Edwin Leap: Giving back

I have read many articles about professionals who left their career fields after many years and decided to teach. Many of them go into the public school system to share their knowledge and experience with the next generation. In fact, it sounds like a grand idea. Qualified teachers are a commodity of inestimable value.

But I have been stricken by a comment made by many of those who changed careers Almost universally, they said they’wanted to give something back to society’ after years in the marketplace. I was disturbed by that thought, although it is a common sentiment in America today. It disturbs me because it represents the perception that work, beyond a certain subsistence income level, is a thing of selfishness whereby we labor only for our own greed, our own power and position, and that “giving something back” must involve such avenues as charity and volunteerism.

I believe it’s important to realize that this is a false idea; a deception, because work, or rather the worker, gives something back on many levels. And it’s time we revisit the truth. Doctor or lawyer, contractor or laborer, waitress or chef, the act of work is itself ennobling and uplifting both to the one working and to the society in which he or she labors..

The worker takes responsibility for his or her well being and needs, as well as the needs of dependents. Work feeds and clothes families, pays for their transportation, entertainment, health care, and education. Work also supports government and government sponsored assistance through multiple layers of taxation on income and purchases. Work goes on to pay for voluntary charity through giving to a host of organizations and individuals, secular and religious, representing every issue and opinion imaginable. Without work, without those who get up every day and go off to produce and provide services, none of these things would occur.

Furthermore, work is a conscious effort toward independence. The person who works to provide for self and others is saying, “I don’t want anyone else to pay for me or mine. No thank you.” That’s not to say persons who work don’t sometimes need help, because they do. But by working, they are striving toward the day when they will not need the financial support of any other person, agency or government entity. This is a high and beautiful goal in an age when government assistance seems to be a Holy Grail, coveted by too many, needed by too many, and offered up by too many politicians as a means of securing their own political careers. Sadly, once a person or family attains a level of comfort, they seem to be transformed in the view of many into the burdensome middle class, the privileged or, sin of sins, the rich.

Work contributes to other work. When workers spend their income, they become part of a wonderful interdependence; an economic symbiosis far more complex than’trickle-down.’ Textile workers buy cars, car dealers buy groceries, grocers pay for health care, and the cycle goes on.

Unfortunately, a significant segment of society seems disinterested in the uplifting, nation – building effects of work. And their children learn the lesson adroitly. I remember a teenage boy I saw in the ER who had a history of surgery for a congenital heart defect. He had recovered fairly well over the years, and had a mind as good as anyone his age. But his mother said to him, (in reference to a discussion about how medicine had been my goal) “You can have a goal too, even though you’ll be on disability someday!” On another visit, he told me he planned to lie around and collect a check when he grew to adulthood.

He probably will. Someone will decide that the kindest act will be to put him on government sponsored disability for his entire life. In reality, with two eyes, two ears, four working limbs and a normal brain, the kindest thing anyone could do for him is make him learn a skill, or go to college, and work like a normal person. Because if he does he’ll be “giving back” to society as much as he receives, simply by taking pride in himself and his work, and by engaging in the economic give and take that is the essence of a prosperous country.

Volunteerism is a wonderful thing; so is charity. But work, the application of individual abilities and efforts for pay, does more than’give back.’ It gives from the very beginning.

Edwin Leap is an emergency physician and blogs at edwinleap.com.

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