The Mystery Of Work

     It’s time for something to raise the spirits, rather than darken them as political BS tends to do. As it happens, I have something of the sort on tap.

     First, a little C. S. Lewis:

Then an experience that perhaps no good man can ever have in our world came over (Ransom) – a torrent of perfectly unmixed and lawful hatred came over him. The energy of hating, never before felt without some guilt, without some dim knowledge that he was failing to distinguish the sinner from the sin, rose into his arms and legs till he felt they were pillars of burning blood. What was before him appeared no longer a creature of corrupted will. It was corruption itself to which will was attached only as an instrument. Ages ago it had been a Person: but the ruins of personality now survived in it only at the disposal of a furious self-exiled negation. It is perhaps difficult to understand why this filled Ransom not with horror but with a kind of joy. The joy came from finding at last what hatred was made for. As a boy with an axe rejoices on finding a tree, or a boy with a box of coloured chalks rejoices on finding a pile of perfectly white paper, so he rejoiced in the perfect congruity between his emotion and its object. [From Perelandra. Emphasis added by FWP.]

     That sense of congruence that arises when one matches the tool to the task perfectly is one that virtually everyone feels at least once in his life. Most people fail to grasp its full significance, despite its intensity. This is a pity.

     You may be thinking that I must have had such an experience recently. You’d be correct about that. Details to follow another cup of coffee.


     I like trees. I tend to excuse their little faults, such as the tendency of the twin aspens in my back yard to “shed” copiously whenever there’s a breeze of more than about five knots. Still, it wearies me to collect the branches and pile them up out of the way, especially as I have no way to dispose of them.

     Yes, there are firms that will rent you a wood-chipper. But any homeowner who’s used one will tell you that that’s pretty wearying too…and what are you supposed to do with the chips? The garbage collectors still won’t take them, and the rental company won’t dispose of them for you. Unless you have a hedge that needs mulching, you’ll simply be trading one problem for another.

     So as of the day before yesterday, I had a huge pile of aspen branches, some of them as much as a dozen feet long and four inches thick. piled up alongside my fence. It wasn’t a pretty sight. I’d resolved to do something about it, but aspen is unsuitable as firewood, and anyway my old chainsaw breathed its last some time ago.

     In the hope that reducing those branches to a manageable size would at least allow me to rent a pickup truck and tote them to the landfill, I went a-shopping for a new chainsaw. In the course of my search I stumbled over something I didn’t know about: the existence of battery-powered chainsaws, some of which are small enough to be operated with one hand.

     At only seventy-five dollars, it seemed like a modest risk, so I bought one that has a six-inch bill. It had its baptism of fire Monday afternoon.

     Glory be to God! What a perfect tool for the job!

     I kept at it as long as my body would hold out.


     There’s more to the story, of course. Yes, the saw was perfect for my application, and I rejoiced in the discovery. But beyond that, it was the first seriously hard physical labor I’d indulged in some years. I went back to the house exhausted, showered off the sweat, and spent the remainder of the day with a huge grin. Despite recent difficulties in sleeping owing to my bad shoulders, hips, and knees, I slept “the sleep of the just.”

     Sometimes, one discovers what one needs entirely by accident. This was one such instance. I needed physical exertion, and a time away from my computer, quite as much as I needed to do something about that pile of fallen branches. Despite the effort and the consequent fatigue, that period of labor exalted me. It left me feeling right.

     As happens so often, my lumber-room of a memory reminded me of a passage from a novel:

     David has never entered the elder Schiele’s mind before. The old man is a grim and forbidding character, well past sixty, who says little and stalks dourly through his day-long round of chores with his heavy-jowled face perpetually locked in a frosty scowl. David occasionally wonders whether he once might have been a concentration-camp attendant, though he knows the Schieles came to America in 1935. The farmer gives off so unpleasant a psychic aura that David has steered clear of him, but so bored is he with the trout that he slips into Schiele now, slides down through dense layers of unintelligible Deutsch ruminations, and strikes bottom in the basement of the farmer’s soul, the place where his essence lives.
     Astonishment: old Schiele is a mystic, an ecstatic! No dourness here. No dark Lutheran vindictiveness. This is pure Buddhism: Schiele stands in the rich soil of his fields, leaning on his hoe, feet firmly planted, communing with the universe. God floods his soul. He touches the unity of all things. Sky, trees, earth, sun, plants, brook, insects, birds—everything is one, part of a seamless whole, and Schiele resonates in perfect harmony with it.
     How can this be? How can such a bleak, inaccessible man entertain such raptures in his depths? Feel his joy! Sensations drench him! Birdsong, sunlight, the scent of flowers and clods of upturned earth, the rustling of the sharp-bladed green cornstalks, the trickle of sweat down the reddened deep-channeled neck, the curve of the planet, the fleecy premature outline of the full moon—a thousand delights enfold this man. David shares his pleasure. He kneels in his mind, reverent, awed. The world is a mighty hymn. Schiele breaks from his stasis, raises his hoe, brings it down; heavy muscles go taut and metal digs into earth, and everything is as it should be, all conforms to the divine plan. Is this how Schiele goes through his days? Is such happiness possible? David is surprised to find tears bulging in his eyes. This simple man, this narrow man, lives in daily grace.

     [Robert Silverberg, Dying Inside. Paragraphing for legibility added by FWP.]

     Young telepath David Selig is astounded by what he finds in the mind of Hans Schiele. Schiele is a humble farmer for whom David had never before had a glimmering of respect. Yet old Hans Schiele has mated a tool – himself – to its perfect application – the land he farms. His labor is his fulfillment and his glory, though it is no less wearying for that.

     This might not be my – or your – perfect application. But we all have bodies. They need to be used, sometimes to their limits, to remind us of what they’re capable of and can do for us.


     I spend the greater part of my day writing, or (more often than not) trying to write. It’s the vocation I chose for my senior years, and thus it gets the greater part of my time and effort. But the body is still there. When there’s other work to be done, fetching the proper tool and having at it isn’t just the dispatch of an obstacle to other things. It’s also a fulfillment in itself.

     The moral of the story is quite simple:

Work of any kind,
Done with one’s whole being,
Is not a cross but a blessing.

     Yes, it’s a necessity, but so are eating, washing, eliminating, and sleeping – and these things are also pleasures, are they not? So why shouldn’t work, undertaken at the proper time, with the proper tools and in the proper spirit, be a pleasure as well? Isn’t the leisure that follows physical labor, and the relief of weariness that accompanies it, greatly enhanced by prior exertion? How much does anyone enjoy leisure if he has no work whatsoever to occupy him?

     Praise God, from Whom all blessings flow!


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    • Steve Walton on July 21, 2021 at 8:37 AM

    What a coincidence (is there such a thing?) that I just yesterday bought a DeWalt 12″ electric chainsaw, which it turns out is a very nice little tool. I’m too weak anymore to use my 28″ Stihl safely, so a I sprang for this because it uses the same battery as the string trimmer. I’m very happy with it.

    Tis the season for cutting up wood, I guess.

    • jwm on July 21, 2021 at 8:55 AM

    Indeed, Fran!

    A few short months ago I was gifted with a blessing. My passion for working in stone had died out in me almost twenty years ago. It was sudden, and abrupt. One minute I was on fire with the burn to work, and the next I wondered what I was doing messing around with a rock.

    I put up my tools and a nearly complete project. Didn’t even touch it for seventeen years. Then, out of the blue, I saw a post on line that featured footage of the sculptor Rodin, at eighty some years of age, working a long steel chisel, and a heavy mallet. The lights came on bright and hot. I built a new carving table, dusted off the stone, took out the old tools,  finished the carving, and started in on another one.

    I’m three months into my current project, and I should be starting the finishing work within a week, or so. Last week I popped two hundred bucks for three riffler files from the Milani Tool Company. The Italians have centuries of experience with stone work, and the hand forged Milani tools are extensions of a master’s hand. They are a pure joy to work with. So now I’m re-building the callouses on my stiff, post-middle aged hands. The fingers don’t warm up as fast as they once did, but I’m cool with that. A slow start is still a start. I’m having fun.



    • Michael Stone on July 21, 2021 at 9:12 AM

    That was wonderful!

    Thank you, sir.

  1. There is something magical and marvelous about blood-sweat-and-dirt labor that results in an actual, genuine accomplishment.  Kudos!

    • Seether on July 21, 2021 at 4:39 PM

    Such joy can come from the frivolous well. Today while I was spoiling an otherwise good walk with golf with my daughter, I selected a 6 iron 158 yards from the pin. After losing 3 balls in the previous 4 holes, imagine the rapture at cleanly smiting Satan’s earthly emissary and sending him 6 feet from the hole. I chose well. And missed the putt….

    • Chip on July 21, 2021 at 9:23 PM

    Kudos!  Manual labor that produces results you can see is one of lifes pleasures.

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