A Life Given, not Taken

Meaning and purpose are only enjoyed by the people who choose them.

I am so intrigued by theories of work that sometimes I find allusions to them where none exist at all. This post is about one such discovery: inspiration from the bizarre and fascinating world of Greek tragedy.

The Children of Hercules is a play written by Euripides, performed in Athens circa 430 BCE. It is a story about revenge: a crazed king pursuing the descendants of Hercules from city to city, threatening war for any city that offers them sanctuary. However, the people of Athens agree to protect the refugees and face the army of the embittered king.

On the eve of battle, the oracles prophesy that a young virgin from noble bloodline must be sacrificed to guarantee an Athenian victory. One of Hercules’ daughters (known to later tradition as Macaria) offers herself to die as the victim, thus heroically saving the rest of her family and the city.

Iolaus, an old friend and protector of Hercules’ family, tries to intervene to save Macaria’s life. Instead of seeing Macaria volunteer to go to her death, he suggests an eligible virgin ought to be decided by casting lots: something like a random ‘lottery’ to determine who must die to appease the gods.

Macaria will have none of it: “I will not let my death depend on such a whim. That way my life is taken, not given.” (Euripides, The Children of Hercules 447-448, trans. Davie 1996:111) Macaria sees the equation clearly: if she dies of her free will, she maintains her honor and dies a hero’s death. An innocent victim who volunteers for the altar on behalf of others performs an act of self-sacrifice worthy of legends and glory. But there is no respect in being executed because of the roll of the dice.

Yes, all this talk of myth, prophecies, and scapegoating noble virgins is far removed from contemporary theories of work. But bear with me for a moment. Macaria’s plea that her life be ‘given’ instead of ‘taken’ gives me pause. Inasmuch as the time we surrender to our employers is a kind of ‘sacrifice’ of our temporal lives, we, too, desperately want to think of our existence as ‘given,’ not ‘taken.’

In present-day language, we often distinguish between ‘a job’ and ‘a career,’ defining them as unique categories of work. We valuate jobs and careers differently: jobs are often described as simple, labour-for-compensation exchanges (a trade of time for money), while careers are framed as identity-building enterprises (a means to the end of some self-actualization). By some accounts, jobs are superior to careers precisely because they don’t tempt us to define ourselves by our labor. But others argue that careers offer greater stability, thus affording more opportunity to find meaningful activities outside of our employment.

Perhaps the ‘job’ vs. ‘career’ distinction is a false differentiation. Maybe it is a semantic construct that clouds the issue. What we want more than anything else is to hold our heads high and say we gave our lives to something greater. No, our jobs and careers did not take our lives from us. We sacrificed ourselves, freely, through our own agency and choice, to a cause that held value for us.

Two individuals work at the same job. One worker is resentful and angry with the state of their employment. The other exudes an air of contentment and resolution. Perhaps the latter describes their labor as time given, while the former says their time has been taken away. The difference between these two laborers is not that one has internalized their work as a ‘job’ and the other as a ‘career.’ The difference is that one has agency and the other thinks of themselves as a prisoner.

This distinction reminds me of the observations of Viktor Frankl, the Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor. While a prisoner in Nazi concentration camps he noticed that some people maintained a relentless desire to continue living, while others quickly let hope slip away. What makes people different from one another? Frankl wondered. Why are some prisoners so psychologically resilient?

He concluded that survivors managed to maintain their self-determination and agency, even in the midst of incarceration: although they were living through hell, they intrinsically saw themselves servants to some higher cause. Frankl saw this as much more than just a coping mechanism or a mental trick: their lives were given to something greater than themselves, and nothing could take that away from them. (See Man’s Search for Meaning, pp. 110-111)

How did Frankl himself psychologically survive the ordeal? He found a meaningful purpose for being there. He assigned himself the mission of serving, observing, and learning from his fellow prisoners. He decided that his suffering was a curriculum — a tool to help him become a better psychiatrist. He studied his reality. In a sense, he gave himself to the Thereienstadt, Auschwitz, and Kaufering because he had defined an important reason for why he was there. In this sense, he was no longer a prisoner.

How does the legend of Marcaria and the experiences of Frankl translate into the reality of our occupations? I think it boils down to personal autonomy. To have ‘meaningful work’ is to have a job or a career to which you freely give yourself. The labor can be hard, and the workload can be demanding, but as long as it is a self-sacrifice, you can embrace the suffering instead begrudging it. As long as you identify yourself as having chosen the path, you can undergo excruciating trials along the way. You rise to the occasion because this is your course — your mission.

However, as the myth of Macaria reminds us, compulsion nullifies self-sacrifice. The moment we feel like we are not on this path because of any choice of our own, we are doomed to resent it. We become prisoners, scapegoats, or indentured servants when we are no longer able to say, “I am here because this work — or the remuneration it rewards — serves some purpose that I determine has value.” A life of meaningful work is a life consciously given, not a life that feels like it has been taken away.

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