Meaningful Work (or, We Can’t All Be MLK)
by Dave Isbell
Today, I was planning to write about kicking off a job search. However, two things made that post seem inconsequential, so I scrapped it and decided to write about those two things instead.
The first of these things was dropping off my three-year old daughter at daycare. As we were leaving the house, she went through her normal Monday morning protest of “I don’t want to go to school.” As we left the house, I felt like I was on my way back from the peaceful rally of the “I have a dream” speech. I knew I was justified in getting her off to school, despite her tears that subsided in the car, until I got her inside of the building where they began to flow again. Somehow, in trying to do what was right, I wound up at the wrong end of a fire hose. The entire tone of her sobbing had changed from the Monday morning “I’m tired” into the sincere and heartbreaking “I just need to be with you” type of cry. If you are a parent, you know what I am talking about. I don’t often question my intentions about going to work, because I love what I do, I know it is my “calling,” and I know that I am helping other people. Yet, today I drove off wondering why I was trading so much of my time to help strangers when my own daughter really needed me just then. I also thought about how much time and effort I have put into this thing called “work” (and for me that includes graduate school, because that is work!) And, I thought about how quickly my kids have grown up and wondered how many times I left them standing there crying when I did not even see the tears.
Yet, my own sadness about leaving my daughter behind (where I know the tears probably stopped five minutes after I drove away) was only the first thing that made my original intended post seem inconsequential. When I got to the office, I realized that today is the day that our country celebrates the life and work of one of my heroes, Dr. Martin Luther King. All thoughts aside about why my office was even open today I wondered how I could be so caught up in my own affairs to not even realize what day it was! To some, this was a day off from work or school. To others, it was another busy workday because everyone who is off from work or school was showing up in the office.
Yet, it should be a day of reverence about, not just a great man, but of work that matters and is still being done by many unknown names, in many different places around the globe. Why is that important to me, a Caucasian middle-class, male American citizen who has never personally experienced many of the hardships of those who have far too often been shoved into the ranks of “second-class” citizen? On a global level, it is important to me because the work that I am doing is about trying to help people to be freed from their own limitations, despite the ones society may place upon them. On a personal level, if I am going to leave my daughter in the care of someone else, then I need to believe that my work is meaningful enough for me to justify leaving her!
Thankfully, I am doing work that I feel is very meaningful. However, when I drove away from my daughter this morning, my mind eventually moved toward those people who I was going to work for today. Most of them will drop off their children to go on to a place that provides them with little more than a paycheck to pay for those things that really matter to them. There are also those who feel lucky because at least they have a paycheck, and maybe someday, hope to find a bigger meaning in their work. Some of them are hurting so bad that they have lost hope in even finding a paycheck, and have forgotten that their work could even hold a deeper meaning. I want to do what I can help. I’ll never be a MLK, and I’ll probably never literally be sprayed by fire hoses, beaten, or chased down by dogs. Most likely, few will remember my name when I’m gone. Yet, today I sat with a few people to help them find a dream that matters to them and to the world around them. Because of my job, I will get my paycheck, as I do every month, and I will use that money to the benefit of my family and I am always grateful for it. If I ever stop feeling grateful, or if I ever stop finding it meaningful to help another person, I pray I will have the sense to start looking for something else. I know that I am one of the few who is fortunate enough to be compensated by far more than the financial benefits I receive. I am most thankful for those who sacrifice far more than I ever will to help others to be free, not just from their own self-imposed limitations, but also for those that society impress upon them. It is because of these true heroes that the work I am doing even exists!
Tonight, when my daughter asks me why I have to go to work, I’ll be proud to tell her that it is because I needed to do my part to help other people who needed me, so that I can better help her. Eventually, in the too-near future, she will go to work and I hope that she will understand that the greatest reward comes not from being paid but from paying it forward. Here is where I am leaving you to wonder, dear reader (all five of you who made it this far,) what is worth taking the time away from those who you love, when all they really need from you is your time? We cannot all be the next MLK, but I will bet that there are a few engineers, accountants, attorneys, bakers, and candlestick makers out there that can use what they already have to make the world a better place for at least one person. What do you have to lose for trying?
Dave Isbell is just trying to figure out how to love people, especially his wife and kids. He has been a Career Coach since 1999, and holds professional certifications in the field (GCDF, ETS, and JCTC.) In his current role as the MSU Alumni Career Service Coordinator, he is fortunate to get to help Spartans find their “compassion” and then to connect with other people whom they can then collaborate with to do meaningful things. He is also working on a Master’s in Social Work, with an emphasis on Family Studies at MSU. When he is not working, studying, or attempting domestic bliss, he can be found reading, watching, or listening to something deeply profound or guiltily shallow. He occasionally plays rock music on a bass guitar, guitar, or drums, but those occasions are very few because he feels more pressured to work on term papers than to pluck, strum, or bang on something.