Work is what we do by the hour. It begins and ends at a specific time and, if possible, we do it for money. Welding car bodies on an assembly line is work; washing dishes, computing taxes, walking the rounds in a psychiatric ward, picking asparagus — these are work. Labor, on the other hand, sets its own pace. We may get paid for it, but it’s harder to quantify. Writing a poem, raising a child, developing a new calculus, resolving a neurosis, invention in all forms — these are labors. Work is an intended activity that is accomplished through the will. A labor can be intended but only to the extent of doing the groundwork, or of not doing things that would clearly prevent the labor. Beyond that, labor has its own schedule. Things get done, but we often have the odd sense that we didn’t do them… We wake up to discover the fruits of labor. — Lewis Hyde.
I hadn’t thought about the above until I read Hyde’s words yesterday. However, I have experienced the difference between labor and work all my life. When I was on the Supreme Court or started writing novels my days flew by and the opinions I wrote or pages I finished hardly seemed like work, they were fruits of my labor. I also remember that when my labor became work it dropped in quality by a long shot.
We all are not fortunate enough to have our labor match our work, but the merger is certainly worth trying to obtain. Imagine a world where everyone’s labor coincided with their work.