Over Civilized

A Defense for Menial Labor and Moving Back Home

“Now, in my time . . . we were Berkshire, or Gloucestershire, or Yorkshire boys; and you’re young cosmopolites, belonging to all countries and no country.”

-THOMAS HUGHES, TOM BROWN’S SCHOOL DAYS

I suspect they make some of you wince—the “so what’s next?” conversation, the interview query for “current place of residence,” or an obligatory invitation to dinner from a friend of your parents’—earmarks of embarrassment for a single man or woman returned to live with Mom and Dad.

After church, with shuffling feet and averted eyes I acknowledge to Mrs. F I have “moved back to the area” or “come to help for a little while”—or, I don’t bother to clarify her understanding of “extended time with family over the Holidays.” Gloom deepens as Mrs. F inquires with loving precision about the upcoming fellowship in Philadelphia I mentioned last summer. (In that conversation Mrs. F had nodded, faced me square, and observed pointedly, “we could use some good people in Washington,” fully confident I was the one to slay the dragons. Instead, I have returned to my hamlet with little to my name but stacks of business cards, heart afire, and neglected relationships with kith and kin.) Mrs. F steps away and Mr. B moves in, hugging my neck. “So what’s your next move, dear one?”

Sound familiar? Such a scene might evoke misgivings from men and women who also left their native lands for the academe and stood on the shoulders of their forebears, breathing the rarified air of the Humanities. From such great heights they beheld visions of the Grecian polis, the Pax Romana; heard the shofar of Jerusalem, the hammers and fifes of Europe, the intonation of vesper prayers at St. Paul’s; smelled the gunsmoke from the “shot heard ‘round the world” and felt chest-tightening joy at the bell announcing the birth of a new nation “of the people, by the people, for the people.” Then, some of these intrepid scholars descended a stratosphere and returned to their hamlets, idealistic and clamoring for battle with the principalities and powers that obstruct wisdom and human flourishing everywhere.

But can ideals and imagination stoked on volumes of papery deeds and vellum virtue sustain a man when he must act? Will thought divorced from incarnate deed strengthen a heart’s timber for prolonged courage?

Booker T. Washington, educator, orator, and founder of the Tuskegee Institute wrote in his autobiography Up From Slavery (1901), “there is no education which one can get from books and costly apparatus that is equal to that which can be gotten from contact with great men and women. Instead of studying books so constantly, how I wish that our schools and colleges might learn to study men and things! … I have had no patience with any school … which did not teach its students the dignity of labour.” Perhaps an education purely book-based will yield but a blaze of fervour that withers like burning newspaper and supplies no incarnate skill with which to address a situation. Perhaps what is needed is “a generous education of the hand, head, and heart” (Washington) where men and women begin in one unseen town with their own families, being faithful with little.

Thomas Hardy, MP, penned the autobiographical Tom Brown’s School Days while on holiday in 1847, and in it contends any man or woman’s first duty is individual virtue manifested in the most banal, proximate things of life:

“’I want to be at work in the world, and not dawdling away three years at Oxford,’ said Tom.

‘What do you mean by “at work in the world”?’ said the schoolmaster, pausing with his lips close to his saucerful of tea and peering at Tom over it.

‘Well, I mean real work—one’s profession—whatever one will have really to do and make one’s living by. I want to be doing some real good, feeling that I am not only at play in the world,’ answered Tom …

‘You are mixing up two very different things in your head, I think, Brown,’ said the master, putting down the empty saucer … ‘You talk of “working to get your living,” and “doing some real good in the world” in the same breath. Now, you may be getting a very good living in a profession, and yet doing no good at all in the world (and quite the contrary) at the same time. Keep the latter before you as your one object, and you will be right, whether you make a living or not; but if you dwell on the other, you’ll very likely drop into mere money-making and let the world take care of itself for good or evil. Don’t be in a hurry… just look about you in the place you find yourself in, and try to make things a little better and honester there. You’ll find plenty to keep your hand at Oxford, or wherever else you go. And don’t be led away to think this part of the world important and that unimportant. Every corner of the world is important. No man knows whether this part or that is most so, but every man may do some honest work in his own corner.’”

Any contented man or woman can feel virtuous ensconced in a metropolitan coffee shop, dutifully ignoring fellow immortals while enjoying esoteric music and literature. But to work at that shop yourself and learn patience with caffeine-deprived souls clamoring for a red-eye fix; to keep pace with a skilled tree-surgery crew after an ice storm; to nourish growth with warm pine mulch; to draft documents or handle money meticulously; to meet the humblest needs of men through waiting tables, construction, or wastewater management; to learn the cadence of your own town’s heartbeat at a hospital, an EMT squad, a nursing home.

For a man to demand, “Prudence!” in the public square he might first ponder his student debt and overreached credit cards.

For a man to cry, “Temperance!” he might reconsider his prolonged absence from family in the office, or constant intake of Buzzfeed and football statistics.

For a man to cry, “Justice!” he could start by keeping his word.

And for a man to cry “Fortitude!” he might consult a local military recruiter and consider the One who for the joy set before Him and for the love of His Father chose an apparently bastard birth in a feeding trough, baby blankets of cadaver cloths, a tradesman’s livelihood, no home, and the most torturous death of the Roman world.

Booker T. Washington observed a trend amongst colleges for the recently matriculated to consider themselves “free from most of the hardships of the world, [able to] live without manual labour [as if] a knowledge, however little, of the Greek and Latin languages would make one a very superior human being.” In the same way, if we returnees refuse all but prestigious work in American cultural loci, neglecting the responsibilities of citizenship (voting, for one) and disdaining local enterprise and neighborliness, if we cannot even fulfill the sacred duty to “honour thy father and mother,” we prove ourselves unfit children who indeed belong at home.

Many thanks to Fr. Adam Rick and Katherine Rick, Rector and Minister of Music at Christ Church Anglican in Wayne, PA for their insights to this piece.

Hannah Bryan
Hannah Bryan hails from the Allegheny Mountains of Pennsylvania and cherishes making soup, reading aloud with her clan, and chair caning.

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