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Jewish World Review July 27, 2001 / 7 Menachem-Av, 5761

Bill Tammeus

Bill Tammeus
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We are more than the sum of our work days -- IN the past year, I have turned down two chances to retire early -- not because I don't hope to do that some day but because I'm not yet ready to.

As I've pondered all this, I've also watched sadly as colleagues have left, and I've been forced to think about how much of our personal identity is tied up in our careers. Are we, in other words, more than our work?

This is an especially difficult question for people whose work is as public as mine. My name and picture are scattered about hundreds of thousands of times a week. And this fall the University of Missouri Press will publish a collection of some of my columns in a book, my first.

All of that makes my job more visible than the person who, say, quietly does data entry for a bank or attaches fenders to cars on an assembly line. And yet those people, too, ultimately face the same question.

Part of this goes to the nature of work itself and to the idea of retirement, which, in the sweep of human history, is a relatively new notion.

Before some professional athletes began making gluttonous salaries, the whimsical poet Ogden Nash noted that "people who work sitting down get paid more than people who work standing up." But, as I say, that once-clever insight has gone the way of all flesh, as some actors, athletes, musicians and others who stand now regularly earn more than scholars, editors, receptionists and others who sit.

Whatever we earn for our work, it's too little if we feel misused, unproductive and unappreciated. But nearly all of us have had jobs -- however unintentionally -- that made us feel that way. A friend recently told me his teen-age daughter has such a job this summer, and it's making her miserable. He thinks it will teach her something valuable about work, and no doubt he's right.

But I've known people who so despised their work that they deadened their nerves with alcohol and other chemicals just to keep at it. It's terrible to get sucked into that vortex, and yet countless Americans find themselves in distressing jobs out of which they can't seem to extract themselves.

Their own work is radically discordant with what the poet Kahlil Gibran once said work should be -- "love made visible."

I am blessed because most of the time I love the work I do. It is not an easy job, its demands sometimes are ridiculous and I could have made a lot more money in other fields. But this is work that fits my temperament, uses my gifts and -- now and then -- makes a useful difference in the lives of others.

Which is why it's so hard to face the question of whether I am more than my work. Someone who writes for the public has been entrusted with a public voice. What happens when that voice goes silent? Several former colleagues have had to find out after departures brought about by buyouts due to company-required staff cutbacks. Even a columnist friend who left The New York Times voluntarily told me the loss of her public voice was a painful experience.

And yet something else must be said about this: We are not synonymous with our work. If we never worked a day in our lives, we would be no less worthy, no less unique, no less precious. In a consumerist economy, where possessions are the measure of almost everything, this is an extraordinarily difficult concept to grasp. But we devalue ourselves if we don't understand it.

It is the very life within us -- not the work we do, the cars we drive or the stocks we own -- that gives us inestimable value. The great religious traditions would say that each human being is of ultimate worth because we are creations of a loving God. The question each of us must answer eventually is what we do with the gift of life, but what we do is not what makes us priceless and cherished in the first place.

So when the time comes, we should be able to leave careers behind and still consider ourselves useful, valuable and worthy. Many cultures understand this better than does our culture, which tends to worship youth and deride age. But it may be that our most helpful insights and most useful presence come not when we're in the midst of our work but after we have set it aside and can view it with more perspective.

If we don't understand that we are more than our work, our work won't add a thing to who we are.

Comment on JWR contributor Bill Tammeus' column by clicking here.

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Reprinted by permission, The Kansas City Star, Copyright 2001. All rights reserved