In praise of monotonous work

This week, I’ve been taking advantage of the lovely weather to get some outside DIY done. The front of our house was starting to show its age and so some serious TLC has long been in order. By far the biggest job has been leveling the front garden to widen our existing driveway. Older kids equals more drivers equals more space needed for cars – you know the drill.

I had planned to buy a load of hardcore for the task, but some neighbours in our village Whatsapp group offered me a load of old bricks for free, if I was willing to break them up myself. Save myself a few bob with a bit of work in the sun? I gratefully jumped at the opportunity. Faced with the resultant (and substantial) pile of bricks, I set to work with a hammer and began the long, long task of breaking them all into much smaller pieces.

At the outset of this monotonous work, I did the two things that I always do:

  • Put my headphones in and fired up a podcast or audiobook to take my mind off the enormity of what I had to achieve
  • Start working out how long it had taken me to break each brick, how many bricks there are and therefore when I can expect to finish

And in doing so, I got more and more fed up, wishing I’d never started the damn job!

Then, randomly, something I once read about the Samurai swordsman and poet Yamaoka Tesshu came to mind.  Tesshu was well known for undertaking incredible feats of patience and endurance in his search for enlightenment.  After setting himself the task of copying by hand an enormous tract of scripture, someone asked how on earth he would manage it.  His reply:

“One page at a time.”

Wow!  Deep, but so simple!  How would Tesshu go about breaking my pile of bricks?  Brick by brick, of course, one hammer blow at a time.

So I ditched the podcasts and oscillated between no sounds at all, or albums I know so well that they require no active listening at all.  I forgot the big pile of bricks in front of me and just dealt with them one by one, hammer blow by hammer blow.  And as I worked, something amazing happened – for the first time in a long time, I started to REALLY think.  My mind, unencumbered by the concentration of listening and calculating, wandered and wandered as my body worked on the physical task at hand.

In my more usual corporate work, like many I zip from task to task, meeting to meeting with scarcely time for a brew in between.  “Sorry, I’m in back to back meetings today…” had become a common refrain.  Overuse of social media and the need to be “busy” has had the tendency to fill any spare time in a tragically similar manner.  When your mind is always on in this way, there’s no time to think, to wonder, to plan, to pray.  To declutter or defragment your brain, which is so heavily used through the rest of the week.

Taking on a long, monotonous, physical task changes this.  Over two days, as I worked I came up with new blog posts, YouTube ideas and podcasts in my head.  I thought through and organised jobs and plans for the future.  Family friends and online acquaintances drifted in and out of my thoughts and as they did, I prayed for them each by name.  These are things that I would otherwise have to set specific time aside for, and would almost certainly never do.

Then, eventually, the job was complete.  And as I stood up, put down my hammer and straightened my back, I felt incredible.  Physically battered for sure, but psychologically whole in a way that my more usual work never affords.

As I worked, the thought wasn’t lost on me that YEARS of dangerous, monotonous, poorly-paid, manual work is the sad reality of millions around the world.  That is abhorrent and everyone should be able to work in safety for a decent living wage.  I’m not going all middle-class and trying to gentrify manual labour.  Maybe a very long walk or bicycle ride would take me to the same place in my head that breaking up a big pile of bricks did. 

It would be presumptuous and pretentious to call my experience an enlightenment but it has made me rethink my relationship with work.  If I could get by with less money (and lockdown is showing me that I probably can) then maybe a simpler day job, more task-oriented and less “always on” chaotic would let me think more, breathe more, pray more, write more?  I’m not saying that I want to break bricks for a living, but it’s certainly food for thought. 

For now though, I’m off to think deep thoughts while I shovel two tonnes of gravel…  

 

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