I used to hate mowing the lawn. Truly, I hated it. My allergies would spring up and slam into my face and laugh at me like some middle school bully whose greatest joy came in inflicting misery on unsuspecting and helpless victims. Plus there’s that whole sun/heat/sweat/hard work factor.
But recently, in the last few years, I’ve come to sort of enjoy it. It’s not that I’ve suddenly encountered an enlightenment that’s guided me toward a new fondness for tiredness or soreness. Nor that I’ve learned to love the heat and humidity of the North Carolina summer (which, as I type, is setting all kinds of records).
No, those are still fairly low on my personal list of preferred human experiences.
But I have discovered that I might actually not mind working hard. And it’s all thanks to a three year old who helped me see that work and play aren’t all that different.
When I was in high school I played football. An undersized (read: super small by football standards) quarterback/wide receiver I had to work hard to earn playing time. I put in countless hours those first few years honing technique and developing some very specific skills that would help me overcome my physical limitations. Hours in the hot summer sun, I might add. I remember many evenings where I went to bed with a sore shoulder and exhausted legs, but with a sense of accomplishment and purpose.
In looking back I can say, without a doubt, that what I was doing was hard work. But at the time it never felt like work. It wasn’t always “fun”, but because I loved the game I learned to enjoy it. There’s a reason we “play” sports.
I was thinking about this recently while watching my son, Coulter, play in the yard. I realized that most of his play – the vast majority of it, in fact – looked a lot like what I might consider work. Digging in the dirt and hauling sticks and pine needles from place to place. Pushing his toy mower up the hill on the edge of the yard. And he loves to help around the house. When my wife cleans up the living room he often wants to help dust the blinds and vacuum. When I’m cleaning the kitchen he wants to help load the dishwasher and sweep the floor. And if there’s wood or power tools or spray paint, well, then it’s all over as far as his ability to focus on anything else.
But it’s not as if he wants to do these things out of a sense of duty or even obedience, as it might be one day (if I’m lucky). For him, right now, as a three year old, it’s about discovery. He finds pleasure in the work because through it and in it he discovers the wonders of the universe, much as I discovered the pleasure of athletic competition and accomplishment when practicing football. Coulter still encounters the world with eyes wide open and full of wonder and anything that demands effort of him is magical because it reveals a new layer of reality to him. He doesn’t like to “work” because he enjoys pain or prefers stress; he like to work because it allows him to engage with the world, with existence, in a deeper way.
Meanwhile I work for mostly pragmatic reasons. I work because my lawn needs to look good or something in my house isn’t functioning properly or because I have bills to pay or, maybe, on a good day, because I believe in the value of a Christian, classical education. And I almost always work with the end in sight, with my mind on the next thing I have to do. Like reading a book with an eye only for the last page.
What am I missing along the way that my three-year-old is able to see?
I can’t help but wonder how my own understanding of reality and existence would grow and mature if I attempted to view my work from a position of curiosity, if I opened my eyes to the wonders of the universe. If I viewed the world with the eyes of a three year old.
I suppose I might be less productive and I might make more messes, but I might be a more healthy, less stressed human being. If I can re-orient my priorities so I’m more concerned with the joy of discovery then I am with the urge to get things done then I’ll be more joyful. And, what’s more, my work might actually begin to grow into worship and prayer.
The truth is, whether I am a mechanic or a teacher or a chef or a football player or a graphic designer I don’t get to dictate the terms of reality to my work. Reality dictates the terms of existence to me. Color and physics and energy, etc., all work in a certain way whether I want them to or not. So, ultimately, it makes a lot of sense to spend more time in a state of awe. The allergies will still be awful and the North Carolina heat will still be brutal, but I suspect I’ll begin to flourish in a new, deeper way.