There is a change we resist, though we face it every year.
Long summer days begin to grow shorter. The twilight hours spent by a grill, or a pool, or simply walking a neighborhood sidewalk seem to come earlier. Lemonade stands disappear. The darkness arrives a little too soon.
Swimming pools close. Stores sell school supplies. A flyer in my mailbox lets me know about a sale on snow blowers.
Oh no, we think. Not yet. Please, not yet.
We do not want summer to end, though it does every year, even if there is beauty in autumn as well as winter and spring. Our breathing is larger and easier in summer. Our imagination ranges farther, not so worried about how the elements might do us harm.
Summer is framed by holidays. Memorial Day first. Labor Day last. We begin the season by acknowledging and celebrating the women and men who came before us, the lives they led and the sacrifices they made. It does not matter if their names were Johnson, Schwartz, Nguyen or Struble. Whether we agree or disagree, we are the product of their hopes and traditions. We begin the season of play with a respect for what has made it possible.
But then we have Labor Day. A day to celebrate work. A day to celebrate and honor not only the worn and blistered hands of a farmer, the strained muscles of a carpenter, the midnight grading hours of a teacher, but also the diligence of the accountant, the knowledge of a surgeon, the compassion of a minister, the smile of a clerk.
President Grover Cleveland signed a bill creating the holiday on June 28, 1894. But the holiday was not born easily.
The industrial revolution had people working 12 hour days and seven day weeks. Child labor was common. Workplace safety was not. There were riots and marches and deaths as people stood up for the integrity of their work.
That’s what we celebrate. The personal integrity of our work.
We talk about the Midwestern work ethic. The Protestant work ethic. Pope John Paul II talked about the dignity of work in the Centesimus Annus of 1991. In the Old Testament, Joseph — the single reference to “a successful man” — dreams of work. In Islam, as well as in monasteries, work is a form of worship.
Good job, we say. Well done. We complain when we have nothing to do.
We are an industrious people. Meeting someone new, we always have two questions: What is your name? What do you do? Work and identity are bound together for us, inseparable and defining. Who we are is expressed by what we do.
Note the way we ask a question for children. What are you going to be when you grow up? It’s not what are you doing to do.. It’s what are you going to be.
To be clear, I am not talking about a job. A great many people are blessed to have a job they love, a job that matches their desires and imaginations, whether it’s for money or not. Yet a great many people have a job they do not enjoy, or they do not see as an expression of their heart, and so they work at something else. A hobby. An organization. Service. Volunteering. Art. Home.
Do we need to work? I believe we do. And we need that work to be meaningful. We measure our own lives by the work we do, the impact of that work, the quality of our craft. We measure our lives not by faith alone, as it were.
So here is this day.
Labor Day. The end of summer. Some of us get the day off from work. A great many of us do not. It really doesn’t matter. What matters is that we take the time to mark the way we add to this world we share.
Good job, we say. Well done.
Olsen is an author and professor of English at Concordia College.