For 40 years or more, my grandparents woke up every morning at five a.m. for work. In a good year they would take one or two weeks of vacation in August and head to Florida. Not long after they retired, their health declined. My grandmother slowly succumbed to Alzheimer’s disease, and my grandfather died without ever having enjoyed the money they spent their lives accumulating.
My baby-boomer parents worked very little, perhaps just enough to get by. They never lived through the Depression of the 1930s, and to hear my grandparents tell it, kids of the 1960s never learned the meaning of struggle.
I began thinking about the meaning of work when I was very young. Why do we work? Why does work seem to be, well, so much work? Were we put here merely to make widgets, or for something more meaningful? How do I want to spend my time?
I believe that our work should be elevating, that it should rise above providing for necessity and provide for the soul. I also believe that, for the most part, it does not.
One of the first things we often ask a new acquaintance is, “what do you do?” Better questions might be, “what do you want to do?” or “How do you want to spend your hours?” At the very least, it would make for more interesting conversation. I find it not a little depressing that we know each other through our work.
At various times in my life I have been a little league umpire, a furniture mover, an office clerk, a proofreader, a tutor, a medical writer, a graduate assistant, and an English professor. To quote Walt Whitman, none of these are the “Me myself.”
Although I am often happy with my work, I am not yet satisfied that teaching English fulfills my own criteria. Indeed, there are times when I think I would be happier humping furniture up and down endless flights of stairs.
Before I became a professor, the most interesting (and the most difficult) job I had was that of a furniture mover. The people I worked with were tremendous personalities, almost enough to make the backbreaking labor bearable. I hated the job, but I loved my co-workers, some of whom never graduated high school. Perhaps work must be communal to be meaningful; perhaps it must somehow involve sweat.
As an English professor I am extremely lucky in my work. Aside from the fact that I get paid (a little) to discuss literature, my job is flexible. On occasion I can take a leisurely lunch with my wife. If the stars are aligned, those lunches have the potential for something more satisfying, if not more meaningful. Sometimes this flexibility is the best part of the job. Elevating? I don’t know.
I understand that most workers have no such flexibility. I am privileged. I also appreciate that economic necessity is a terrible tyrant. My experience is merely suggestive of the possibilities when work becomes less about what it can buy and more about our humanity. If others wish to work themselves to death for a big house and fine cars, so be it; it’s their funeral.
I want to believe that my short time on earth has not been squandered. It would be the height of arrogance to think that the dollar I earn is my final purpose. Freedom is too important. I believe in my work, but I refuse to be my work.
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