Jewish World Review Sept. 3, 2002 / 26 Elul, 5762

Leonard Pitts, Jr.

Leonard Pitts, Jr.
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A rewarding life
as a working stiff | The arrival of Labor Day had me recalling something Mama used to say: That there's dignity in any honest job done well. That whatever your work you should do it to the very best of your ability.

Mama was always saying stuff like that. Though, come to think of it, no less a personage than Martin Luther King said something similar: "If you are called to be a street sweeper, sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. Sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, 'Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well."'

Those sentiments would, I imagine, sound unbearably quaint to some children of the millennium era. Theirs is a celebrity-saturated time, a time that has effectively merchandised the belief that validation and worth come not from work done well, but rather, from wearing a certain shoe, being waved past the velvet rope, appearing on a TV screen.

It's not just that everybody wants stardom, but that we encourage the idea everybody should want it. I'm reminded of one of the explanations for urban crime: How can we expect a child to work for minimum wage at the local burger hut when he or she can earn 10 times as much doing immoral and illegal things? How can we expect them not to do wrong when they are programmed to want - no, to need - Air Jordan shoes, Cristal champagne, Rolex watches and other commodities that are beyond the means of people who sling burgers for a living?

How, in other words, can you live a rewarding life if you're just a working stiff?

Maybe one of the unintended blessings of Sept. 11 is that it contains the seeds of an answer. Indeed, after the dust of that day had settled upon fresh tombs, after the shock had ebbed like tides, I felt myself struck by renewed appreciation for the simple heroism of people doing their jobs. Not make-you-rich jobs, not get-you-noticed jobs. Just ordinary jobs that, a day before, would not have merited a second glance.

Beat cops directing traffic in the midst of chaos. Firefighters rushing into buildings on the verge of collapse. Mental health professionals and spiritual leaders counseling the bereft and the bereaved. Construction crews gathering to dig through the rubble. Men and women at work.

The second thing anyone asks upon making your acquaintance - right after your name - is what sort of work do you do. It's a way of defining you, of positioning you within the body of the culture. And isn't it telling that, in the moment of upheaval and dislocation, many of us did the same thing - sought solace, a way to contribute, a way to make sense of the senseless, a way to locate ourselves again, by turning to our work?

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Even those of us in the Fourth Estate. My colleague, Elinor Brecher, who was in New York visiting her parents, instinctively grabbed her notepad and rushed downtown. It's a scenario that repeats frequently - differing only in the details - in a new book published by the Newseum, the museum of news, that recounts journalists' experiences that awful morning. The book's title "Running Toward Danger."

Because that's what the news photographers, the reporters and the camera operators did, ran where common sense said they should not. To get the story. To do the work they were hired and trained to do.

It seems to me that Sept. 11, no less than Labor Day itself, is a reminder that there is dignity, a quiet nobility, in the simple act of getting up everyday and going to the job, doing hard work, humble work, never-get-you-noticed work, to the best of your ability. Because this is how we define ourselves. It's how we know who we are.

I remember being angry with Daniel Pearl when news came that the kidnapped Wall Street Journal reporter had been murdered by his abductors in Pakistan. I kept wondering what the hell he was doing there in the first place - not just an American, but a Jew - in a volatile Islamic country in the wake of Sept. 11.

Then the answer came and it stopped me, because it was both simple and profound. You know what he was he doing there?

His job.

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