My dog is a "working breed." What kind, I'm not entirely sure, but if I had to guess he's got some blue heeler in him. What I do know is that he needs a job to do.
Usually our work consists of fetching the ball or patrolling the neighborhood on a daily walk. I even talk to him in terms of work. When he brings back a stick I threw into the water, I pat him and say "good job." When he helps me clean the peanut butter off the spoon I tell him "good work."
Today we woke up early to avoid the oppressive summer heat and went to the lake for a swim. It is absolutely essential that he gets at least an hour of work done in a day –– for his sanity and mine –– and this was the best way to do it. But as I stood there listening to the birds stir, watching the ripples echoing off tree roots, throwing the stick again and again, I realized nothing was getting done.
He brings the stick. I throw it. He brings it back. Repeat. My dog's work is futile. And I don't have the heart to tell him. Really this is my way of saying I didn't have the heart to tell myself that my work was much the same.
So much of our life is spent on the presumption of progress and growth. We're working towards something: financial security, marriage and children, retirement and legacy planning. But if we step back we see we're just throwing the stick out and bringing it back. Clocking in, clocking out.
No matter what work we do, it will never truly survive us in the way that we would like it to. You can build a pyramid and it will fall into mystery and decay. You can write the great American novel and ultimately the language will change and no one will be able to understand it linguistically or culturally anymore. You can plunder and murder millions but they'll return and be happy no matter what you did to their ancestors. Ultimately we are mortal, and no matter what legacy we feel we may leave, we leave it for other mortals who will soon pass the way we did.
This all sounds pretty depressing, but I realized that my dog is totally OK with simply bringing the stick back. Why am I not? Our work is the same. He is OK with work for work's sake, but I want results. As a human, I want change.
So much of our life is spent trying to change things, and so little of it is saved reflecting upon how little we can actually change. So, to the comedian, creative, or fellow traveler, I suggest we consider what can be changed.
We can change people, if only for a moment. Therefore, our work is in people. (OK, dogs, too). While there's no way to "win" life through our achievements, we can either be OK with doing work for work's sake, or we can reject this idea and try to achieve change that may be meaningless or, worse, destroy our relationships in the process.
As I wait for him to return I notice there's a gap formed in my dog's mouth while he holds the stick, treading water like an otter on his way back to the shore. Often a little bit of the pollen-laced lake gets in and he coughs it up, but he never stops smiling.
If we can bridge the gap between people's life experience and their emotional experience, we can consider our work to be a success. A few years ago, at one of the Krakin Jokes house shows, a man came up to me after the show whom I had never met. In a warmly drunken tone he thanked me for the show, telling me that he had just gotten back from burying his grandmother that day. "I really needed this," he said.
During the house show days we had our own grief: we lost jobs, girlfriends, mothers, our friend Kelly. And every time the decision had to be made whether we should do another show the answer was clear: we needed it.
If someone can come to a show and, if only for a minute, feel a part of something greater than themselves, feel a part of the human family, they might just forget about their woes, or even better find dignity in their experience, whatever it is. If this is achieved then our work has been done. As far as I'm concerned, there's nothing else that can be done.