“The gods keep livelihood hidden from men. Otherwise a day’s labor could bring man enough to last a whole year with no more work.” Hesiod, Works and Days
In both biblical and ancient Greek accounts, work is something of an enigma. Having an aspect of punishment, it is nevertheless a blessing and a gift. For Hesiod the very means of living have been hidden in the soil of the dark earth, only to be retrieved by relentless toil. It is somehow part of a heavenly plan that our livelihood requires much work, ongoing and toilsome.
Work can wear you down; it can even break you. Of necessity it requires an expenditure of energy, energy that in some sense goes forth not to return. Perhaps a sure sign of the passing of youth is when you start to realize: I simply can’t do this forever; there is only so much work in me. It is not a pleasant realization, especially when accompanied by the realization that one’s dependence on work will not cease. Not in this life. But then again, all that I have, even my own ability to work, has been given to me by the work of others. I can be grateful that for some length of time I have the privilege of giving to others through my work. That will come to an end, all in due time.
There is perhaps no more telling sign of a person’s character than his willingness to work: silently, relentlessly, contentedly. In some important sense work makes a man. But then again, it is the man that makes the work, and he shows who he is by his work. To our work we should bring our deepest convictions. In the country song “Walkin’ in High Cotton,” a man looks back on growing up during hard times: “When Sunday mornings rolled around, we dressed up in hand-me-downs, just in time to gather with the church. Sometimes I think how long it’s been, and how it impressed me then, it was the only day my Daddy wouldn’t work.”
A family’s shared work—relentless and toilsome—can be an expression of and imbued with their love for one another, and their confidence in the meaning of life. Such a family is indeed walking in high cotton, making a living together. They are not broken, even in very hard times.