Earlier this week, I was talking with a good friend about all the things we routinely did for ourselves when we were growing up that very few people seem to do anymore. When we were young, it wasn’t uncommon for people (even those living in small cities and towns) to plant a garden and grow their own fresh vegetables, cut and split firewood to heat their homes during the winter, change the oil in their own vehicles, and push a lawn mower to mow the lawn. Growing up on a farm, as both of us did, we had a lot of additional farm chores to do that non-farm kids never had to do.
When I turned six years old, I began to assume simple farm and household chores, including feeding hay and grain to the cows that were to be milked, helping my father carry partially filled five-gallon stainless steel milk pails into the milk room to be emptied into our bulk tank, bringing wheelbarrow loads of sawdust into the barn and spreading them behind the stanchions to serve as bedding for the cows, and mixing and feeding our calves milk formula using a small nipple pail. I also stacked and retrieved firewood to feed our kitchen wood-cook stove, mowed our acre of yards (with a push mower), helped weed our nearly 12,000 square foot vegetable garden, and “various other chores as assigned.” The list of farm and household chores I was responsible for doing increased over the years, as I became capable of more strenuous work. Fortunately for my overall workload, some of my earliest light chores were handed down like outgrown clothes to a younger sister, who was the only other child willing to do farm work. By the time I was in high school, I was paid the enormous sum of $2.50 per week for all of my farm and household work responsibilities. It wasn’t always fun to be the only boy in a family of five children.
However, despite all the physical labor we had to do that modern conveniences and technological advances have since made easier or altogether unnecessary, we still found time to play, swim in our pond, and enjoy the descending nightfall on a gentle summer day from a lawn chair in the back yard. By the time I was finishing my 30-year professional planning career, I felt that my life seemed far less frantic and stressful when I had to do all my childhood farm chores. I also realized very early in my career that I had shoveled more manure working for local government officials in the public sector than I ever did working on a dairy farm, but that’s fodder for a different story. My friend feels the same way I do about it all.
I left my childhood farm behind because my adoptive parents refused to pass the farm down to us. After all, they saw no future in dairy farming that could sustain us and they needed to sell the land to pay for their retirement and my father’s medical expenses. As I was told, all I needed to do was go on to college and get a cushy office job in the outside world that would give us a better standard of living and far less physical labor. It seemed simple in concept, but adjusting to the very different lifestyle of modern conveniences just never felt as easy as it sounded. After learning to live as self-reliantly as possible in order to avoid debt and make my life affordable, I found it very hard to spend my earnings to purchase all the trappings that make modern society so convenient. For many years, I felt like I was doing something wrong because so many of our neighbors (who I knew earned no more income than my wife and I did) seemed to own many things we felt we could not afford, like bigger, fancier cars, back-yard swimming pools, and all the other conspicuous trappings of wealth. Although I later learned that most of them were living “borrowed lives” by incurring debt that we refused to assume, I struggled to know how to reconcile my traditional core values with the reality of how the modern world that surrounded us worked. Traditional values of self-reliance just don’t work well in modern society.
This observation reminded me of the third post I placed on our farm website nearly three years ago, entitled, “Why Would I Want to Do All of That Farm Work.” In it, I recounted a discussion I had nearly five months before my retirement with a former professional colleague who never lived on a farm. He couldn’t comprehend why I would want to do all that hard farm work in my retirement when I could become a private consultant and make more money without all that strenuous physical labor. While I agree that my professional work—which I often called “butt work” because that was the primary muscle I exercised by doing it—was far less laborious, I always found it to be much more stressful than farm work. While farm work may be exhausting, it never deprived me of a good night’s sleep as the stress of working in the politically-charged public sector did.
Our technology- and money-driven modern society clearly bestows many lifestyle conveniences on us. As I’ve noted in this post, it has reduced the amount of physical labor we have to do in the conduct of our lives and, as a consequence, created new job opportunities for people to satisfy those needs. However, we also bear a cost for those conveniences. Fewer people today will become debt-free because they can’t afford the rising labor and material costs of those conveniences. People are also becoming less healthy because their modern lifestyles leave them with less physical labor to do for themselves. Even the simple act of getting off a couch to change the channel on the TV has become an unnecessary expense of labor. All our modern conveniences have also made modern living more consumptive and wasteful, which only increases our impact on the natural environment, regardless of how “sustainable” we feel our self-proclaimed advances have made it. When you consider all of these unintended and unconsidered consequences (and others I have not specifically mentioned), it seems clear to me that our lives would be far less stressful, less impactful on the environment, and less costly if we exercised the traditional values of hard work and self-reliance rather than casually yielding to all the alluring conveniences of our modern society.
People always say that you can’t go back to the way things were. That may be especially true of a society that increasingly views manual labor and hard work as unnecessary and inefficient. Why do all that hard work when our technology and modern conveniences make it unnecessary? Hard work and physical labor are just adversities that we have outgrown. We’ve found a better way that alleviates people from those responsibilities. After all, eliminating all of life’s adversities is a good thing, right?
Well, if you choose to think that way, I have some unpleasant news for you. Adversity is not a good or bad thing. It is an unavoidable aspect of life in the real world that must be understood, not ignored. Even the most determined optimist cannot simply will it away. You may like to think that our modern conveniences are eliminating adversities, but they are only creating others our descendants will have to face down the road, from higher and more unaffordable health care costs, environmental stress and degradation, and the looming (growing) fiscal insolvency of our government and economy.
Life is naturally adverse for a reason. Farmers understand this better than most other people today. It is nature’s way of winnowing out the weak from the strong. It drives the check and balance system necessary to sustain life in the closed environment of our planet. While we may avoid an adversity today, we may only end up creating a bigger and, perhaps, more complex one tomorrow. We all need to face our adversities today and conquer them to survive.
This is the lesson I have learned from my traditional, self-reliant upbringing that I feel many people today who suffer from low self-esteem would benefit from. Your self-esteem is not enhanced when life is handed to you on a silver platter. Those who have to work for it and overcome the adversities they fear in life will always be more self-confident. It is not whether or not you can overcome an adversity in life that truly defines your character; it is how you face it that does. That’s the enduring value I believe you can gain by internalizing and practicing our traditional lifestyle values that we promote here at Peeper Pond Farm. If the potential consequences of our modern, convenience-driven lifestyle come to pass, you may eventually learn that you need to rely up them to survive an even greater future adversity. Welcome to Adversity University, the original school of hard knocks.