People talk and think a lot about work-life issues. What about work-death issues?
There are some people who face every day the possible overlap of work and death. These are the people who knowingly put themselves in harm’s way. In the United States, 81 firefighters died in the line of duty in 2012. One hundred and twenty law enforcement officers died on duty in the same year. In 2010, 1,485 active-duty U.S. military personnel died; a portion of them succumbed to accident or illness that might have been essentially unrelated to their armed forces career, but most deaths were directly attributable to their work. Fishers, loggers, and pilots have the most dangerous jobs in the U.S., with death rates four or five times higher than those of police and firefighters. People in these professions often consciously consider the possibility that they could die at work – many are advised or required to write their wills and other estate-planning documents – and for many of them, that possibility is part of their calculus of whether or not to take on the job.
But for most of us, that kind of reckoning never comes up. I know that when I chose to go to law school, I never once thought to myself, “Wait, what if a paper cut turns gangrenous and I perish at my desk?” For most of us, the intersection of work and death seems as remote and unlikely as the intersection of life and death. After all, it usually takes decades, or extreme circumstances, for us to become convinced of our own mortality. How many of us have taken the jobs we now hold thinking, “What happens if I go into work one day and never make it back home?”
At some level, dying at work is probably not much more or less distressing than dying at home or on vacation. I myself don’t want to go yet, and I’m sure I would be equally chagrined if I were hit by a meteor at my desk or at a barbecue. But imagining those last few seconds in the office does bring some perspective to the work itself. I can picture myself looking down at the gaping, smoldering hole in my chest, and the still-glowing space rock on the floor at my feet, and thinking, “Too soon! I was just getting this academic success program rolling! I did so much good last semester, and there was so much more I wanted to do . . .”
On the other hand, if cosmic debris had done me in ten years ago, when I was working as a corporate tax attorney, I’m pretty sure my reaction would have been pure regret. No satisfaction over what I had accomplished, and no vexation over lost future possibilities; just a sadness, knowing that my last moments on earth were not spent either doing or moving towards something that really inspired me.
Of course, I wouldn’t have predicted that reaction upon my graduation from law school, when I joined the prestigious tax firm in which I started my career. At that time, I was filled with excitement and promise. But I stayed in taxation for probably longer than I should have, because it took me that long to realize that it did not suit me. Perhaps if I had imagined the meteor strike a couple of years earlier, I might have moved into a more truly fitting career path sooner.
In that way, perhaps lumberjacks and firefighters have an advantage over the rest of us. Perhaps if you are regularly forced to face the possibility that this thing you do, every day, might be the last thing you ever do on earth, then the value of that thing to you might become clearer to you more quickly. Some might even come to realize that their job – maybe fighting crime, or fire, or disease – is so valuable to them that the increased possibility of death is balanced out. The people I’ve known who have seen this all seem enviably content with their work.
Maybe those of us whose most life-threatening moments come on the commute to and from work can use this. No matter how small your risk of dying at work, it should at least be balanced out — if not outweighed — by the satisfaction you derive from your work. Imagine, right now, and every few months from now, what would be your last thoughts if death came to the office and asked for you. Naturally, you would feel sorrow. But if you could not also look back at your work with some sense of fulfillment, then perhaps it is time for you to start considering other career paths. Because once that meteor hits, you will have missed your last opportunity for fulfillment.