It was just a part-time job during the summer between my third and fourth year of high school. Not quite 16 and I was the designated quality-control inspector at a major tool manufacturing company in Chicago. Much to my genuine surprise, I was given with the sole discretionary authority to shut down the production line if there were any problems identified or even suspected by my youthful eagle-eye.
Although I took great pride in my work and sought to always do my very best, I must confess how much I thoroughly loathed my job! Worse still, I could not for the life of me fathom how so many of the full-time factory workers were able to faithfully perform their monotonous duties with such good humor, day-in and day-out, year-after-year.
In time, I became somewhat friendly with a middle-aged Haitian woman, perhaps 50 years old, who had been employed in the same assembly-line position, performing the same robotic task, hundreds of time each day easily and effortlessly for more than 13 years. To my consternation, she actually seemed to enjoy her work and softly hummed a native tune as she assiduously repeated the same task again and again.
To me, she was an unwitting prisoner of her “lower” socio-economic status, ostensibly due to her severely limited educational opportunities when she was my age and, therefore, her job was sublimated torture masquerading as “a good job.” The thought of my ever doing the same thing over and over again, year after year made me truly ill.
Being young and dumb and full of myself, and presuming that how I thought and felt must be identical to how she thought and felt, I inquired “how can you stand your work?” to which she replied without missing a single routinized motoric beat, “it’s only 8 hours, sonny boy,” and I was stopped dead-in-my tracks knowing I knew absolutely nothing at all about anything worth knowing about.
It wasn’t until I was in my 50’s that I had an eye-opening opportunity to visit Jamaica, which is geographically in the same neighborhood as Haiti, and was literally dumbfounded when I learned about the abject poverty, subsistence living conditions and illiteracy which seemed to permeate the country. My heart just broke as I remembered her simple words, “it’s only 8 hours, sonny boy.”
In retrospect, I think my Haitian mentor was teaching me something quite profound in the simplicity and directness of her statement because from whence she came, life was very long, very hard and very uncertain with 8 hours of work being a luxury rather than a burden.
I must confess that throughout my adolescence and young adulthood, well into my own middle age, I was reminded again and again of her words each time I felt tired, weary and emotionally depleted at work: “it’s only 8 hours, sonny boy;” then I would smile and continue with my task to criterion, all-the-while, feeling so very deeply grateful for the enduring sage wisdom of an illiterate factory worker.
Author Note: Dr. Larry B. Gelman is a Clinical Psychologist and a Personal Mentor
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