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"I am a man because I harbor such delusions."

My Puritan forebears would today easily be classified as masochists. They prayed hard, sure, but they worked harder, and not exclusively for the glory of any God here on Earth, but for the glory of the real estate speculators who'd financed their incursion. They arrived at Plymouth deeply indentured, beneath the yoke of powerful financial interests with the ear of the king. Their's was a speculative endeavor, certainly no sure thing. They'd traded a settled existence for an unimaginably primitive one, the sobering yoke of great debt perhaps most prominent on their shoulders. Many didn't make it. I might reasonably insist that only their myths survived.

Their myth intertwined piety with hard work, self-sacrifice in pursuit of so-called higher ends.
They claimed to have brought civilization, though they achieved this through the most unconscionable brutality, and not only against their enemies, but also against themselves. They reviled free thinking to spawn a society whose self-image centers around free thinking, free speech, and the rights of man, though in their society, every man, woman, and child was primarily free to work, and work hard. I understand how piety and hard work might have become so entangled, since rewards within any single lifespan might have only ever emerged in a next life, certainly not in the one those Pilgrims lived.

I still carry the original curse, the one insisting that I can't be worth much if I'm not killing myself by the sweat of my brow. Modern life has invented intellectual counterparts, where hard work entails no aching over-used muscle groups or sweaty brows, but fierce focus. Paperwork has largely replaced field work, and a modern hard worker hardly needs a shower after their shift. We revere while secretly hating those who live on passive income, bleeding off cash flow generated by others' hard work or the curious rewards of market speculation. A certain piety seems to attach itself to wealth. We seem endlessly shocked to learn that another billionaire ain't no Pilgrim at heart, but a venal, amoral speculator instead. Though one could argue that Pilgrims were the original venal speculators with a better Public Relations campaign.

I'm engaged in good, old-fashioned hard work this week, work where I stumble into a hot shower at the end of each day, too exhausted to seriously consider the idea of supper. I fall into bed early, not out of any inherent piety, but because I cannot any longer keep my eyes open. I'm up early because the sun won't wait for any late arriver. I keep my head down and attend to my business because I decided that this work needed doing. It will not reward me in this life, other than with the personal satisfaction of having successfully completed it; rather like making it through a hostile gauntlet: if I make it through, I get to continue living. No speculators stand behind goading me forward. No God in any heaven promises me eternal bliss. My life seems short and brutish. My horizon stretches no further than the end of another repetitive afternoon. I'm making progress in my own mind and seem likely to succeed on terms that only I could ever define.

I use the terms Good and Old Fashioned advisedly. Hard work hardly seems the salvation our stories suggest it must be. In the moment, in the middle of it, it seems simply hard. My vanity insists that it's ennobling because it's hard, but it seems much more humbling than uplifting. Later, when my freshly stockinged feet warm before a fire, I will warmly recall the good old days, when sweat became my all-too temporary salvation and the grace of an unseen God guided my hand. I am a man because I harbor such delusions. I feel as though I simply must be a part of some grander plan, sanctified by the emerging aching in my hands.

©2019 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved

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