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The Joy of Manual Labor

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Spring finally arrived in the Northeast, and that meant it was time for outdoor cleanup projects this weekend. First up: Sanding and cleaning our wood deck furniture, which had been left outside all winter. Tedious? Yes. Satisfying? Absolutely. Physically taxing? You betcha…and it felt great!

In today’s world, we have exercise classes of all shapes and sizes, but there is no replacement for the mental, physical and spiritual satisfaction of manual labor.

The Industrial Revolution launched us from a society where we all worked the land to one in which machines do most of the work for us. Even as recently as 50 years ago, life was more physically active—laundry was hung outdoors to dry…lawn mowers were pushed…and kids shoveled driveways. Life was simply active. We didn’t need exercise classes, because we were walking, carrying, lifting, chopping, etc. But we all know where that has gone—to our hips and bellies and thighs, as we spend more time sitting in front of keyboards and screens than we do being outside and moving.

Now we jog, kickbox and take spin classes in an effort to counteract our automated lives. It helps, but it’s not the same. Interestingly, while sanding the furniture required a whole lot of arm and shoulder activity, I wasn’t at all sore the next morning.

Coincidence? I don’t think so. I think that the act of actually doing the hard work to help our home and family is uplifting and satisfying in a way that “forced activity” is not. After the electric sander cleared the large areas, there was something meditative about working through each individual slat on the chairs and table to remove the old finish and return the wood to its original beauty. And doing it outside, surrounded by trees and grass and in the sunshine, provided nature’s fuel.

As a society, we seem to be catching on to the need for a connection to home and earth, even as technology speeds along. The popularity of cook-at-home meal programs like Blue Apron and Hello Fresh indicate an appreciation for making something of quality yourself. Betty Crocker learned long ago that women feel far more motherly if they add their own eggs, water and extra love to a cake mix and call it homemade. Today, teens and young adults are busily knitting and crocheting rainbows of scarves. And many people are growing their own herbs and vegetables, creating their own versions of farm-to-table.

A lot has been written about the health benefits of being outdoors and connecting with nature, including one of my favorite Bottom Line articles from several years ago about the concept of “earthing”. The theory is that inflammation and free radicals in our bodies are “positively charged.” Earth’s surface is negatively charged, so it has an unlimited supply of electrons that can pair up and neutralize our free radicals. Assorted studies have shown that connecting our bodies to the earth, simply by being barefoot on the grass, transfers those negative particles, triggering health benefits that include headache relief, reduced stress, improved blood pressure and a healthier overall immune system.

I think this connection to simpler processes and natural surroundings balances us in a world where technology is speeding along. I have discussed this with our assorted experts, and there are those who disdain technology for the damage that it has caused to our social connections and communications, not to mention the couch-potato syndrome mentioned above.

Others embrace the advances in technology and how it helps us, whether through increased learning, medical miracles or, ironically, new ways to stay connected with friends, family members and associates. They believe that new and exciting technologies can help humanity as long as these advancements are managed and used in balance with traditional social interactions and human activities. In other words, technology is great, but you still need to talk to people and get up and move.

As we were working on the furniture, I was reminded of one of the things I most love about my husband—his ability to fix things and his understanding of the natural world. He proudly excelled at both wood shop and metal shop when he was in school, and he has spent his whole life as an outdoorsman—hiking, rock climbing, ice climbing, mountaineering, kayaking and more. It taught him the power of ingenuity and self-reliance. I always feel safe when I am with him. I worry that our younger generation(s) will lose these skills as wood shop, metal shop and cooking classes are replaced with more college-prep courses. And families spend more time in front of screens and less time in the yard, building tree houses, fixing fences, painting bathrooms and baking pies.

It’s fabulous that kids are crocheting and people are planting herb gardens. We need to do more of it for our own well-being and to pass the traditions down to younger generations. Working with our hands and using our bodies as part of an active life are how we were intended to function. Just as Wonderbread touted that it built “strong bodies 8 ways”, movement and manual labor build strong bodies and souls.

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