“I am thinking of enriching Medicine with a new word: Arbeitskur.”
—Levin in Anna Karenina
A year ago when I participated in the Habitat for Humanity build in Bolivia, I spent days shovelling dirt, carrying buckets of mortar, moving armloads of terra-cotta bricks, and breaking up hard soil with a pick-ax. At the end of every day, instead of feeling body-sore and exhausted, I looked with satisfaction at a home for a family in need growing before my eyes, and I felt fantastic.
It’s what Leo Tolstoy calls Arbeitskur, or work-cure.
Anna Karenina, by Tolstoy, reminded me of this. I took the 806-page tome with me on my recent vacation. (As an aside, 800-page books really aren’t for me. By the end, I’m so tired of all the characters I don’t care at all what happens to them, and if one of them should throw herself in front of a train, I don’t feel sorry in the least.)
One of the characters in the book, Levin, decided to spend the day mowing in the fields with the peasants. After hours of hard, physical labour, instead of feeling sore or exhausted, he looked with satisfaction at the fruits of his harvest, and he felt fantastic. When he shared to the contentment of the peasants, he contemplated the wonders of work-cure.
I grew up on a farm, so I had experienced the satisfaction that comes from spending a day hoisting hay bales or mucking out pens, but I had forgotten. I knew how it felt to tuck with guilt-free gusto into plates of home-made pie after spending the day burning more calories toward a worthy cause, but I had forgotten.
Our society, as a rule, has moved away from hard, physical labour. Instead, we move our bodies in gyms like hamsters on a wheel. It’s physical exertion without the reward of a sense of creation or accomplishment. The euphoric sense of creation or accomplishment that arises out of work-cure takes runners’ high and increases it exponentially. Ka-boom.
There’s no feeling like it. If you’re feeling a little blue, I can recommend a Habitat for Humanity build.