The great Chicago author and historian Studs Terkel once wrote this about work:
“It is about a search, too, for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying.”
That quote looms large over a new multimedia exhibit at the Harold Washington Library Center in Chicago. The collection of photos of people with different types of jobs, accompanied by stories of what they do and why they do it, is called “Working in America,” and it does what artistic endeavors should do: It makes you think.
It takes you inside the lives of people you might never notice, people working jobs you might take for granted or not even know exist. And there’s a point to that, beyond edification.
We all work, but we rarely take time to think about what a job means, how it shapes our identity and what it is, specifically, about what we do that matters in the grand scheme of things.
“So much of our life is defined by work,” said Jane Saks, president and artistic director of Project&, the group that created the exhibit. “It’s not just monetary. It’s not just skill or talent. It has so much to do with self and identity.”
The exhibit was inspired by Terkel’s classic book “Working,” a collection of interviews with working Americans. As you walk past the stunning photographs, taken by Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Lynsey Addario, you are given only general descriptions of each person: a name, a job title, where the person lives.
But an accompanying brochure gives you richer stories of each individual.
Kelly Carlisle, for example, is a U.S. Navy veteran who worked in the dot-com industry and wound up founding an urban farming project for youth. She says, “Farming and being connected to the earth has made me see myself as part of the earth, as part of a larger mission that doesn’t just stop at my door, my paycheck, my office, my farm.”
Of work she says: “I believe work is life. I don’t understand a life of leisure; I understand a life of work. I don’t really understand self-care other than in tidbits — like I’m going to get a massage today, but I’m going to be back out shoveling tomorrow. Work is life. That’s it.”
There’s Jeffrey McGee, who once served time for drug dealing and now works as a facilities manager: “Work to me today doesn’t mean the same thing as it did yesterday. Today work means I’m winning. Work means truth. Work means to me, today: I’m a positive, productive, functional member of society.”
He sums up his routine like this: “I go; I do my job; I’m respected; I give respect; I get paid for it. At the end of the day, I sleep well.”
There’s a retired autoworker, an artist, a mayor and an Olympic athlete. And each reveals something different, from an uplifting motivation to a pragmatic interpretation of what their career means to their life and the lives of others.
“Every way of putting together a working life is unique,” Saks said as she showed me around the exhibit. “You’re the expert. You’re in control of your own narrative.”
So I’ll ask this question: Do you know what your work narrative is?
Because there’s value in pondering such things. Maybe it can help you find greater satisfaction in a job you think you hate. Maybe it can help you identify a way out and on to something better. Maybe it just confirms a feeling you’ve had in your gut, something driving you that you’ve never paused to examine.
The part of the “Working in America” exhibit I most appreciate is that it’s not static. Visitors are asked to contribute their own stories by answering a series of questions about what they do for a living.
And you don’t have to see the exhibit in person to contribute, though it will be touring nationally. The website www.working.org allows you to share your story and lets you read about others.
“I want people to give us something as well,” Saks said. “It’s only animated if you participate. Then we start to really understand all the work that everybody does and see that we’re all a part of that.”
The “Working in America” initiative also will include a series of radio profiles — co-produced by Project& and Radio Diaries — that will air on NPR’s “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered.”
It’s an ambitious project, and even if you can’t see, listen or take part in it, I encourage you to at least reflect on the work you do, on the part of your identity defined by the Monday through Friday work hours, or whatever days those hours might span.
Whether it’s a means to an end or an attempt to change the world or just being part of something bigger, the reasons we work matter. And the more we examine those reasons, the more we’ll understand why we work and, perhaps most importantly, who we really are.
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Rex Huppke writes for the Chicago Tribune. Send him questions by email at [email protected] or on Twitter @RexWorksHere.