PreciousbabeindoorThe other day I was shoveling manure. Not the kind of figurative shoveling of manure that most people shovel so much of the time. This was the real stuff – literal manure. It was the build up in a pen where I had kept calves for some time. In the winter it is typical to allow a “manure pack” to develop as a kind of insulation from the cold of northern winters. In the spring one of the necessary but arduous tasks is shoveling out the manure. It was while engaged in this less than pleasant task that I found myself thinking about, and wondering if, all of the figurative shoveling we all do bears any relationship to this literal shoveling.

The more I shoveled and the more I reflected the more I became convinced that the literal shoveling of manure has a good deal to teach us about the figurative. I suppose the most basic lesson is that if you’re going to have animals you’re going to have manure. And that seems pretty much true of life itself. There is always manure to be shoveled. That’s simply the way it is for everyone. The more responsibility one has in life it seems the deeper is the pile of manure that needs to be shoveled.

When shoveling real manure, that is, literal manure, I discovered that technique matters. To begin with the basics and to be specific. In the first place you don’t use a shovel at all, you use a pitchfork. A shovel is just too blunt. You can’t drive it into the manure. All the effort in the world won’t make it go in. It takes more finesse. That’s the lesson that is repeated time and time again. Dealing with manure takes finesse. The widely spaced and sharp tines of the pitchfork will penetrate the manure pack just fine. But that too is not enough. The hay that is mixed into the manure makes for a tangled mess. Therefore, each pitchfork load is extremely heavy: virtually impossible to lift. But there is a way; there is a technique that works well. It is a combination of things. Slip the pitchfork under a thin layer of manure on the top of the pile and then rock the pitchfork to leverage that thin layer to loosen it from the underlying pile. Next, brace the pitch over your knee to leverage that layer entirely free from the pile and swing it clear and drop it where you want it. Slowly but inexorably the manure pack is eliminated. But, in addition to having the right technique, it is equally important to take breaks at regular intervals. You can’t clear out that pile all at once. It takes time. Stop from time to time. Take breaks and do other jobs that are more fun and rewarding. The general themes then are: use a pointed rather than a blunt tool, take thin layers, use all the leverage you can find, don’t rush, take frequent breaks (ideally to do something you enjoy), but keep at it.

This, it seems to me, has also has a lot to teach us about dealing with figurative manure that so many of us shovel daily. It is best to approach that work with patience, realizing that it is probably more deeply tangled than it might first appear. Dig at it sharply but in manageable steps. Use all the leverage that you can find if you want to have any hope of lasting to see the job done. Take breaks regularly and frequently so that you don’t get too exhausted by the weight and unpleasantness of doing a job that badly needs doing.

Finally, remember that there is always hope. Not only hope that the job will be done, but hope in a larger sense. Manure is a problem when it is in the barn, but it is fertilizer when it is spread on a field. So too the figurative manure that we struggle daily to clean up is often the result of people not working where they ought to work or on the job that they ought to be doing. And of course “job” used in this connection can refer to any of life’s endeavors. Sometimes, it is simply by re-envisioning possibilities for individuals and situations that manure can be transformed into fertilizer for growth.