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Credit: Photo: Pam Broviak

Life as a public works professional often is grueling and thankless.

Serving the public can be an arduous, thankless job. The work is challenging, and even if your performance is stellar, the number of complaints you draw often outweighs the kudos. Of course you want to do a good job, but sometimes, when you find yourself in the middle of a grueling workday—which, if you're in public works, happens to be most workdays—it's easy to lose sight of the real purpose of your work.

This is one of my favorite stories. Hundreds of years ago in England, workers were bustling about, building a huge cathedral. A scholar—naturally curious about the process—walked to the site and observed carpenters, masons, stonecarvers, glaziers, and others as they toiled at various construction tasks. Seeking to learn more, he approached the mason as the man laid brick for one wall of the church.

“What are you doing?” the scholar asked.

With a sigh, the gentleman laid down his trowel and spoke to the scholar. Eager for a break, the mason mopped sweat from his brow and launched into the details: how he selected the bricks for their color and size, the ingredients of the mortar, the work he and his crew had done already, and what yet needed to be accomplished to erect the walls. The mason complained of arms made weary from repeatedly lifting heavy brick, a back sore from pushing wheelbarrows laden with mortar.

The scholar moved on and approached a carpenter constructing pews, and asked him the same question. The carpenter laid down his saw and told how he selected the wood, hauled it to the site, and spent hours sawing, nailing, and polishing the wood to construct beautiful benches. He grumbled about the ache put in his shoulders by the back-and-forth of the sawing, and he turned up his hands to show the scholar fingers plagued by blisters and splinters.

The last person the scholar approached gave the shortest—but most profound—answer.

“What are you doing?” he asked a woman who was sweeping up bits of dried mortar, sawdust, and fragments of stone from the floor. She smiled and said, “I'm building a house for God,” then went right back to work, humming merrily.

In that simple answer lies a lesson all her colleagues could have learned from. True, at first glance she was merely cleaning the floor of a half-finished church, but she saw what the craftsmen around her seemed to have forgotten: the larger purpose of their work.

Mired in the arduous work, complaints, and red tape you regularly face in your job, you, too, might forget your greater purpose, and ask yourself, “What am I doing here?” But you might find it a little bit easier if you keep an eye on the big picture and remember the goal that, when it comes down to it, all public works professionals share: making each of our towns a better place to live.