Meaning and the Fruits of Our Labor

Apples on a branch - Fruits of our Labor

What Is the Fruit of Our Labor?

In her poignant song, “Mercy Now,” Mary Gauthier writes, about her father, that the “fruits of his labor fall and rot slowly on the ground.” The image haunts me. Since it’s meant to be experienced, poetry loses something when we try to explain it, and yet I can’t help but wonder what this means. Is Gauthier saying that all the work he’s done over the years made no difference, that what he built has fallen apart?

Apples on a branch - Fruits of our Labor

I think of an apple tree in a neighbor’s yard behind our house. Probably a hundred years old, the tree stands about 30′ tall, loaded with little, red apples. No one prunes or sprays or otherwise takes care of the tree. Nor does anyone pick the fruit. It’s pretty high up, and even with a ladder and an apple picker, you’d be hard pressed to get most of them, but no one tries. The tree flowers, apples form, and then they drop. Bruised and full of insects, they aren’t very appealing, so none of us gather the windfalls, except to compost them. Mostly, they stay where they’ve fallen, food for worms, molds, and maybe rodents.

Did the person who planted that tree think about future generations? Did he hope that children to come would climb the limbs and eat the fruit?

Our Labors Uprooted

Along my normal walking route is a house that once was certified as a “backyard habitat,” which is a program of the Portland Audubon Society that encourages pulling up invasive flowers and shrubs and planting native ones to provide food and shelter for birds, animals, and insects. Recently, the house was sold to someone who dug up all the native species and laid down sod.

Did the first owner realize what happened? If so, did she care? Did she mourn the fruits of her labor?

I don’t want to judge the second owner here. Instead, I want to examine the fleeting nature of our efforts. Everything we do in this world is temporary. Sometimes our efforts are pulled up and thrown away, like the backyard habitat; at other times, they rot, like the little, red apples. Nothing lasts. Shakespeare will become as obscure as Ovid, and Ovid will disappear. Fossils will wear away. One day, no matter how hermetically we seal those cave-painting chambers, the artwork will fade. Even Stonehenge will crumble.

Like the mandala dissolved by a rising tide, like the unwanted apples, everything we’ve produced, and everything we have ever loved, will “fall and rot slowly on the ground.”

Leaving a Legacy

Although our brains can recognize the truth of this and although we realize that even our descendants will one day forget our name, most of us still long to leave a legacy. We don’t think about the time when the sun will devour the Earth or when a massive black hole will consume our galaxy or when the expansion of the universe ends and existence comes to rest. No, we’re pretty immediate. We think about our children, or our sister’s children, or our neighbor’s children: some young person who will inherit the earth and receive our fruits.

As long as children are born, we believe our efforts matter. If, on the other hand, some disease or disaster left every human being sterile, we would despair. How could we keep going if we had no child to hand our legacy to, if we had no child to teach, and if no child was left to remind us how to live in the moment with awe and wonder?

Regardless of what we think happens when we die, the main purpose of our life is to pass on a world to those who remain behind. Sure we work so we can eat, sleep indoors, buy toys and delicacies, or simply survive. We may even enjoy our jobs, or at least we might find satisfaction in completing tasks and creating order. We probably get a reward for working that has nothing to do with ten generations hence.

Yet the despair we would experience if no child were ever born again would overwhelm every other reason we had to work. In the long run, nothing would matter. Nothing.

Creating Meaning from Our Work

So what about Gauthier’s father? What is “the fruit of his labor”? What rots?

We don’t know. The song doesn’t say. Maybe he’s estranged from his children. Perhaps he had to sell his home and move into a nursing facility where no one sees the man who once hauled firewood and fixed sinks and played catch with his son. No one sees his accomplishments, or even his sense of humor. Not only can he no longer work, no longer produce even a folded napkin, but he is discouraged from trying. How does one create meaning from such a life?

Through our labor, we create meaning. Planting an apple tree is about cider and pie and the crunch of the fruit. Building a habitat is about serving and protecting the wild creatures on whom, though we might not acknowledge it, we depend. Although stocking shelves at Walgreens might not feel very satisfying, we can take pleasure in momentary acts. Or we can do what many people do: find meaning in volunteer work, in raising children, in helping friends. More than just our paid job, labor is what we create, build, produce, nurture, and love.

Tragedy arises when it seems our labor doesn’t matter, when we feel empty and powerless. Sometimes it helps to remember that even small things can make a difference in one person’s life, such as that friendly smile or a gift of a meal.

Making a Difference for One

You’ve probably heard of “The Starfish Story” by Loren Eisley. In it, Eisley describes a beach littered with starfish that had been left by the tide. The creatures were dying. Then along came a boy who bent down and hurled one starfish after another into the ocean. When a man interrupted him, informing the boy that there were too many starfish, he could never make a difference, the boy bent down, picked up one of the creatures, threw it into the water, and looked at the man. “I made a difference to that one,” he said.

Some of us, like Mary Gauthier, are blessed with enough creativity, luck, and fame that we touch many lives with our words or music. Many of us have jobs we love that feel meaningful and important, and we make a difference in people’s lives. Most of us, however, labor for businesses we don’t respect, in backbreaking and demeaning conditions, in which case, meaning makes no sense and importance isn’t even a consideration.

That doesn’t mean we can’t find meaning. We might touch a co-worker or make a difference in a customer’s morning. We get to choose our attitude. Not that it’s easy. On a good day, we might reach only one person. Still, over a lifetime, that’s a lot of people.

Such touching won’t keep our name alive for centuries. Nor will the fruit of a job we we enjoy last very long. Mandalas come and go; starfish die, even when thrown back into the water. Planets burn up. Yet so far, as long as children keep being born, we will keep laboring, seeking purpose and meaning in a world filled with loneliness and decay.

At least for a while, work keeps entropy at bay. It keeps our culture afloat, allows us to leave streets and homes and breathable air to our children. Even if the fruits of our labors eventually rot, we can, if we choose, make a difference to one starfish – or one person – at a time.

In faith and fondness,

Copyright © 2016 Barbara E. Stevens