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The Everyday of Work Life

Adam, Auguste Rodin, Cantor Art Museum Sculpture Garden

It takes a certain maturity of mind to accept that nature works as steadily in rust as in rose petals.
- Esther Warner Dendel

Three years ago I wrote about the "work value" of artistic versus public service ("A Content Heavy World," 9/14/2012). In this essay I mulled over what I felt was a troubling dissonance between the work value of individual creativity versus practical service to others. An online discussion then evolved which included a Washington physician and a professor in the humanities from the Chicago area. Let me begin by recapping some of our discussion before I pick up this thread in view of the importance of work itself:

"In light of our challenged world, can we value a work life committed to personal pursuits equal to one led in productive service to others? Can we meaningfully balance the social value of the artistic (inclusive of work in the humanities) with production, service, or quantitative science careers?"

Physician: Such an appropriate question for all of us. Especially those who yearn to have a meaningful life. You are asking exactly the question that my daughter, working in the arts and humanities, has had for ten years now. For those of you who are artists as well as pragmatically skilled, the contrast stares you directly in the face. For the rest of us, the choice may not be so stark, but the question still exists. How have you, Glenda, reconciled creative writing vs. your past government work with the U.S. State Department?

Me: I'm not sure I have. Although I like to think that value exists (however intrinsic or physically expressed) in all manner of human endeavor, and anything fundamentally positive, even indirectly channeled or expressed as a catalyst, is of benefit.

Professor in the Humanities: What a wise thinker (the two don't always correlate). This debate very much reflects the paradox of my chosen path. It is so hard to measure the impact of work in the humanities. I'm not sure it puts me at more ease but it is nonetheless interesting to compare my tension (in a productive sense) with another's. I think what matters most is that each individual finds fulfillment in the everyday of work life. I can only hope to work within something bigger than myself... and my tensions will begin to subside.

Me: Our shared perspective! For example, I think sensitivity to the question of "social versus personal" value was partly behind my decision to stand back as my daughter made her career choice, weighing her dual passions for art history and medicine. She concluded she would always express and appreciate the arts, while a day's work in medicine would provide a concrete sense of purpose. It was very personal for her, and very balanced as she combined degrees.

What do you think? Does everyday work have life and value, independent of what or how work is done? I think it does. I also think because the arts and humanities are by some definition open-ended fields of research and interpretation - perpetually yielding to new territory, rendition, and discovery - the artist/scholar never feels something is concretely, genuinely accomplished but rather always part of a subjective, shifting evaluation. It is the burden of artists and some scholars to settle for a role as "a voice of translation." The light shines brightly on new thinking and understanding, yet is transitory: a perpetual "work in progress."

I like the professor's approach, valuing work in term's of the everyday of work life. Reminding us the universal, haunting sense of a bigger picture might frame our choice of work - how we productively use our "voice" - and still incorporate all the subtle, nuanced efforts we make in life and love that nonetheless mysteriously impact the micro and macro human story.

To be capable of both the artistic and practical. To quest from science into art and back again, from one subject's track to its cross. I spent dinner in California recently with a friend of my late husband's, a gentleman who reminded me of the richness of work life balance and its inherent personal uniqueness and complexity. This friend is a chemical engineer, as well as entrepreneur, professor, and spiritualist: an intellect that traverses all boundaries. He has found a way to make his "inner creative" practical as well as personal. We all mirror complexity. Observing those in medicine, there is clearly art in the science of the body human, and machine in the art, scalpel as tool of discovery. Consider the journalist, who combines research with the precise and creative. Many fields combine the technically skilled and creatively inventive, work in everyday engineering, technical design, agriculture, teaching.

Perhaps the debate is not so much the value of one particular professional path or "field of dreams" over another, but instead, acknowledging the importance of the everyday work life, committing to "work within something bigger than myself."

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