Robert (gurdonark) wrote,

right work

"There is a great and crying evil in modern society. It is the want of purpose. It is the narrowness of vision which shuts out the wider vistas of the soul. It is the absence of these sublime emotions which, wherever they do arise, do not fail to exalt and consecrate existence. What is to keep our heart from freezing in chill despair, to keep our head high and our step firm, if it be not deep-seated, long and carefully matured conviction-that man was sent into the world to perform great and unselfish work, independent of his comfort, independent even of his happiness, and that in its performance alone can he find his true solace, his lasting award?"-Felix Adler

Today I'm thinking of things I've meant to do, and how I can do a better job at getting them done.

I can think of two charitable tasks I have intended to do for weeks (for that matter, in one case, months), which I still have to complete. I need to focus on getting them done. As I approach this Labor Day, I wonder about this notion of "right work". I've always been attracted to this Buddhist concept--the notion, among other things, that one earns one's livelihood through a vocation useful to others.

When I was a teen, I was fond of saying that I did not know what career I wanted to pursue, but I just "wanted to help people". I wonder, with hindsight, if this was not a cop-out on my part. It's so easy in the abstract to be all about the "helping out", but actual helping is a literal process, not an abstract idea.

I come upon this Labor Day weekend so delighted that I have three days off. This Summer involved a lot of very hard work for me. I always love Labor Day, because it falls at the beginning of one of my favorite months. But I hope I can use this Labor Day to re-focus my efforts on trying to "do good" in my work, however I define that. I'm fortunate enough to work in a service profession in which I can take on matters which can make a difference for people. I don't do massive class actions nor cases of universal significance. But I'd like to think that between this Labor Day and next Labor Day I can do more. I'm pleased that in the past few years I've become much more conscious of taking on cases and non-work projects just to help folks out. But I feel that I need to do far more than I do. It's that dilemma of being in some ways a very selfish person who wishes to be a very altruistic person. It's all well and good to talk about doing good, but as the old proverb says "talk doesn’t cook rice". In fact, beyond the altruistic notion, I want to be like the Marge Piercy poem, among the people "who are not parlor generals and field deserters but move in a common rhythm when the food must come in or the fire be put out".

My obstacles are typically mundane, such that I suspect they are not mine alone. It's just a matter of getting everything on the list, and then getting it all done. The other key challenge is to also find spaces to breathe amid the work.

I think that balance between work and personal life is such a challenge. Sometimes I wish that when I attended college, I had been more mindful of what a central issue for me this would be. I should have had some clue from my father's career as a country doctor, because he did great good but also worked incessantly. I knew I wanted to do good, and I knew that I wanted not to work incessantly, but I did not know to think ahead to achieve that goal.

They say that teens don't know to fear death, and that's true, but I think that a similar challenge is to get a high school kid or college kid to imagine living. What will life be like in this career? What will I do? Where do I want to live? What will my lifestyle be? How will I survive the sheer mundanity of living? I think teens often understand how mind-numbing adult life can be, but it's so hard for many to figure out that they are active agents in avoiding that.

That's not to say that all kids miss the boat on career aspiration. I read last night in our local "community magazine" about a kid who just got into Julliard from our local county Community College. When I was 18 or 19, I lacked that kind of focus. I'm sure I lack that kind of focus now. So it's good to see a kid who drives for what means the most to him. He did it the old-fashioned way--by honing his craft until people noticed.

I'm very fortunate in many ways. I have a job which never bores me. I am my own boss. I earn a reasonable living (although, in fairness, I once earned more, and I know lawyers who earn much more than I do in my solid but not amazing path), and my work hours are much improved from past days. My practice is filled with intellectual challenges and with practical aspects I enjoy.

At the same time, I wonder what more could I have been. I could have gone into an area of law much more devoted to helping the poor. To speak a bit more selfishly, I could have gone through with my original intention of getting more legal education and becoming a law professor. I think back on that point in my mid-20s when I elected to buy a home and practice on instead. I was single, I had savings, and I had no family ties that kept me from pursuing my dreams. Why didn't I do so? I think it was a recognition that I needed to be a better lawyer, by buckling down. Buying a small home, for me, was a metaphor for putting down roots and taking my work seriously. But was it instead a failure of imagination? My personal "Julliard" would have been an LLM from a top law school, the admission ticket to a law professorship. But I elected, quite deliberately in hinsight, to miss the train. Now I've got a darn good life, but I'm not some eminent faculty holding forth to classrooms of students. I'm a lawyer in a four lawyer firm, just helping my clients as I can. I don't have the easy lifestyle that being a professor might have meant. But maybe that's okay. On the one hand, my particular dream deferred certainly went all raisin-y in the sun of passing years. On the other hand, perhaps I chose the path less easy, and there's somehow a virtue in that. Yet I do think about roads not taken. What if I'd become a medical professional, as my father did, helping people all the time?
I lacked the grades to become an MD, but I could easily have become any of a dozen other medical-related things--perhaps an optometrist, perhaps a nurse practitioner. Would I feel more "moral" then? Is it important how I "feel", or what I really do? I can do so much more being who I am now than I actually do, if I only buckle down and do.

I don't know. Maybe it's about helping people more, and worrying about this sort of thing less. This Labor Day weekend I want to focus on my own sense of vocation, and what it is I wish to, and can, do. Then I want to do, and not to think. I think enough for three people.

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