I must work so much!
“Devo lavorare tanto!”, Elena repeated fully convicted. At the edge of completing three years of life, Luciano’s niece ripped and pasted pieces of crepe tape on an old carton box. She was simply imitating her uncle while we waited for him to finish his service: assembling a vintage bike for the legendary L’Eroica race in Tuscany. A great admirer of Luciano, Elena strived at becoming like him by combining commitment, seriousness and much work in the construction of something important. An intimate connoisseur of the uncle’s passion for bikes, that sweet kid could barely imagine that none of those efforts was relevant for the international Labour Day.
Elena’s conviction comes from constantly seeing adults around her seriously occupied with something, except for the moments they play with her very amusedly, smiling and talking with childish voice. By taking that crepe tape, the girl left aside her world of games, smiles and amusement – the childish voice was unavoidable – to enter the adults’ world; a world of work, seriousness and convictions. Although she classified her activity as work, I called her an artist, while her grandpa knew she was just playing. Only Elena was taking herself seriously, believing in the importance of what she was doing.
Sometimes I play believing that the origin of words unfolds their essence. For writing this text, first I played with the etymology of the word “work” (verb): to do, act, construct, produce, strive after something – as Luciano with his bike and Elena with her carton box. Curiously, English was the only language to hold a current word referring to work with a connotation capable of inspiring even a child. Its correspondents in German, Arbeit, and in Italian, lavoro, suggest rather strenuous activities – no space for games. Elena only wouldn’t dare playing with the word we use in Portuguese as in other Latin languages, trabalho/trabajo/travaille, which comes from tripalium, an instrument made of three sharp stakes common in Ancient Europe for torturing workers.
In Latin America we inherited the idea that putting efforts into the production of important things equals being tortured. The main executor being the employer, for sure. But perhaps more powerful executors are those around us, looking down our noses when not seeing our sufferance. This might explain why pasting crepe tape on a carton box, assembling bikes, studying, making music or writing in a blog, no matter how strenuous, are not considered as work. Bullshit. We all know the real reason: work is only what provides money; if not a bunch of money, at least some arriving with certainty at the end of the month.
We share with Elena the conviction that our efforts have a value, but in our case it only concerns a monetary value. A salary, regardless of being high or low, decent or not, justifies and legitimate any kind of torture, from unpaid extra hours till sexual harassment, including the worst one: the repression of passions and, with these, of the sense of one’s life. We must work so much! As much as possible as to forget that our life made sense before pursuing a profession! (A millennium ago, profession referred to public vows before entering a religious order”; a serious act of conviction).
By imitating her uncle, Elena believed to provide her still short life with a sense. Only later she will understand that dedicating one afternoon to the things she likes, surrounded by people she loves, even if in the middle of idyllic South Italian fields, does not pay her daily porridge. She will choose a profession and search for a strenuous lavoro to afford her a salary and a future, both of which are still guaranteed in the North Hemisphere by means of the increasingly sharp tripalium applied in countries from the South Hemisphere. In Brazil, this May Day might enter history as the last Labour Day, a day of laborers counting on working rights, salaries, stability and with a future. The coming week may force Brazilians to remember the origins of the word trabalho, calling the 1st of May “Tripalium’s Day”.
We must work so much! So much that nothing else will be important or make any sense.