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It’s Time For Young People To Take Sweat Equity Literally

Whatever form it takes, manual labor done well is immensely rewarding. So don’t stick up your nose — roll up your sleeves and get to work.

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In just a few days, I’ll be washing stacks of dirty dishes, wrangling toddlers, and changing countless baby diapers. 

I can’t wait. 

No, that isn’t sarcasm. I won’t be working a swanky internship this summer, but that’s fine with me. My past two summers of nannying have taught me more than any class or internship could about tenacity, confidence, and love in action. 

All of us young people need to give manual work a try, and summer is the perfect opportunity to do so. It needn’t be your full-time job: Build a fence for your parents, mow some elderly neighbors’ lawns, take care of a friend’s toddler for the day. 

Whatever form it takes, manual labor done well is an immensely rewarding break from the rigors — and blind spots — of student life and a necessary introduction to adulthood. 

In an increasingly mechanized world, we risk losing sight of the value of manual labor. Young people — particularly those immersed in the world of online discourse — can come to devalue anything but high-minded intellectual work.

As Victor Davis Hanson argues in “Brawn in an Age of Brains” for City Journal, we’d rather pay money to work out at a gym than gain the same strength from basic physical labor. Our increasingly mechanized society, though, is not beyond manual labor — and we shouldn’t be, either.

If we make intellectual achievement the only work that matters, we’ve got it all wrong. All work can be a participation in the ongoing act of creation and bring virtue and fulfillment. Manual labor, in a special way, fulfills the design of our bodies as we put our hands and hearts to the service of others.

And we need manual labor done well. We have all benefited from the selfless physical work it took to raise us and take care of our needs, especially when we were too young to do anything for ourselves. Physical labor built the houses we live in, harvested the food we eat, and sorted the clothing we wear. Joining in is a sign of gratitude.

So don’t stick up your nose — roll up your sleeves and get to work.

Growing up, my mother always told us that cleaning bathrooms was the most satisfying job. Whether or not she was saying that to motivate us hooligans to scrub the toilet harder, she was right. 

The rewards of most manual labor, cleaning or otherwise, are visible and immediate: a sparkling bathroom, a briefly clean and happy child, a mouthwatering meal, a tidy garden, a running car. Through your hard work, you’ve made the world more beautiful — at least, until the baby poops again. 

Manual labor teaches tenacity. There’s nothing like putting your whole body into a job while you have a headache, are hungry for lunch, and are sweltering in the summer heat. Don’t go overboard, of course, but it’s good for you to push your limits. 

From tenacity and the visible rewards of work come grounded confidence. Having now painted a porch on a 100-degree day (not fun), mopped more square feet of hardwood than I can remember, and carried not one but two unhappy toddlers home in aching arms, I’ve gained a self-assurance born out of my tangible successes. 

Heading into life after college, it’s wonderful to develop a can-do attitude toward work. Most adult lives require a fair amount of manual labor, unless you somehow plan on hiring a yard crew, handyman, and housemaid right after graduation. There will be a lot of new skills to learn, and mastering a few gives you the confidence to try new ones when the need arises.

Better to get a grasp on basic adult tasks before the guests are set to arrive at your housewarming party in an hour and the toilet is clogged, the yard is overgrown, and the bookshelves have accumulated an astonishing amount of dust. 

Manual work teaches love in action. There’s a world of difference between writing an article on the Augustinian ideal of love and putting love into your fifth attempt at fixing a leak, fitting a couch through a doorway, or soothing a fussy child. I’m not a patient person yet, but my nannying job has started to teach me the wealth of loving patience I’ll need to be a parent. 

I look forward to the continuing education my physical labor provides by getting me out of my head and equipping me for my future in a way no how-to book can replicate. Dishes, diapers, and toddlers: Here I come. 


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