent hours working on a history paper, or a problem set for math or science, or practiced a skill for your favorite sport, and not necessarily had the ability to point to something concrete as a result of that effort.  Unlike my neat stack of firewood, much of our hard work can go unnoticed or unrecognized.  Or maybe the effort feels too difficult and you can’t find any pleasure in your struggle.  For me, the physical nature of using the splitting maul was fun, even though it was hot and sweaty and exhausting.  I found a rhythm to my work and enjoyed the process.  It was deeply satisfying.  My wife Ms. Howlett spoke in Chapel two Sundays ago about how God’s spirit is with us in those moments when we are in a state of what I’ll call “flow” – we are working, or playing, or walking, or painting, or singing, or acting, or writing, or calculating and the effort flows from us and feels good and spot on.

I love my work here at St. Andrew’s, and I enjoy the process of teaching, and yet it is very difficult to point to a concrete result at the end of the day and say, “There. I did that.”  Each year I have to start over with new students, and I wouldn’t keep coming back unless the hard work of teaching itself was enjoyable.  Ms. Wright talked last week about the value of sports, and sports are often a place where we first encounter the rewards and joys of hard work and learn to apply an ethic of effort to other areas of our lives.

Another place you might learn to learn to appreciate the value of giving your best effort is by holding down a job during the summer.  Each year I am impressed with those students who bus tables at a restaurant, or lifeguard, or work as a camp counselor, or punch the clock at a local construction company, or do any such work and earn a paycheck.  Of course I’m also so impressed and enjoy hearing about the great travel experiences that students enjoy or the selfless giving students do with service learning and community service.  I do think that sometimes the value of summer jobs does not get the full recognition or the praise it deserves for teaching these values of seeking excellence in all things, and so I mention it now and encourage those of you who had a job this past summer to feel proud about what you accomplished.

My hope for you is that you will learn to enjoy the process of hard work, and to see its value in your life here at school and your life away from St. Andrew’s.  The students who thrive at St. Andrew’s have made the decision to meet the challenges that our busy lives give us with an attitude of appreciation for the work.  Yes, everyone has moments of high stress, when we need to take a deep breath, but if work is always a burden and never joyful, you won’t last long at it.   By tonight, just before a big vacation, you are probably tired and ready for a break, and that’s normal.  I think you should all be proud of yourselves and all that you’ve accomplished this fall.  It’s time to go home for a while, to rest, recover, and come back ready once again to work at full speed.  Part of Thanksgiving is a symbolic recognition of all the hard work of the past year, that which is tangible and that which maybe only you know about.  We pause at Thanksgiving and symbolically offer a representation of the fruits of our labor on our tables.  We take a moment to give thanks to all those in our lives who made such bounty possible.

My final point this evening is to issue a challenge to each of you – I hope you will find the time during the Thanksgiving break to do something that benefits those around you.  I’d suggest you try to do one tangible task and another subtle yet important piece of work that might not even get recognized.  For example, you could, without being asked or without making a big fuss, clean up the kitchen after a meal, doing dishes, and wiping down countertops – taking what had been a messy space and turning it into something neat and clean.  You will be able to point to the clean room at the end and say, “Hey, I did that,” and feel good about it.  Secondly, you might have an older relative or a very young sibling who needs attention while others cook or clean or do other work.  You could take the time to sit and talk to a grandparent, or great-uncle, or that annoying younger cousin.  At the end you wouldn’t have the same tangible accomplishment to point to, but you would have worked hard and helped your family by paying attention to someone who needed attention.  Sometimes even saying prayers can be hard work, and you might find time to sit quietly and be alone and give thanks to God for your many blessings, or ask for help in some area of your life where you need guidance.  These are just some examples of ways you can give thanks through action.

I’m staying here on campus this vacation, but I do have some firewood that I brought with me back to school from Vermont.  I’m hoping that there will be one cold, crisp evening when I can light a fire and enjoy the pleasure of remembering my work of splitting the wood, and I’ll say a prayer of thanks to God for letting me enjoy this beautiful life and giving me opportunities to work hard.

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