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The Prince of Garbagemen
A Dance to the Meaning of Work
Many years ago, as I was leaving home for work very early on a misty morning, I saw far ahead of me on an otherwise empty street a man who was dancing. He was graceful, his long legs moving in an effortless, fluid adagio. Now an arabesque, now a pirouette; then a grand jeté. As I got closer, I saw that he was carrying something. Back and forth he danced, bending and bowing, swinging his burden as if it weighed nothing. He moved, it seemed, for the sheer joy of it. It was magical.
The performance was not for me or any other sleep-deprived commuter. This was a man performing his work with dignity and grace and delight. My work, he communicated in his dance, is to make the world more clean and beautiful. I thought, as I passed him, of the story of the bricklayer who was not just laying bricks, but building a cathedral. Of the janitor at NASA who told President Kennedy that he was helping to put a man on the moon.
This is the prince of garbage men, I thought then. He was all the more memorable because he was alone, creating beauty and meaning from his work, practicing his craft with elegance and refinement.
The image of the dancing garbage collector has stayed with me for more than forty years now. It has become a visual metaphor for the Buddhist concept of “right livelihood,” described as doing one’s work in a noble and transcendent way, whatever that work may be. May we all be so fortunate as to find in our livelihood a reason to dance.
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