Monday, September 5, 2016
This Labor Day marks the fourth year that I haven't been part of the paid work force. Labor Day used to be the last day of summer, the day before school started. I always worked on that day, getting ready for the first week of school, and many of my colleagues buzzed about the building, too. I imagine that lots of teachers are working today despite the myth that teachers only work nine months and get summers off.
There is so much mythology in our culture around work. One myth is that pay is commensurate with the amount of work a person does. Not true. I had jobs where I got paid what to me was a substantial salary and other jobs where I received a salary adequate for my lifestyle. I worked hardest in the lowest paying jobs: teaching. Though these jobs were under-resourced, I found the work more meaningful and more important than my (much) better paid jobs. Because so much of my time, my life, was spent at work, it seemed important to me to do work that felt important to me.
Today, The Seattle Times published syndicated columnist Gina Barreca’s opinion piece, “Trying to find your passion? Find a decent job instead.” She has a point, that passion’s roots are in sacrifice not selfish desire, but she misses the idea that the goal of work is…well, what is it? Improving people’s lives or the world, adding to the generosity of spirit in the world? Taking only photographs and leaving only footprints? Caring for our own health and the health of others as much as possible? Creating a better world for our young? Anyway, I would argue that the goal is not only or even primarily making money.
I am more of the mind of Civil Rights Leader Howard Thurman, who said, “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs; ask yourself what makes you come alive, and then go and do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” Where we mislead our young is where we suggest that such life necessarily includes a hearty paycheck.
Since my brain tumors, I have not worked for any paycheck at all, and so this means in this culture that I might choose not to work, not to contribute. As I work with elders in assisted living and supported living in their homes, I hear from others who no longer earn a living financially, and are seeking still to live meaningfully. Too many of them, like too many of us all, equate earning a living with earning money, and now that they don’t need to do that—and in many cases cannot—they are at a loss for what to do with themselves.
One woman with advanced dementia says to me every time I talk with her, “Tell me, do I matter?” When I tell her she does, that she makes my life better (and she does), she always continues, “Tell me how. I need to know.”
Who are we and what value do we have when we no longer work, either by choice or necessity? This is a question I have been seeking to address in my own life since my brain tumors. And it is a question I see so many others who can no longer work asking. Do we matter?
At church yesterday, our pastor Ann challenged our congregation to “Labor for Love.” She challenged us to act in love. She never mentioned how much money we should make or give. This was not her point. Her point was that there is much work to do in the world and that we should get to it.
She included as part of the service a poem from Little Bit in the anthology Original Voices: Homeless and Previously Homeless Women’s Writings. The poem, titled “Life is..” begins by observing that life is “Movement” and continues with so many different ways and reasons for movement, ending with these lines:
But I think
it's okay to
There it is again: purpose, meaning. Why are we moving? Why are we working?
I make no money now, and I am privileged to continue to be supported by savings, my partner, Social Security for people with Disabilities, and health insurance (though the provider has lots of incentives to try not to pay me, so they pay a third of my insurance to a lawyer who makes them pay me the rest: it’s ridiculous.)
I also continue to work in the world, although I can only work eight hours a week and am not financially compensated.
I lead poetry and narrative reading and writing with elders. I work to build community in my church. I work strategizing with other leaders at the University of Washington’s School of Social Work to include Disability Justice in its curriculum and its culture.
When I left my career in education because I could no longer do the work that my job required, my radiologist/oncologist discouraged me from going to graduate school to work on a Masters in Social Work. He said to me, ““You will probably not be successful in school. Even if you are, you will probably not be able to get a job.” (I believe he was trying to protect me from failure, but I was pissed.) He was thinking about a job. I was thinking about work. They’re not necessarily the same thing.
I am doing well in school, and as I approach graduation this December people keep asking me what I’ll do after graduation.
I begin with what seems obvious: “I will not get a regular job, not even a part time one.” And then I continue with the ways I hope to work in the world: “I’d like to support individuals or groups. I’d like to figure out how to use my experience in teaching and my passion for writing to serve others.” I’d like to help the world have more heart and soul. I’d like to connect with those the world races past, people who are aging or slow or dealing with poor health, addictions, trauma, and poverty. These people are worth noticing.