Digging ditches, as told by Chip Gaines

As I have written before, one of the traditions at my school is for faculty and staff members to take turns bringing “verse” to our monthly meetings to share for our joint reflection. We always try to choose poems or prose passages that are inspirational in both our professional and private lives. I’ve only brought verse twice and, oddly enough, both times there were substantial mentions of ditch diggers, to very different effect. I suppose I have a fascination with that career!

The first time I shared one of my favorite Catullus poems, Carmen XXII (which I affectionately call the Suffenus poem), in which ditch digging seems to be the worst job, ever! By the way that Catullus knocks Suffenus, it’s very clear that only idiots and no-loads are ditch diggers. The message is clear: don’t be a ditch digger. Be a clever writer or intellectual instead. (Note: I shared this poem not because of ditch digging. I focused my reflection on Catullus’ statement about how we should be careful not judge others when we cannot see our own faults.)

Then there’s my discovery and surprise when I was reading Chip Gaines’ Capital Gaines: Smart Things I Learned Doing Stupid Stuff over Christmas break: I found a lengthy passage (we’re talking four pages) in praise and exhortation of ditch digging! The messages are diametrically opposed, but consider me a ditch digging convert.

If you want to read the full passage, buy the book from your preferred vendor (while I linked to Amazon, please consider your local bookstore or forgoing the purchase altogether and use your public or university library instead). It’s at the very beginning of Chapter 14 on page 143, which is fittingly titled, “Team of Rivals.”

In this passage, Chip tells a parable about the tedious work of digging a ditch. He tells how if anyone walked by — even a total stranger — and offered to help you dig the ditch, you’d say yes, no buts about it. Central to his parable is that this stranger working alongside you is completely different from you. In fact, Chip writes:

When I picture this event in my mind’s eye, we look pretty different. Different height, different hair and eye color, even different skin tones. When he speaks, it’s in an accent that I can’t quite make out. All I know is that in this scenario I’m not like him, and he’s not like me, and that’s more than okay. In fact, it’s irrelevant. Had he been just like me, the work wouldn’t have gotten done any quicker.

(Gaines 144)

Chip also tells how you get to know this stranger as you dig the ditch together. Your conversation starts out superficial, but the more time spend working, the deeper the conversation gets. Because the stranger has a different perspective than you, he has a new idea for how to dig the ditch that ends up saving you a day’s labor; you would never have thought of the technique yourself. To thank the stranger, you invite him to dinner at your house, where you bond over the meal and come to understand the stranger’s viewpoint even as you realize your opinions differ on pretty much every imaginable topic.

I like Chip’s parable for three reasons:

  1. It shows the value for multiple perspectives and non-dogmatic thinking, as when the stranger’s new ideas help speed the process of digging the ditch. For this reason, I shared this passage with my AP Seminar students… and they now refer to their classwork as “digging the ditch.” #teachermoment
  2. It redeems ditch diggers everywhere. I love how Chip validates and esteems manual labor (✊👷‍♀️) and critiques the Catullian attitude that manual labor is consigned for people not considered smart enough (or wealthy or WASP-y enough) to advance society by contributing intellectual arguments.
  3. It is completely suited to the times. In today’s political climate it is all-too-easy to blame the other rather than work together to improve the status quo for all. That there are even debates about this is mind-boggling to me. I think everyone in Congress should read this parable and, more importantly, live it.

At the end of the day, we are all digging ditches. We cannot do this alone, and we cannot be picky about who helps us if we want to have any chance for success in our quotidian tasks. I, for one, plan to keep digging my ditch, and I welcome all of you to join me!

If I populate my life with people just like me, then my world is going to be mighty small, indeed — maybe one person deep in all directions.

(Gaines 145)

How do you think we can make our lives more than one person deep?