My parents had this Dutch proverb prominently displayed in their home:
“Werken om te leven, niet leven om te werken”
It means “work to live, not live to work.” It was a necessary reminder because on a farm the work was never done.
When we were young, my father worked for a dairy, delivering milk by horse and buggy. For us kids, this meant his arrival home in the early afternoon, a bonus in those days when fathers worked long hours. We, of course, usually weren’t awake when he got up for work around 4:30 in the morning.
After we moved out to the country, everything changed, because on a farm the work is endless. Not only that, it was often urgent and time-specific. The hay had to come in when the sun shined. The livestock had to be fed. Summertime was always busy. There was no swimming at Holiday Park on a summer afternoon until chores were finished – usually well after the hottest part of the day. The crops had to be harvested, and I well remember the rattling of the old corn elevator on a cold November day, the cobs dropping from its height to slowly fill up the corn cribs.
Over the years, I have had ample opportunity to observe the ways people work. I learned that hurry is counter-productive, wastes energy and actually increases risk of accidents. I learned to go the distance – when the strawberries were ripe, it meant not quitting until the rows were picked through, though there were straw marks indented on your knees.
I learned to do the hardest job on my list first. Pick my essay topic long before the deadline to collect the serendipities that will help write it. Make repairs early before they cause more problems. Dot my i’s, cross my t’s, proofread my work.
Step back to look at the big picture, work smarter, not harder. Accept help, delegate responsibilities because it’s better when others can take ownership, share the burden and the credit for success.
Do the next right thing. Or do the next thing right. “Anything worth doing, is worth doing well!”
Now that I have been retired for a number of years, the to-do list is nowhere as long as it used to be. I have time to sit down and ponder which task to take up next. Increasingly, I need the skill to learn how to do nothing, because that is also truly difficult. My self-worth no longer depends on being productive. There is satisfaction in just the being, the uniqueness of each relationship, the beauty I’d somehow missed in the headlong rush of busier times.
I am happy about the things I have been able to accomplish, the things made, team work and participation. But in the long run, they are only part of the equation. Because we work to live, not live to work.