Prior to my 9th-grade graduation, my English teacher assembled eight classmates and me to tell us we’d each been chosen to prepare and deliver a three-minute graduation speech about one of Johann Von Goethe’s nine requisites for contented living.
None of us let on that we had never heard of the German writer or his musings.
The class athlete was assigned “strength enough to battle with difficulties.” Saintly Patricia Gilles received “love enough to be helpful to others,” and plodding Thomas Dunlap would deliver “patience enough to toil until good is accomplished.” Sounded like typecasting to me.
Finally, my topic: “health enough to make work a pleasure.” Good grief. I had to extol the virtues of working? I imagined Goethe pondering at his window while peasants, all of whom looked like me, dragged bags of potatoes here and there.
On graduation night, I gathered with my classmates and paraded around the gymnasium floor filled with folding chairs and family members, most of whom wished they were home watching Bonanza.
Seated on the stage, I nervously rehearsed my opening lines: “As teenagers, most of us avoid work. We’re reluctant to stick our hands in greasy dishwater and protest that it’s not our turn when asked to mow the lawn.”
Re-reading my hand-written speech today, I realize I spoke cleverly, but with little understanding: At fourteen, I considered health an everlasting guarantee and work a necessary evil. When I babysat unruly children, sneezed inside a musty chicken coop, or teetered on a ladder picking cherries, I was motivated by money, not enjoyment. My health didn’t impede me, so I gave it no thought.
As an adult, I taught school. While I enjoyed doing so, I didn’t set off each morning chirping happily: “What a blessing it is to be driving to work with my healthy body.”
I didn’t understand the co-dependent blessings of health and work until I retired and floundered like a baby calf learning to walk, trying to find a balance between meaningful pursuits and leisurely recreation with an older body and chronic complaints.
I believe Goethe, too, was a senior citizen when he realized the intertwined nature of health and work and the necessity of both for a contented life. I don’t think a young person could have seen with such clarity. I know I didn’t.
When my Mom’s health failed during her last years, she kept working. She sat in a wheeled office chair and scooted around the kitchen to cook for Dad and visiting family members. She never stopped sewing, painting, writing, teaching.
My dad did hard physical labor his entire life and depended on a strong body that never needed medication beyond an occasional aspirin. In his final, bedridden months, he missed the rewards of work. During one of his rare bleak moments, he told my brother, “I’m useless. Just a damn useless old man.”
Both my parents recognized the wisdom of Goethe’s words: words I spoke glibly about in my youth.
But I’m learning.
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