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Love's Labor Found

Writer and physician Sherwin Nuland on finding the work of our lives

Not only have I made Tolstoy's maxim my credo, but it expresses one of the few nuggets of real wisdom on which I have ever been able to rely. Through eight decades marked by various periods of joy and difficulty, triumph and failure, I have come to believe that this brief series of words is, to appropriate Keats, all I know on earth, and all I need to know.

I am taken not only by the nouns, love and work, but by the verbal expression knowing how.

To know how to work is to channel creativity into paths valuable to others and valuable to oneself. We identify with the career or occupation we have chosen, and in many ways are defined by it, seen through the eyes of the world by it. Once we have identified it when young, it in turn identifies us. Work creates an image of ourselves with which to be seen and in which to contemplate what we are. We must know how to find it, how to do it very well, and how to know the satisfaction of presenting it to the world as a token of commitment to an ideal of quality. When the time of life comes to leave it, we must find other outlets for creativity, other sorts of work, because creativity is nourished by itself.

Even love, that seemingly spontaneous emotion, takes knowing how if it is to be real, durable, and have depth of meaning to ourselves and to those for whom we feel it. Such love requires work, just as work requires a love of the task at hand. Love and work bless our lives — there is no greater wisdom than knowing this.

Our work changes as our lives and times change — especially after 65 and what we call retirement from the occupation that came before. What matters about work is neither its nature nor its formal name but the creativity and joy we put into it. Love, too, may change its nature and its manifestations as the years pass, but its depth will grow only as long as we are aware of the loving work we must always put into it. Agape in Greek, caritas in Latin, chesed in Hebrew — "caring love" in all three of the classical languages — apply equally to the work of our lives and the work of our hearts.

Unlike life itself, the rewards of love and work are not finite. Their example becomes a gift to those who follow us; in this way they never die. And at age 25, or 65, or 85, whatever the nature of the work and of the love — it is all the same.

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