Hard Work and a High Price

October 03, 1994

Walter Chitwood, one of Anne Arundel County's most loyal, hard-working bureaucrats, recently discovered he had made TC mistake: He'd given more of the last 19 years to county government than to his own family. He knew the ins and outs of the county budget better than his kids. He spent so much time working that he forgot what he was working for.

Many readers might have missed our small story about Mr. Chitwood's decision to quit his latest job, a fairly prestigious, well-paying position as assistant superintendent of county schools. But for those who did, Mr. Chitwood's words about sitting down to a rare dinner with his children and hearing them relate experiences of which he knew nothing should have sounded a warning bell.

How many of us are making the same mistake -- losing ourselves in long hours at the office until we risk losing something far more important?

The trap is easy to fall into. Work occupies a sacred altar in American culture. No siestas for us, no six-week vacations like the ones the French enjoy. We admire the Japanese because they work even harder than we do. The Puritans believed idleness is a sin, and their ethic remains embedded in our society. We work to feel worthy. We work for fulfillment. And, in this day and age, many of us toil long and hard because economics demand it. The 1970s and 1980s saw the rise of the two-earner family; the 1990s see the rise of the two-earner family with one of the two working multiple jobs. Labor Department statistics show 7 million Americans working 15 million jobs.

Labor experts say 40 percent of those 7 million are working extra to pay bills. Still, for many, how much we work -- and how much we allow work to crowd out loved ones and life's other pleasures -- remains a matter of choice. Walter Chitwood chose 11-hour days and six-day weeks because he was conscientious and liked what he was doing. Other people make the same choice for other reasons -- the bigger house, the better car, the luxury of being able to give their kids the things they didn't have.

We each must decide for ourselves what we can afford to, or are willing to, give up in exchange for more time of our own. But it's wise to remember what someone once said about work: "It expands so as to fill the time available for its completion." It will fill a whole lifetime, if we let it.

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