Many of you will not be home this weekend to receive this greeting because you will be taking a short trip for the Labor Day weekend. Nevertheless, happy Labor Day!
This is one of the heaviest getaway weekends of the year, and everyone appreciates it. But what is the derivation of this holiday, which is always on the first Monday of September?
The holiday originated in Canada in the late 1870s, when labor unions were first successful in establishing a nine-hour work day. By 1882, the festivities spread to the United States, where parades and speeches were held celebrating the contributions of laborers. Then, in 1894, it became a federal holiday, largely in an effort to avoid further labor strife. But over time, the celebrations, where there have been any at all, have placed increasing significance upon economic and civil progress and goals, instead of the contributions of labor.
So now, I suggest we take that process one step further, and ask ourselves every year on this holiday the question of whether our own labors are being well spent, what our individual goals are, and what we stand for as individuals. Another way of addressing this is to anticipate what would accurately be said about us at our memorial services after we leave this earth, or what would be placed on our tombstones.
In that regard, I am reminded of an actual tombstone I once saw at a Ripley’s Believe It or Not exhibit in Chicago that had inscribed on it a recipe for an apple pie. Then below it were inscribed words like: “Here rests Mary Jones. She said you could have this apple pie recipe ‘over my dead body.’”
But more seriously, do you really think a fitting remembrance of anyone’s life would be a testament like “My yacht was bigger than your yacht”? Or “I accumulated more power than you ever did”?
Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice had Eva Peron in “Evita” saying “As for fortune, and as for fame . . . they’re an illusion, they are not the solution they promised to be . . . ” Whether this young prima donna ever came close to any such insightful thoughts herself is problematical, but I think the statement attributed to her is correct.
So what is the best thing that can happen to a person here on earth? The answer is not to have wealth, fame, power or even love. Instead, the best thing to have in life is gratification, which is the inward satisfaction and pleasure you can receive by doing things as well as you can. And in that way, to borrow a recruitment slogan from the U.S. Army, you can “Be all you can be.”
To my way of thinking, the No. 1 source of gratification in this world is for people to see their children grow up to be happy, well-adjusted and thriving. Of course, many other things can also provide lasting gratification, such as contributing to a loving relationship; giving best efforts in your work; creating wonderful music, poetry or other art; and donating your time, talents and treasure to helping others. That explains why so many “starving artists” actually are still genuinely happy, and also how the phrase “you only really own something when you give it away” came into being. Even better would be to make donations anonymously, which is actually a heavy part of many religious traditions.
So join with me in creating a new tradition in our lives, and that of our families and friends. Monday, and every Labor Day that follows, stop and think about your life and how it is going. What are your true passions? What are the things that gratify you and give meaning to your special and individual life? And what are you doing to pursue those things?
You don’t have to be a Bill Gates and create a philanthropic foundation all on your own. There are lots of genuinely worthwhile institutions that can use your own special help. Some of them that have been discussed previously in this column are Canyon Acres (which provides a place of learning for mentally disabled children, and a welcome respite for their parents), the Orange County Rescue Mission (which has a fabulous facility for the homeless, combined with a plan that helps them to become self-sufficient), the Heritage Museum (which shows young children what it was like to live in Orange County in the early 1900s) and Good Will (which is establishing low-cost housing for the mentally ill).
To those, I add another wonderful organization that is just in the initial stages of establishing a campus for brain-injured adults. It is called B.R.A.I.N., which stands for Brain Rehabilitation And Injury Network. Their goal is to establish a place where these mentally fragile people can live, work and play up to the highest level of their abilities. Currently there is no place in California that I know of that would provide such a refuge, and this need is dramatically increasing with the return of brain-injured GIs from the military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The sponsors of B.R.A.I.N. are having a concert Oct. 1 to raise awareness to the need of building such a long-term facility in Southern California for the brain-injured, and to raise funds to lay the groundwork for such a facility. If you are interested in supporting this worthwhile cause, call Sue or Jerry Rueb at (714) 625-7225, or visit www.thebrainsite.org.
Otherwise, there are opportunities all around you in your own neighborhood to help others. Many of your neighbors are silently living with pain and grief, and could really use a friend who is simply a good listener. In fact, I am passing along a challenge I recently received in church for us to knock on the door of the houses of neighbors that we don’t know, and invite them over for dinner. This is a wonderful suggestion. My wife and I are going to do it, and you might want to do it as well. It could very well help to give you the gratification you are seeking.
So, once again, happy Labor Day! Life is good — particularly if we use it to further the things that really matter.
JAMES P. GRAY is a retired judge of the Orange County Superior Court, and the author of “Wearing the Robe – the Art and Responsibilities of Judging in Today’s Courts.” He can be contacted at email@example.com or via his website at www.judgejimgray.com . This is his 100th column for the Pilot.