Life in the Time of Coronavirus
“Do what you love, love what you do.”
Conventional wisdom has it that if you merge your avocation and your vocation, then “you’ll never work a day in your life.” In other words, it’s all about passion, following one’s dreams.
I say it’s a neat trick if you can pull it off. Sure, it works great for, say, Tiger Woods or Billy Joel, people who found stratospheric success and lucre doing the only thing they ever wanted to do. Once you move past the rarified worlds of sports and music, however, the ability to make a living from your heart’s desire drops off precipitously.
It’s been said that most of us “lead lives of quiet desperation.” We do what we have to do to pay the bills. Some of us hate our jobs, and more of us treat what we do for eight hours each workday with a sort of studied ambivalence. We’re checked out. We go through the motions. We see lots of glassy-eyed stares from clerks and servers who seemingly would rather be anywhere else. We wish we could be at home playing with the kids, or playing games on our phones, or playing our favorite music and sipping a beer. We use the word “playing” as opposed to the word “working” to distinguish what we want to do from what we have to do. Meanwhile, working is respectable while playing is despicable. Only a child has the right to play. The Protestant work ethic teaches that only diligence can keep us from indigence. In the post-industrial era, too many of us have found that staying on the right side of this equation is insufficient to keep us from falling through the holes in the safety net. And then coronavirus comes along and all bets are off.
Many of us never quite figure out what we want to be when we grow up. “Establish the work of our hands,” we pray in Psalm 90. None of us want to be left floundering around all our lives.
In centuries past, this malaise was quashed by learning a trade early. Following in parental footsteps was an expectation. Today, by contrast, we take a decidedly different tack with our youth. After all, we live a land where any child can grow up to be president. (Well, any male child, apparently.)
What we aim for these days is raising well-rounded children who are jacks of all trades and masters of none. We are all of us artists and musicians. As adolescents, we are taught to dabble in as many different aspects of human endeavor as possible, to feast at the smorgasbord of American possibility. We never really outgrow this mindset, changing college majors and careers as often as we change our underwear. What to do when none of the outfits we try on is quite right? The merger of avocation and vocation remains elusive. What we truly enjoy doing either cannot be offered for sale, or yields a paycheck only at the highest levels, leaving amateurs in the dust.
One can argue that this is starting to change. As a case in point, we now have professional video game players. You have a burning passion to be a mime, a ventriloquist, a magician, a country singer? TV talent shows can be your ticket to the Pantages, Radio City Music Hall or Caesar’s in Las Vegas. We have teenagers pursuing their dreams on American Idol, The Voice and AGT. And anyone can be a star on YouTube or maybe even hit it big as an entrepreneur.
When I was a kid, adults regularly played a cruel joke on us by inquiring as to whether we wanted to be a policeman, a fireman or an Indian chief. (No one was familiar with the term “Native American” or realized how racist they were being.) This seemed to apply to boys only. Girls got married and had babies in their split-level ranches. Who had ever heard of a policewoman, a firewoman, or a woman who was chief anything.
Growing up in suburbia, we knew that the real choices were doctor, lawyer or accountant. Sadly, for girls the choices still seemed to consist of nurse, teacher or secretary. The very idea of women working outside the home was just beginning to take hold.
If this were a standardized test, I knew I would use my No. 2 pencil to fill in the bubble under “none of the above.” What I really wanted to be was a poet. By the time I completed elementary school, I had become mesmerized by the ways in which one could manipulate words. I would twirl them around like so many spaghetti noodles around my fork, finding both equally delicious. But everything that I read and the advice that my parents provided led to the same inescapable conclusion: Robert Frost and Ogden Nash notwithstanding, no one really liked poetry, certainly no one was willing to spend his or her hard-earned money on it, and there was no way to make a living as a poet. I could still write poetry as a nice little hobby, my mother reassured me. A nights and weekends kind of thing.
And so I learned early that work is a miserable grind, engaged in for purposes of keeping the lights on, and that joy was to be had elsewhere, on your own time, thank you very much.
Over time, I came to recognize that there is a push and a pull involved between vocation and avocation. It wasn’t necessary to be the Tennessee Williams martyr who is fired for writing a poem on a shoe box. For poetry, like God, can be found everywhere and in everything. And most employers in any field find it useful to have someone around who can write, whether it be a letter to the Health Department, a blurb for the local newspaper, an email to Corporate, or an instruction manual for new hires.
I started thinking about this recently while working from home, and then again after reading about how neighbors are coming together to combat isolation and loneliness in the time of coronavirus.
Unless you want to be on the phone all day, working from home when you’re used to being in the office means that everything has to be in writing, even little text messages on Skype. But what if my passion were music rather than poetry? I once had a boss who reminded me that the singers among us should be tapped to entertain us during our meetings and events. It us important to recognize the value of the whole person, he used to remind me.
Then suddenly, we’re faced with a public health crisis of epic proportions, and we have the boy performing a Friday night violin concert on the sidewalk and the old lady performing a cello concert on her front porch and the bakers leaving tins of cookies at the doors of senior citizens and even the artists among us providing us with colorful chalk renderings on the sidewalk. What was once seen as a hobby, something to be engaged in somewhat furtively, something failing to contribute to gross national product and therefore indulgent, something frivolous, is now being used as the glue that keeps us together as a society, and is now being recognized for what it is: the gift of ourselves, the gift of love.