Work Can Kill

Hard work is admirable. Sloth accomplishes nothing. But be careful not to take it too far, Vera. Don’t fall for the line that more is better, or that the only way to get ahead is to become a workaholic.

I was struck recently by this story about bankers in their 20s and 30s having heart attacks. When you’re young, you think you can handle the long hours, sleepless nights, and endless stress. But there is a limit, and more and more young people are discovering it applies to them as well.

I used to burn the candles at both ends. More than once I worked through the night, taking time in the morning only to shower and change cloths and then heading back to the office. But that’s wasn’t usual: more usual was the consistent long hours and stress. Caffeine helped. I consumed large amounts of coffee.

When I was in my early 30s I developed an irregular heartbeat. In looking back, I think it was my body’s way of getting my attention. I backed off the coffee but not the work. The irregularity went away, but it returns from time to time. It’s nothing serious I’m told.

I took a weeklong bike trip with your dad once to Utah, experiencing the irregular heartbeat the entire time. When I returned home, your grandmother met me at the airport and the first words out of her mouth were, “How did you gain weight by cycling for a week?” I hadn’t. It was fluid. I had swelled up and hadn’t even noticed. My cardiologist said extreme physical exertion at high elevations — in other words, my prior week’s activity — could have killed me. But it didn’t. The heart eventually returned to normal. And I pressed on.

I’m reminded by the words of Seneca, who said, “Is it really so pleasant to die in the harness?” Or of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn who wrote, “Work is what horses die of. Everybody should know that.”

But we don’t. And so those of us who think life is for doing and not for being charge ahead. We work and achieve. It’s never enough. But it is really stupid.

It took me about 58 years to learn this. It’s not that I got smarter with age; rather, circumstances made it obvious.

I hope you’re a quicker learner than I was. And don’t end up having a heart attack in your 20s or 30s. And don’t subject your body and mind to stresses they weren’t designed to handle. I hope you appreciate that being is more important than doing.

Further, I hope the answer to Seneca’s question is obvious to you before you reach the ripe age of 58. “No, there is nothing pleasant about dying in the harness.”

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