There is something about physical labor that is freeing to the mind. It puts us in contact with the reality, that which does not bend to our will, and forces us to accept it as it is: there is no religion of real work. Physical labor is a process of learning: about one’s self and the reality in which we live; nothing else. Nothing else can do the trick.
Physical labor is often thought to be mindless, but only if the laborer does not take the time to think about what his hands are doing and perhaps more importantly: why. It is then that thinking becomes a physical act. It is one thing to wake up in the morning tired and sore from a day’s work only to add to your weekly paycheck by doing yet more labor; it is another thing altogether to wake up from a day’s work tired and sore in order to solve a puzzle that your mind has spent the night pondering and your hands have awaited to begin, to finish a task, an objective, or to do a job better because of what you’ve learned the last time you’ve tried.
Having the right tool for the task is of utmost importance and with experience the laborer learns that money spent for good tools is an imperative. Many days have been spent doing something “the hard way” only to save a dollar or two. That saw stand or speed square is well worth the money spent! But so is the time spent understanding why, why we are doing the work, and how it works. There are old aphorisms having to do with the right tool such as “Measure twice, and cut once.” My favorite is, “It is not the knowing that is difficult, but the doing.” Both of these sayings refer to the same tool.
Unfortunately in our society physical labor seems to be almost scorned (contractors will evidently spend eternity together with lawyers in one of Dante’s lower circles of hell), but I believe this scorn is wrongly placed. As with any quarter, there are good and bad: there are good and bad teachers, housewives, businessmen, and of course contractors: physical laborers. I believe the frustration felt by many with regard to contractors is not because they are physical laborers, but because they are injudicious with the most important tool that anyone, especially a physical laborer can use: their mind.
Physical labor is not a blind allegiance to a paycheck or to a client or to one’s body. Physical labor is not an act of mindlessness, but of “doing” with the mind. If there is scorn to be had, it is for any act done mindlessly. Physical labor in its highest form is craftsmanship and craftsmanship demands intellect. In The Republic, Plato writes that of the philosopher king that physical and mental agility is equally important. This is something that our societies have seemingly forgotten.
Waxing philosophically… To work physically, frees the body from the confines of physical ineptness and to work mindfully, the mind from mental conformity. To envision an object and watch it as it becomes reality honed from the mind is truly a human endeavor; to be free and capable of doing such an act is to be truly human: the transfiguration from thought to truth.
There is no metaphysic in physical labor, and therefore no excuses: no fideistic approaches. Even if you cannot understand the underlying aspects of a quality house, a goodly built barn or a well-tended garden, you have the capacity to understand that these things are important. There is something wrong about accepting less, about expecting less from our fellow human beings and ourselves. Even when we do not understand what it took to build a thing, we know a quality when we see it; we almost feel it in our bones.
Even in an age when a thing such as the so-called “McMansion” (which is not a product of physical labor, but of profit and employment: a product) is accepted as a quality by the many, the craftsmanship of physical labor will live on in that itching feeling of discontent that fills our hearts as we watch our land fill with the consequences: suburban sprawl and when we surround ourselves with McThings; it is the lack of craftsmanship that reminds us that the physical labor that we see and live in is mindless and lacking any quality. But, it is the physical labor of craftsmanship that reminds us that we are human, able to think and choose to be better rather than simply more.