Perhaps these six things carry more negative connotations for the average person than the thought of difficult physical work does, but then again I imagine most contemporary people equate difficult physical work with some or all of the things mentioned above, so all things being equal . . .
This is hardly surprising considering our historical impulse to free ourselves from the sweat and drudgery of physical toil that burdened most lives throughout history. A superficial glance at any history book is enough to reveal that life in previous centuries was of the back-breaking and working-fingers-to-the-bone variety, the likes of which most modern people can barely imagine.
Exhausting physical labor is so scorned in our societies that it is reserved as a form of punishment. Think chain gangs and convict labor. But even previous societies understood the punitive (as well productive and profitable) nature of penal servitude. Past centuries are marred by labor camps, prison farms, and penal colonies - places where the body could be imprisoned while the wealth it contained could be extracted.
People who lived in slavery in Egypt, or on Deep South cotton plantations, or along the southern edges of the Mediterranean, or in frigid wastelands of the Gulags must have endured special kinds of hell during their lifetimes. Not only were they forced to spend their time and energy toiling in horrible conditions on projects from which they would gain no personal benefit, but they also had to endure the knowledge and awareness of being slaves, of consciously knowing their lives were being stolen from them, of bitterly understanding that they were being wrung dry like sponges only to be discarded when no more could be wrung from them.
Of course, not everyone who worked hard in the past was or a slave or prisoner. Living in relative freedom also entailed a great deal of hard work. Simple tasks like clothes washing is mere button pushing today, but in previous centuries the family wash could eat up an entire day's worth of labor. The life of an average peasant or agricultural worker was saturated with difficult, repetitive tasks with few moments of reprieve in between. The push toward industrialization was focused primarily on productivity and efficiency, but as technology replaced human work it also freed humans from the monotonous drudgery and exertion that had eaten up so much of their lives before.
Tough, physically-demanding jobs still exist today but even tough jobs - construction, mining, fishing, forestry, to name but a few - are not nearly as tough as they used to be and most contemporary people outside of these fields of employment have no real extended experience with any sort of hard physical labor. Naturally, this is seen as a good thing, and I suppose in a bigger-picture sense of things, it is. After all, who would want to work as hard as a late-nineteenth century lumberjack did? Nevertheless, I believe a little hard labor now and then can be physically, mentally, and spiritually beneficial, and that modern people would benefit from getting their hands dirty every now and then.
Though I spend most of the year sitting at a desk or teaching classes, my summers are filled primarily with physical work. For the past three years, I have been renovating the old house I purchased, completing projects requiring a fair deal of, among other things, lifting, hammering, and shoveling. For example, I spent the bulk of last week breaking up and removing and then re-pouring the concrete foundation for the terrace. The work was physically demanding and rather monotonous, but there was something comfortably soothing about it all.
To begin with, since I was exerting a great deal of physical energy during those days, my body had to remain focused and tempered. Though it rebelled against the first few hours of work, it eventually settled into a rhythm and a routine, and after some time, it began to draw satisfaction from the demands I was placing upon it. With the body occupied, my mind raced to find something to occupy it, but the nature of the work did not require any sort of critical thinking or cerebral acrobatics. As a result, my mind grew quiet and joined the rhythm and pace of my body by concentrating solely at the task at hand.
While I jackhammered and removed the old concrete, I became one with the overall rhythm of the day. I felt the sun grow warmer on my skin as it rose in the sky, and in between all the noise I was making I could detect the changing nature of birdsong marking each period of the day. Shadows grew shorter, then longer. The air moved one way, then stood still for a while before moving gently in another direction. All the while, I thought of nothing, or more specifically I thought of those things I would classify as nothing in my routine, day-to-day consciousness. Yet those nothing thoughts were anything but nothing, and as my body continued to work away like a blinkered mule, my nothing thoughts gently began speaking to me about everything.
Unlike those tragic souls from history, I am not embittered by slavery or drudgery as I toil for I know my efforts will benefit my family. There is purpose and meaning in the objective, but the means itself carries meaning as well, and I begin to feel the way some in the past must have felt - all those romanticized legends of farmers and peasants and woodcutters whose souls glow from the happiness of a hard day's work.
And the contentment of it all when I finish for the day knowing I have accomplished something, changed something, improved something all in a sort of semi-conscious daze while my thoughts freely lingered on sweeter and higher things. Laying down in bed at night and surrendering to delicious fatigue, allowing it consume me and rest my muscles and joints with its warm, beckoning tide while the thoughts continue to linger in their sweeter, higher place, and drifting to that sweet, higher place once the eyes close on a day well spent.
No, I am not advocating for a return to a life of hard toil, nor will I be exchanging my desk job for a construction hat or a woodcutter's axe, but it seems bliss can be found in gruelling physical work, a sort of bliss that cannot be duplicated when I work hard at writing or translating or expend my energies teaching students.
I believe a partially forgotten metaphysical seed lays dormant in the dense earth of physical labor - a great deal of good can come out of allowing it to germinate and grow every once in a while.