From the beginning of time, an amazing number of poets, prophets, preachers, politicians, playwrights, philosophers, etc., have found something noble, something glorious, even something heroic to say about human sweat. The book of Genesis equated it with life: "In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground." Hesiod saw sweat as greasing the path to perfection: "...in front of excellence the immortal gods have put sweat, and long and steep is the way to it, and rough at first." Longfellow raised sweating to an essential American virtue in The Village Blacksmith:
His brow is wet with honest sweat,
He earns whate'er he can,
And looks the whole world in the face,
For he owes not any man.
And Thomas Alva Edison revealed it to be the essential component in everything from the light bulb to the phonograph to the 1,091 other inventions he patented: "Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration."
Sweat has been romanticized, glamorized, dramatized, yea, canonized over the centuries. Of all the precious bodily fluids, only blood and tears have had a bigger play. But things have changed drastically in the last three decades or so, and sweat's reputation has taken a turn for the worse. In the old days an ode to sweat was really a hymn to the practice of honest, hard physical labor as well as a paean to the more hard-nosed, puritanical elements of the human character—perseverance, endurance, determination, a never-say-die will to succeed in the face of insuperable odds. Sweat was a verity.
Nowadays we are talking most often about quite a different brand of fluid, about a sort of sweat that oozes out of the dark wells of anxiety. We are talking about sweat produced by guilt, depression, insecurity, by bad marriages, bad news, bad dreams, bad checks, bad tempers, bad vibes, bad luck. We are talking about sweat that breaks out and soaks people who are sitting still in cool rooms. We are talking about nervous sweat, about sweat produced without physical exertion and without hot weather. We are talking about the brand of sweat that has given us a deodorant and antiperspirant industry which last year sold $860 million worth of creams, sprays, sticks, pads and powders.
George Sheehan, the physician-guru of running, wrote with fierce passion in his book The Runner about the phenomenon of sweat in the late 20th century: "I can put up with Madison Avenue using athletes to promote beer and cigarettes and even men's perfume, but when I see athletes in commercials for antiperspirants and deodorants, I rise in protest.
"It just makes no sense. The athlete wants or needs no antiperspirant, no deodorant. He is a hitting, throwing, running, jumping advertisement for sweat. Good honest sweat. The kind of sweat that made America and now has virtually disappeared from the country. The kind of sweat that went down the drain with the advent of an affluent technology and the rise of the service industries. The kind of sweat that was eliminated when our occupations turned from action to conversation....
"For this kind of sweat you need no deodorant. Honest sweat has no odor...."
Well, as sometimes happens with Sheehan. his enthusiasm has driven him into flights of hyperbole. The difference between honest sweat and the other kind isn't really smell any more than it is honesty. The good running doctor is quite wrong to imply that "honest sweat has no odor," as if there were some sort of dishonest sweat that reeks to the heavens. In fact, for most people fresh perspiration of any sort has no smell of its own. But Sheehan is absolutely correct in what he identifies as the No. 1 cause for the demise of the brand of American sweat that some people rank right up there next to patriotism and prayer as things that Made This Nation Great.
Today the U.S. is populated in large part by a sedentary, office-bound, technology-oriented breed of worker who labors by means of paper, phones, business machines and various other items known as "managerial tools." No less than 70% of Americans employed in non-agricultural work perform service-oriented jobs, many of which require less physical exercise in a full day than our ancestors got from spending one hour on the porch swing after work. To capture the essence and to understand the extent of the change that has occurred in the amount of physical exertion involved in work, think for a moment about the sweat produced by the mighty blacksmith at his anvil and compare it to that of the mighty IBM systems analyst at his terminal.