As I was sitting in church on this Labor Day weekend I found myself wondering what Labor Day is really about.
I know I've asked the question a million times and I know I’ve looked it up before but for some reason I couldn't find it in my head. So in a moment of distraction with my cell phone in hand I went to trusty Google and asked for a definition of Labor Day and this is what I got.
"The public holiday or day of festivals held in honor of working people, in the U.S. and Canada on the first of September, and most other countries on May 1."
Every year we celebrate Labor Day in the United States. The background is that it began in the late 1800s. In fact Oregon was the first state to celebrate this holiday in February 1887 and eventually it became a federal holiday in 1894. By that time 30 states officially celebrated Labor Day. The amazing thing about Labor Day was that it was created to celebrate the common working man and woman.
Imagine that! We have a special day in our country that actually honors people's labor. It had never really hit me before but suddenly that seemed really cool to me. The simple idea that a nation would declare a holiday, would actually vote to take the day off, halt all work and say thank you. And a greedy nation at that! Now I know that most people when they get a day off don't think about the laborers of the United States on Labor Day or the war veterans on Memorial Day. Quite frankly we forget to even think about the Pilgrims coming to this land as we celebrate Thanksgiving. Holidays often lose their meaning and purpose in the everyday world but this year Labor Day means something to me.
This week my wife and I also went and saw The Butler. The Lee Daniels’ film about a man named Cecil Gaines who served multiple presidents as a Butler in the White House. It's based loosely on a true story but as most stories go in Hollywood it has been largely fictionalized. Even so, as we gave up two hours of our Sunday afternoon we were enthralled, engaged, and moved to tears more than once as we watched the story unfold of an African American man who was born in the cotton fields of Georgia in the early 20th century.
The story follows his life from being a young boy in the cotton fields and watching his family go through the shame of not being considered equal to having no honor to growing up and getting a job at the White House as a Butler. Over the course of his life Cecil learned the value of hard work. He learned the value of showing up and doing your best. He wrestled with the challenges of feeding himself and his family and of keeping his family safe while raising his two boys. And because Cecil Gaines went to work every day in the White House he had a unique perspective on the way our world changed through the 20th century.
As we watched the issues of racism, the birth of the civil rights, the factions between Martin Luther King, Jr. and his peaceful approach and other more violent tactics, we had time to think. The sacrifice of those who went before us, to bring more civility to our world was amazing. In the movie the character of John F. Kennedy was quoted as saying something to the effect of, "I didn't understand what black people had to go through until I saw it on television." I think the thing that struck me the most while watching the movie, was that when I was a child growing up the 60s and the civil rights movement seemed like a lifetime ago because most of it happened before I was born. But said another way, most of it happened just 20 years before I graduated from high school. Just 20 years before I graduated from high school.
Now that I'm in my mid-40s 20 years doesn't seem that long. 20 years ago I was saying I do to my wife. 17 years ago I was watching my baby girl being born. Let's face it, the older we get the more perspective we have on time and the less time it seems to take travel across a decade. When I was 18 and living in California I just didn't think that civil rights and racism was an issue anymore. In fact even though I grew up in a town that was predominantly white, my neighborhood friend and his family were African-American and today I'm still friends with that little boy's father. Today in my 40s I have a little different perspective and appreciation for not just what my friend’s father did on a day-to-day basis for his labor but the strides he took and the barriers he broke in the 70s and 80s and 90s as an administrator in higher education.
What does all this have to do with Labor Day? The way I see it labor is the process of showing up and doing a good day's work. Not waiting for somebody to take care of you, not expecting other people to give you what you need but a willingness and desire to get a job, take care of yourself and your family's needs, and hopefully take the extra and give to the poor and needy around you. The fictional character Cecil Gaines did that in his small way in his small community. My grandparents who celebrated 72 years of marriage this last year have done that by raising three children and giving a heritage to their grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
I think the thing that is most profound, most amazing to me, is how important getting up and going to work is for our community, for our country and for our own souls. Today we celebrate Labor Day honoring all the workers in our country. Something so simple, something so ordinary, but without it quite possibly the fabric of our society would disappear and we would never have become the country we are nor the global community we are. So for a moment we stop and we honor and we say thank you because a good day’s work is worth more to us than just a good day's pay.
So, Happy Labor Day to you. At least one person is saying thank you for getting up and going to work on a regular basis. Enjoy and rest.