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Not long ago, the NY Times published an opinion piece in its “Stone” column, entitled “Should Work Be Passion, Or Duty?” The Stone is where the Times puts its deeper and more philosophic pieces about modern social issues. Since this article was written by a Professor of Philosophy, it seems to have landed in the right place. With regard to the meaning of work, Professor DeBrabander concludes in favor of duty over passion. In a nutshell, imagining that your career is your highest calling and the primary mission defining your life is highly over-rated, even though the notion remains quite popular amidst the better educated and more professional members of the American workforce.

DeBrabander notes the irony that people in this category usually do quite well financially, and thus should have more capacity for leisure relative to others in the workforce. And yet, many professionals work much longer hours than the average warehouse order picker or sewer pipe repair technician. Why might that be true? Because the American professional class sees their careers as the core source of meaning in their lives, perhaps the defining aspect of who they are and why they exist. And recent surveys show that young Millennial workers coming out of college have the same attitude, despite the old fogies who see them as slackers.

So let me admit – I once had the same feelings. I once dreamed of doing great and world-changing things, and I was ready to work tirelessly for it, sacrificing my leisure time and my relationships for the sake of the “cause”. Well, after college, I found out that I was not going to be employed in some great cause. I wasn’t even going to be admitted to the “American elite”, the group selected to help run the top government agencies (e.g. CIA, White House, Senate), along with the prominent universities, financial institutions, law firms, media companies and so forth.

After a few years of fairly quotidian (albeit more-or-less professional) work, I applied to go to law school, hoping that would propel me to a much more important setting. But no, once again, I wound up making a living doing things that weren’t really all that exciting for employers who were hardly if ever mentioned in the New York Times. These jobs were sometimes quite interesting, but hardly world-changing (although they weren’t easy to find, and after some bouts of unemployment I was glad just to be working!). It turned out that I wasn’t going to lead a revolution, after all. I still worked pretty hard and put in longer hours than most, but after a while I realized that I had to look to more than just my career to find a full and enriching life.

Oh well. I hope to retire soon, and thus to end the long phase of life where we devote most of our energies to making a living. Actually, I hope that I can keep on bringing in a few dollars in exchange for my time; but hopefully on a part-time basis, not even 20 hours a week. I’m clearly not going to change the world with a gig like that. And looking back on what I did do during my 40-odd years in the full-time American workforce, it wasn’t exactly awe-inspiring either.

HOWEVER . . . if we are talking duty . . . well then, the picture changes somewhat. First off, from the perspective of doing something that helps some portion of the world to keep its gears moving, and doing those duties responsibly well, then yes, I did my duty, from that perspective. As to paying my taxes and paying my bills and not messing things up for other people, well once again, I’d say that I got that done. I didn’t have a family to raise, as I was only married for a short time and we didn’t have kids. So I can’t check that box off.

However, my mother went thru a decade of dependency and needed a lot of home care, which was only partly paid for by government and insurance. Thus I did contribute a pretty hefty chunk of my take-home pay to help her to have a comfortable and dignified life for almost 10 years, along with a good bit of my free time. Doing that did not change the world, but at least I fulfilled a duty to someone who once did their duty by making a lot of sacrifices to protect me as a helpless infant and raise me into an adult.

And as a footnote to that – when I went to law school, my mother was alone; my father had died several years before. And because she wasn’t much of a social butterfly, she didn’t get out of the house very often, she experienced isolation (and she wasn’t in such great physical shape either). My brother was there to help her, but I suspected that I too would be counted on in the future to help her experience a dignified, comfortable, and relatively long “fade out” (she lost the ability to walk in 2000, yet lived to 2009).

During the spring of my first year, I sent out a bunch of resumes seeking a summer job relating to legal practice, but I didn’t get any nibbles. Except one – a federal agency in the US Treasury Department seemed interested in having me come down to DC for a talk. I had previously worked for another arm of the Treasury as an efficiency engineer in the money printing agency (the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, good old “BEP”). I would need to figure out how to live in DC for the summer, but such a position could have opened the door to a good future at the Treasury.

I was becoming interested in economics at the time and planned to enter an evening masters degree program in econ after I finished law school (which I later did at Rutgers-Newark). Had I leveraged a summer position into a post-law school job with the feds, and then pursued that masters, my prospects at Treasury might have been good. I might actually have “gone somewhere” in DC. The collapse of Lehman Brothers and the financial crisis that ensued was another 20 years away – but I still wonder what role I might have played in the heroic efforts that were made in 2008 and 2009 to save the American economy from ceasing up and melting down?

And yet — what about my mother and brother back in Jersey? Alas . . . I decided not to respond to the summer intern letter. I stayed in NJ and struggled to stay within the outer rings of the professional world. In the following two decades, my mother did in fact need more and more help, and my brother experienced more and more stress in providing that help. I gave up my prospects for big-shot-dom in the US Treasury bureaucracy, but in return I was there to do my duty for my family. That was a tough trade-off, and sometimes I still question myself as to whether I made the right choice.

But if “duty” is the standard, then perhaps my decision was correct. I lost passion for my career, I would not toil away at tasks that inspired my soul as well as paid the bills. My motivation on the job became duty, duty to my family and also duty to whoever might benefit from the work that I did. (Luckily, I worked mostly for government or non-profit agencies, and thus most of my work did not go to benefit the wealthy investors or wanna-be-wealthy proprietors behind most private sector jobs. Of course, I didn’t attain the same income and wealth levels as those who do serve the capitalists; but I did maintain the sense that my work efforts would at least indirectly benefit others who weren’t all that rich.)

Over the past weekend, I was invited to the wedding celebration for my cousin’s older son. It looks like this fellow and his younger brother have indeed cracked the barrier that I couldn’t; they have joined the ranks of the young American elite. The fellow who was married is a Penn State grad who became a successful hedge fund manager at a variety of East Coast financial institutions; his younger brother is currently pursuing a joint medical degree and PhD in neuroscience at Harvard.

These young fellows are treading amidst the movers and shakers in the wheelhouse of the nation. It looks as though they are fulfilling a dream that I had when I was their age! Yes, they have their relationships; they do get married, as I saw before my very eyes this past weekend. (Then again, it doesn’t appear to be so difficult to find a beautiful mate when you have a prestigious career with stellar earning prospects, versus when you don’t.) But it’s their careers that propel their lives right now, both economically and spiritually.

As their lives progress into the heart of the 21st Century, they will no doubt have many opportunities to be of service to others and to fulfill the call of duty. I hope that they won’t be torn between career passion and life’s duty; I hope that the two blend well together in their lives. Someone’s gotta get the interesting, important and prestigious jobs in the world – I’m sure that these guys will do them well; the systems that maintain our American way of life will be well served by them. I’m sure that they will also be good husbands and parents.

But for those of us who missed the brass ring, perhaps there is still the comfort of “doing our duty”. And hey, that’s still a lot harder than it sounds! But we might have a shot at the duty thing, so long as we acknowledge that there’s still a lot to life even if and when the fires of passion go out in our careers (and maybe also in our important relationships). If I learned anything in my 66 years of life, it’s that living a purposeful life is not one big joyride. It’s NOT the case that once you find the right “purpose”, what follows for you will seem easy and natural.

First, you may never even find that right “purpose”; or what seems so right at first might no longer be so in another 5 years. And second, even if you can “keep on believing”, life will still throw a lot of things at you that aren’t much fun, and this will often make you question whether you’re on the right track. Even a dedicated saint such as Mother Theresa of Calcutta had many moments of doubt about whether God cared at all about what she was doing!

Sometimes, perhaps most of the time, what is needed to keep going in life is a matter of duty, of fulfilling an obligation to something more and hopefully better or more worthy than yourself. I doubt that modern parents and schools use this word very much in preparing today’s children for their lives. It sounds too much like “old time religion” (where sin and moral duty was the focus more than whether or how much God cared about our needs). But maybe that old-time religion wasn’t always wrong. Maybe it’s time to start talking-up duty once more!

Would Professor DeBrabander agree? Well, he might take exception with the religion reference; his inspiration seems to come from the likes of the Greek Stoics and Spinoza, who “believes that there is no natural duty to keep one’s promises”.

In the NYT article, DeBrabander cites the Stoic’s version of a devotion to duty, which according to him is something that arises naturally from an understanding of the self. “What are you able to do well, the Stoics ask? . . . Throw yourself into that . . . your natural makeup and disposition suggest there are things you should not do — you will never do them well.”

But what if someone needs you to go beyond what you think of as your natural self, as my mother and brother required of me? I did not believe that my “makeup and disposition” were meant to serve them; I was built for bigger things, things that the US Treasury would be concerned with. But looking back from old age, I can acknowledge that true duty goes even farther than DeBrabander and his Stoics would admit. Duty to family — the western religious traditions do indeed promote that, in an absolute fashion; but so does Chinese Confucianism. I would now agree with those who claim that duty is not just what you think it should be. I mean . . . if duty is limited to what you feel good about doing, is it really duty then?

If it comes down to such a choice, will my nephews-once-removed go with the Stoics, or with the Ten Commandments and Confucius? I was once seduced by the former, but ultimately (and not always cheerfully and willingly) wound up with the latter. That became my world, for better and for worse. Which world will they live in? It’s in their hands.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:01 pm      
 
 


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