What is the work of your hands?

Updated: May 1, 2019

Our hands do so much. We have endless potential to create, and destroy. Finding something deeply satisfying to do with our hands is one of lives biggest challenges.

We shake hands, we put our hands together, we get out of hand sometimes. Our hands are busy. We write, paint, draw, type, hold, clutch. We fight, steal, take, hide and push. Our hands, like the proverbial shark, who never sleeps, never stop. Even when we sleep, and we release our grip on consciousness, our hands are full of expression.

Michelangelo's image captures the power that hands hold. There is a dance in the giving and receiving of the hands. It is a dance that is at the heart of creativity. In the painting one hand points and is active. The other folds slightly, ready to receive. This exchange, of giving and receiving is fundamental to the rhythm of our lives. To live I must eat. So with one hand I take. But to participate fully in the dance of life, I must also give. Written into the hands is the need to give, as well as receive. This exchange, of giving and receiving is fundamental to life.

What is it your hands want to do?

Our hands long to fulfill a meaningful purpose. Is that why we admire great artists, scientists or business-people? Because they have fulfilled our longing. They have found a meaning to their lives, and have built it.

What we choose to build with our hands defines our life purpose

Albrecht Durer's drawing of hands in prayer

We each must find our own meaningful task. Nobody can tell you what to do, build, or make. The task of your hands comes from your own deep longing. Your task is unique and meaningful to you. It gives your life purpose. Joseph Campbell famously wrote, "follow your bliss". Hinting that what brings us the most joy, can lead us to our purpose, to the task of our hands. Yet, the work of your hands may be grueling and painful.

I love this Zen story about a samurai who digs a tunnel with his hands:

Zenkai was a samurai’s son who fell in love with his superior’s wife. When his love affair was discovered, he killed his superior and ran away with the man’s wife. The two became thieves but soon parted ways. Zenkai went to the far off district of Buzan and became a wandering monk. Wishing to atone for his wrongs, he decided to accomplish at least one good task during his lifetime. Coming upon a dangerous cliff side road that had caused many deaths, he decided to bore a tunnel through the mountainside. He would work all night and beg for his food in the daytime. At the end of 30 years, the tunnel was 2,280 ft. long, 20 ft. high and 30 ft. wide.

The tunnel would be complete in two years. But Zenkai’s past finally caught up with him, in the form of his superior’s son who discovered his whereabouts and wanted to kill him. “Take my life by all means,” said Zenkai. “But allow me to finish my work. The day I complete the job, you can kill me.” The son waited. Months passed, Zenkai kept at his work. It was a tedious wait. Growing tired of doing nothing, the son began to help Zenkai. After working alongside Zenkai for a whole year, the son was filled with admiration for Zenkai’s will power and strength of character. Finally, the tunnel was ready and people could travel without danger. “My work is complete. You may now cut off my head,” said Zenkai. “You are my teacher, how can I behead you?” asked the young man, tears springing into his eyes.

Whatever we do that brings focus and purpose to our life can be our task. As a tiny child I remember bringing buckets of water from the sea to fill my sandcastle. No matter how many buckets I brought, the sand just swallowed my water. This didn't bother me. I was fully absorbed in my task. It was something I had chosen to do. Success or failure meant nothing. The task was everything.

Finding a task that you are willing to give yourself to completely is life's greatest challenge. If we are able to do this, then, like the monk in the story, we will be happy. They are as many paths to happiness as there are hands to take it. What we do with our hands becomes our path, or tunnel through life.


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