“I want to thank you / For your generosity / The love and the honesty / That you gave me / I want to thank you”—“Kind and Generous” by Natalie Merchant
Five years ago, when Gretchen Rubin was first working on her best-selling book “The Happiness Project” she was having a conversation with retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. Rubin clerked for the Justice during her law school days, and they were catching up. It turned out Justice O’Connor had visited Rubin’s blog, where she regularly discussed the research she was doing on the secrets of living a happier life.
So Justice O’Connor volunteered her own take on the topic.
“I can tell you what I believe is the secret to a happy life,” she said….“Work worth doing.”
Rubin protested that a lot of the research seemed to indicate that relationships were the key to happiness, but Justice O’Connor was firm.
“No,” she said. “Work worth doing, that’s all you really need.”
Now, I think for most of us, the relationships simply come along with the work—work that’s actually worth doing is never performed in a vacuum, after all. And the bar for what is worth doing is almost always measured and set by its benefit to other beings.
And I don’t believe that “work worth doing” must only refer to what we do to earn money. It simply means that we put genuine time and effort into things that we believe matter, that the world would be a poorer place without our efforts. By Justice O’Connor’s estimation, happiness is the opposite of feeling useless.
I know some great people who would agree with her. My late friend, Bob Terrell, for one. I didn’t want to devote an entire column to Bob. For one thing, it’s been done, and I don’t think I could do a better job than Angela Turner did last week. For another, I had the opportunity to profile Bob nearly four years ago, and I think that profile summed Bob up pretty well. Long after his retirement(s), Bob Terrell kept finding work worth doing.
“I decided I would just keep working on things that I believed would help our community,” he said, “so that’s what I did…I worked on the girls’ softball field and got involved with the tennis program and the chairs for the auditorium. I just decided to keep plugging along and try to be involved, and I’ve gotten involved in The Empty Stocking Fund and the library. I’ve had a good time, and I’ve been blessed. I can’t complain.”
My mother retired almost 25 years ago, and I swear I think she works more now than she did when she was teaching. She’s at some kind of board meeting about three nights a week. My father puts in longer hours gardening than he did as a middle school principal, which, if you’ve never known a middle school principal, is saying something.
This week, we come to the time of year we set aside annually for being consciously and reflectively grateful for our blessings, and it occurs to me that by Justice O’Connor’s standard I have been immeasurably blessed in my life.
Like Bob, I too, have worked with The Empty Stocking Fund and the Corbin Public Library. This week I learned that Corbin’s United Effort, the non-profit I helmed for nearly eight years, will soon close its doors, and while I am sad about its ending, I know we helped a lot of people over the years. Change is inevitable, but I will be forever grateful to them for the work worth doing that they enabled me to participate in.
My work worth doing at the Knox-Whitley Humane Association has been a lifesaver for me. During a period in my life when I wasn’t always keen to be around human beings, the cats and dogs there shared their endless and unconditional love and taught me more about patience, gratitude, loyalty, and peace than I could ever have learned anywhere else, and I will forever give thanks for every single person who adopts, fosters, volunteers, and donates to their cause.
And I can’t say enough about the value of teaching as work worth doing. Today, possibly as you read this, my sixteen- and seventeen-year-old students will be doing some work worth doing themselves, by venturing to one of the district elementary schools to perform Native American folk tales for primary students. Even if I don’t teach them anything else, I hope I can instill in them a sense that happiness comes from contributing, from not being useless, from putting something out into the world without which the world would be a poorer place.
So I think I have a lot to be giving thanks for this Thanksgiving. I have work worth doing, and if you don’t, you need not despair. There’s plenty of it to go around.
I will leave you with Ernest Hemingway on the topic. Say what you will about the old guy, he knew how to turn a phrase: “Now is no time to think of what you do not have. Think of what you can do with what there is.”
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