Labor Day – Honoring Good Hard Meaningful Work

Labor Day – Honoring Good Hard Meaningful Work

The American holiday of Labor Day was created 125 years ago to commemorate the struggles of working class people to gain fair wages, stable employment, the right to organize in unions, and to be treated with dignity and respect for their hard work that contributed to the nation’s prosperity.

Nowadays Labor Day is often celebrated only as the last holiday of the summer before the school year begins. But being recognized for the contribution our work makes to the well-being of others is one of the most powerful contributors to our own resilience and well-being.

I cannot believe that the purpose of life is to be happy.  I think the purpose of life is to be useful, to be responsible, to be compassionate.  It is, above all, to matter, to count, to stand for something, to have made some difference that you lived at all.

– Leo Rosten

Recognizing the contributions of others, how they keep our lives going, contributes to our resilience and well-being, too.

A hundred times every day I remind myself that my inner and outer life depend on the labors of other men, living and dead, and that I must exert myself in order to give in the same measure as I have received and am still receiving.

– Albert Einstein

[P.S. I’ve included many, many inspiring quotes about the meaning and purpose of work below.]

I remember reading a story about a nursing professor whose last question on the semester’s final exam was “What are the names of the orderly and the janitor on your shift?”  Students couldn’t pass the class without knowing the names of the people who supported their work in providing medical care for people.

I learned something similar last week about that importance of recognizing the people who keep our lives going as the people – and hard workers – they are.  A large screw punctured the left front tire of my car. It didn’t cause the tire to go flat, but it produced the sound of a steady flop-flop-flop as I drove that sounded like the tire would go flat any minute. So I drove to my neighborhood gas station where Peter (I did learn his name!) was able to fix the tire in 20 minutes for $30.  How many times have I driven past that gas station and never given the people who work there much thought until I needed their services?

It’s like that everywhere. Meeting the local farmer (Patty Jo) who grew the tomatoes I’ll use in my salad tonight. Learning the name of the medical assistant (Melinda) who ushered me into my eye exam last week. Saying thank you to the guy who picks up my garbage and recycling every Monday morning, learning his name (Alan) and saying thank you.

Exercise: Recognizing – and Honoring – the Labor of Others

It may be a stretch of our conscious awareness to think of the people who help keep our lives going, taking a moment to think of them as people who have their own lives besides their services that keep our lives going, taking another moment to identify one or two or three that we could take that one further moment to learn their name and to say thank you for the work they do that contributes to our well-being.

The firemen who came to my house when the new (defective) smoke alarm went off and I couldn’t open the case to stop it from going off. (Ron, Paul and Diego)

The customer service representative at my bank (Sheila) who spent 20 minutes tracing a fraudulent charge on my credit card ($6,253 for Federal Express?) so that it could be removed without having to cancel my credit card.

The postal worker (Dina) who braved a rainstorm to open up the corner mailbox after I accidentally dropped my house keys into the mailbox.

1. Make a list of people (their job if you don’t yet know their name) whose honest and generous labor contributes to your own well-being. Maybe people you see every day or every week; maybe someone whose path crossed yours only once.

2. Identify one person you will be able to talk with, ask their name, and thank them for the good work they do.

3.  Do that, this week. And notice a warm sense of well-being inside for having done that.


You may want to print out these quotes to inspire the honoring of meaningful, purposeful work when that inspiration has been lost or faded.  Resources for recovering resilience.

It’s more important to know that words don’t move mountains.  Work, exacting work, moves mountains.

– Danilo Dolci

Never work just for money or for power.  They won’t save your soul or help you sleep at night.

– Marian Wright Edelman

Focusing your life solely on making a buck shows a poverty of ambition.  It asks too little of yourself.  And it will leave you unfulfilled.

– Barack Obama

We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.

– Winston Churchill

It doesn’t interest me what you do for a living.  I want to know what you ache for, and if you dare to dream of meeting your heart’s longing.

– Oriah Mountain Dreamer, The Invitation (excerpt)

Make your work to be in keeping with your purpose.

– Leonardo da Vinci

The purpose of a life is a life of purpose.

– Robert Byrne

Those who have failed to work toward the truth have missed the purpose of living.

– Buddha

One needs something to believe in, something for which one can have whole-hearted enthusiasm. One needs to feel that one’s life has meaning, that one is needed in this world.

– Hannah Senesh

The purpose of life is to discover your gift.  The meaning of life is to give your gift away.

– David Viscott

What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for some goal worthy of him.  What he needs is not the discharge of tension at any cost, but the call of a potential meaning waiting to be fulfilled by him.

– Viktor Frankl

Nothing on earth is more gladdening than knowing we must roll up our sleeves and move back the boundaries of the humanly possible once more.

– Annie Dillard

In every community there is work to be done. In every nation, there are wounds to heal. In every heart there is the power to do it.

– Marianne Williamson

I cannot believe that the purpose of life is to be happy.  I think the purpose of life is to be useful, to be responsible, to be compassionate.  It is, above all, to matter, to count, to stand for something, to have made some difference that you lived at all.

– Leo Rosten

This is the true joy of life, the being used up for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one.

– George Bernard Shaw

Far and away the best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.

– Theodore Roosevelt

To find joy in work is to discover the fountain of youth.

– Pearl S. Buck

Many people have a wrong idea of what constitutes happiness.  It is not attained through self-gratification, but through fidelity to a worthy purpose.

– Helen Keller

That is happiness; to be dissolved into something completely great.

– Willa Cather

Purpose is the place where your deep gladness meets the world’s needs.

– Frederick Buechner

The true meaning of life is to plant trees, under whose shade you do not expect to sit.

– Nelson Henderson

I long to accomplish great and noble tasks, but it is my chief duty to accomplish humble tasks as though they were great and noble. The world is moved along, not only by the mighty shoves of its heroes, but also by the aggregate of the tiny pushes of each honest worker.

– Helen Keller

We must not, in trying to think about how we can make a big difference, ignore the small daily differences we can make which, over time, add up to big differences, that we often cannot foresee.

– Marian Wright Edelman

In a world where there is so much to be done, I feel strongly impressed that there must be something for me to do.

– Dorothea Dix

I am only one,

But still I am one.

I cannot do everything,

But still I can do something;

And because I cannot do everything

I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.

– Edward Everett Hale

Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.   – John Wesley

Every noble work is at first impossible.

– Thomas Carlyle

Keep on beginning and failing.  Each time you fail, start all over again, and you will grow stronger until you have accomplished a purpose—not the one you began with perhaps, but one you’ll be glad to remember.

– Anne Sullivan

It is more important to know where you are going than to get there quickly.  Do not mistake activity for achievement.

– Mabel Newcomber

Stop allowing your day-to-day life to be clouded by busy nothingness.

– Steve Maraboli

It is not enough to be busy; so are the ants.  The question is: what are we busy about?

– Henry David Thoreau

There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.

– Peter Drucker

A hundred times every day I remind myself that my inner and outer life depend on the labors of other men, living and dead, and that I must exert myself in order to give in the same measure as I have received and am still receiving.

– Albert Einstein

Don’t waste life in doubts and fears; spend yourself on the work before you, well assured that the right performance of this hour’s duties will be the best preparation for the hours and ages that will follow it.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

Making your mark on the world is hard. If it were easy, everybody would do it.  But it’s not. It takes patience, it takes commitment, and it comes with plenty of failure along the way. The real test is not whether you avoid this failure, because you won’t. It’s whether you let it harden or shame you into inaction, or whether you learn from it; whether you choose to persevere.      -Barack Obama

But there is suffering in life, and there are defeats.  No one can avoid them.  But it’s better to lose some of the battles in the struggles for your dreams than to be defeated without ever knowing what you’re fighting for.

– Paulo Coelho

Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief.  Do justly, love mercy, walk humbly now.  You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.

– The Talmud

What we need is what the ancient Israelites called hochma – the science of the heart…the capacity to see, to feel, and then to act as if the future depended on you.  Believe me, it does.

– Bill Moyers

Live your beliefs, and you can turn the world around.

– Henry David Thoreau

Pray as though everything depended on God.  Work as though everything depended on you.

– Saint Augustine

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