On Not Letting Work Pre-Occupy Our Lives

September 1, 2015

Ages and Stages, Spirituality

personsunsetHow many of you who read the newspaper — be ready to symbolically raise your hand — read the obituaries? Hand-raisers don’t worry, you’re actually in good company, as over half of newspaper readers do. I do, and for me, these abbreviated biographies, the time and place of a person’s beginnings, their educational and career milestones, family connections and travel, can be a window into the meaning of a life well-lived.

As a career counselor, however, why would I bring up obituaries? To start with, I meet people under the stress of having to find a new job, or longing desperately to improve their positions or salaries—either way, career tends to have an outsized place in their life. Don’t get me wrong, the issue is not work per se, it’s the obsessive striving and preoccupation that seems to take over their perspectives. Back to the newspaper connection, if career were that important in our lives, you’d think it would be reflected proportionately in obituaries, right?

In order to test this notion, I performed a content analysis on 11 randomly selected obituaries in Sunday’s paper, five women and six men, aged 73 – 96. I measured the number of lines devoted to describing career and work accomplishments and then calculated this as a percentage of the total lines for each one. Finally, I averaged them all together: the range was from 0% to a high of 27%, with the most common value of 10%, and an average of 11% obit space devoted to one’s work.

This limited sample suggests that the family members who wrote the obituaries used almost 90% of the available lines not on describing their departed’s career accomplishments, but on their relative’s early life, family connections, and describing their values and what kind of person they were. Warmth, thoughtfulness, humor, generosity and one’s place in a loving family were valued in the family text.

To wit, here are several of my favorites:

  • And he was beloved. His kindness was legendary; he made time for everyone and found something to encourage in each individual.
  • Marcia had irrepressible visions for improving the life of all. She was optimistic, enthusiastic, volatile and excited by the creative.
  • A 63-year old woman identified only as a mother and grandmother ended with, “She was love, so she was loved by many.”
  • We remember Dad for all the good times we shared, and being in the presence of a kind, gentle, steady, understanding, adventurous, and loving man. He was a man of quiet presence and thoughtful action, and all who knew him always felt safe and supported.

The latter was actually my father, who died three months ago, which is partly why I felt moved to pick this topic.

The reality is, in our adult years, many of us spend too much time on work and all things related to career, when it is borne out in the end to have very little meaning to significant others or connection to our souls. Maybe some of you are with me in beginning to shift, little by little, away from a pre-occupation with work that can consume our waking moments, ever worrying about never having enough or endlessly achieving?

To help us catch ourselves, often no truer words about living exist than those spoken when a loved one leaves life:

Isn’t that finally the measure of a man — the way he lives, how he treats others, no matter what life may throw at him? We do not know how long we’ve got here.  We don’t know when fate will intervene.  We cannot discern God’s plan.  What we do know is that with every minute that we’ve got, we can live our lives in a way that takes nothing for granted.  We can love deeply. We can help people who need help.  We can teach our children what matters, and pass on empathy and compassion and selflessness. (Barack Obama, eulogy for Beau Biden)

Thus, the sweet essence of obituaries and eulogies give us reminders and leading questions to live, and perhaps work by in the here and now: What would it mean to live and work more fully aware of the greatness of one’s being? Could we make love our new bottom line?


latest square crop 48 Dave Gallison, MS, LPC
Dave specializes in a short term, action-oriented approach to providing career management solutions to clients seeking to choose, change or advance their careers and reach their professional and personal potential. His unique strength as a career counselor is preparing you for informational interviews and directly assisting you in gaining access to employed contacts within desired organizations.

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One Comment on “On Not Letting Work Pre-Occupy Our Lives”

  1. Martha Wagner Says:

    A great topic, Dave, and nicely handled. I’ve been reading obits for years and remember when newspapers actually had reporters who specialized in the in-depth ones.


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