Labor in the Past, Future and Present
Editor's note: With the advent of the Autumnal Equinox, one of 24 China's solar terms to guide agricultural production, farmers should be busy with the harvest and Xinya College's labor-based study should come to an end. But due to COVID-19, Xinya College decided to conduct the 2020 labor-based study on campus. Under the instruction of teachers from the garden department, students enrolled in 2019 carried out a two-week labor practice on the Tsinghua campus. During the day, they worked on weeding, plowing and trimming hedges; during leisure time, they read theAnalects of Confucius in groups.After the labor-based study, they wrote down their feelings and thoughts.
The labor-based study gave me a paradoxical feeling: When it starts, I hope it can finish as soon as possible, but when it ends, I start to miss it now and then. I felt the same way in the two-week labor practice: It was hard, but never made me anxious. As a new semester starts, I become busy. But when I have leisure, I often compare the two weeks with my present and further past, which gives me some different feelings about the labor-based study.
Freshness and dullness
It's so hard to remember the dull times. More often, we only have an impression of dullness. In fact, compared with the three years of senior high school, the two-week labor-based study was far from boring. Teachers from the garden department organized diverse activities for us, and many left a deep impression on me. I can still remember the excitement of riding on a mower for the first time, the cheerfulness of coming across a little squirrel when weeding, and the rejoicing of getting familiar with classmates whom I didn't know well enough before. During the labor-based study, I was positive most of the time.
But after it finished, I surprisingly found that I was so tolerant of boredom. Looking back on my life in senior high school, especially in the last year, I started my every day with the same routine, and it was hard to remember those mundane and boring days. Back then, I often lost track of time. That's because I was stuck in a rut and I can hardly differentiate one day from another. Leading a repetitive life can have a profound and long-lasting impact on people. For me, it made me more tolerant of boredom. As a result, labor can give me a certain feeling of freshness and make me ignore its dullness.
Warmth of breakfasts and words
"I had a bowl of congee and steamed buns. What did you have for breakfast?"
I could still remember the question that our instructor who taught us to operate the mower asked my classmate Yikun sitting next to me. Our instructor was about 60 or 70 years old with thin hair on his wrinkled and swarthy head. He spoke with such a thick accent that I often couldn't understand him. But I heard the question clearly and was very impressed.
It is how the older generation greets others and is seldom heard among today's students. When we students meet on the way, we generally say 'hello' to each other, and talk about our class schedule if we talk further. In a sense, the difference mirrors a shift in the ways and attitudes of life between the two generations of people.
Yikun responded and continued the conversation with him. Actually, I was a little bit envious that Yikun could understand him, because I could only politely respond to him with a smile when he talked to me, and I was wondering whether he noticed that I couldn't understand him. Later, I couldn't help thinking about what his life was like before he became our instructor. He may work on weeding the lawn with a mower after having congee and steamed buns as his breakfast, have lunch, work again, and then leave for home. Or he may have a naughty grandson at home; or he may live alone; or he may live at a dormitory for gardening workers—if there is. What would our labor-based study bring him, trouble or fun? Then I started to worry about whether others would answer him when he greeted them this way. But presently I realized that I was just overthinking. As I was thus lost in thought, the morning was coming to an end, and he asked us if we would come tomorrow. We answered that we would do other work the next day. He nodded at us and walked away with his mower. Thus, our paths became irrelevant again after crossing for a very short time.
Personally, it is necessary to have our paths crossed no matter how brief it is. I like his smiling face which is simple, pure and subject to little influence of modern civilization. For a moment, I hope that he could see more people and greet them by talking about what he ate for breakfast. I also hope that this kind of greeting could become popular again so that people could communicate to pass warmth rather than anxiety on to others. Breakfast can bring warmth for us, and so can words. I hope we wouldn't lose both kinds of warmth.
Meaning of life beyond labor
When I did the work, I can't help asking myself what's the point. But the answers varied from time to time, for example, making the campus cleaner and more beautiful, learning a skill, or having an experience. In a broad sense, labor virtually runs from the beginning to the end of our life. Therefore, it's necessary for us to figure out what does labor mean to us and its association with the other parts of our life.
Labor can include diverse forms, from plowing and weeding in recent two weeks to weekly cleaning in the past. Even the mathematical calculations we did during our senior high school can be seen as a kind of repetitive labor as those mathematical problems were nothing new and predictable. After we graduate and enter the workforce, labor will not end. Most of us will find a job and devote our youth and energy to playing our role in society.
We have to work for resources needed for subsistence, so labor is necessary for most of us. But labor is mundane, so it's certain that we will get bored with it one day. Work is important, but work is also boring. Due to this, we have complicated feelings towards it. At last, many people have no choice but have to work every day.
Obviously, many people wish to find an interesting and meaningful job, but it is so hard that the wish could never be realized. Most of us will not strive to be a farmer or a laborer. Instead, we will strive to find a job that is well-paid and involves creativity. That's because we can get a stronger sense of self-fulfillment from such jobs. However, only a few can succeed. At most times, most of us have to learn to accept a "failed" self.
If work is defined as a kind of boring routine that we must follow for a living, I think it is necessary for us to seek meaning beyond work. In the past, I would choose to devote my whole life to what I liked. But now, I tend to take a more cautious approach. That's because our mind may change as our interest becomes a kind of repetitive work we have to do every day. As a child, I was obsessed with the book about biology in theI Wonder Why book series. But after a biology competition in senior high school, I came to realize that I had no intention of studying biology in a systematic way and I just happened to have a natural interest in those interesting animals and plants.To participate in the biology competition, I had to receive intensive training. This turned biology in which I was interested into a kind of repetitive and boring work, and also made me realize that I was just interested in biology but had no true passion for it.
Now, I still try to figure out whether I can keep my love for a thing after it becomes a kind of work. I believe that I can only find the answer in my life rather than in textbooks.
Fortunately, one thing that I've figured out is that my life is more than repetitive work. During the two-week labor-based study, I chatted with others and had gatherings at Zijing Athletic Field at leisure, which made my life more rememberable. Moreover, these things constituted our life beyond labor. Or in other words, we exchanged labor for such life. Of course, they will never play a dominant role in our life but will always make our life more interesting. Besides, they will remain important no matter how scattered they are. Not everyone can get rid of mechanical work, but we can find the meaning of life beyond it, which is a meaningful thing.
I have no idea whether I can remember the experience of participating in a labor-based study with a group of young people of my age on the Tsinghua campus years later. Nor do I know if I have the opportunity to get close to the land covered by green grass and shining dew again. When I am measuring and shaping the land, it also does the same to me, teaching me to be modest, to communicate with lives, and to be more positive to find the meaning of life.