Is Your Job Your Life?: Lessons from A Folk Singer & Al Pacino

U.S. Department of Justice
The New Yorker recently published a sad story by Jeffrey Toobin about the prosecution of Alaska Senator Ted Stevens, and how the fallout from the case affected a young Justice Department lawyer named Nicholas Marsh, who committed suicide. (Casualties of Justice, Jan. 3, 2011).

The media is all over a story until suddenly the story disappears, and it was that way with the Sen. Stevens prosecution.  There was extensive coverage of the case against Ted Stevens, who was charged with failing to report gifts of reduced rates on renovations to a house. While the case was pending, Stevens lost reelection in 2008. Then the media coverage died down. But the Stevens case did not result in a conviction, and the Attorney General’s Office ultimately asked for all charges to be dropped against Stevens because prosecutors breached ethics by failing to disclose information indicating Stevens may not have been guilty. Stevens died in a plane crash in Alaska in 2010.

Nicholas Marsh was one of the prosecutors in the Alaska investigation that resulted in nine successful convictions revealing corruption in the state political system. Although Marsh participated in the Stevens case, Toobin wrote that apparently Marsh had nothing to do with the unethical actions by his fellow prosecutors. But because of Marsh’s involvement in the case, officials removed Marsh from his high-esteem position and moved him to a lower-prestige department. Meanwhile, the Office of Professional Responsibility continues to investigate the conduct of the Stevens prosecutors. 

Even though Marsh may ultimately be cleared, the stress from the ongoing investigation took its toll on him. Depressed and unsuccessfully fighting his demons, in September 2010 he hanged himself in the basement of his suburban Washington, D.C. home. Married less than five years, he did not leave a note for his young wife.

It is tragic to think of Marsh feeling his life was crashing down as his career identity was crumbling. Maybe he could have left town and started over again and eventually been happy again. But one suspects that for whatever reasons he felt like he could not get away.

In an earlier post about life lessons, Chimesfreedom discussed Ernest Becker’s Pulitzer-Prize winning book, Denial of Death.  In the book, Becker explained that people identify with things — be it possessions, esteem, organizations, sports teams, etc. — to give meaning to their lives and to give us defense mechanisms against our fears.  Many of us identify ourselves by our jobs. And, as has happened frequently to far too many people in the last several years during the recession, if we lose a job we feel we lose our entire identity and our defense mechanism against our fears.

Railroad Workers The story about the Stevens case reminded me of a song by folk-singer and activist Charlie King.   King is a good performer, full of stories and good songs about social issues.  One song, entitled “Our Life is More than Our Work,” has common-sense lyrics reminding us something we often forget when we get wrapped up in our own worlds: “You know that our life is more than our work / And our work is more than our jobs.”

The song reminds us that we are not our jobs.  Additionally, we each have work to do during our lives that is beyond our jobs. But even that broader work is not the whole of your life.

The New Yorker story about the Alaska prosecution also reminded me of Insomnia (2003), a movie that focuses on a criminal case in Alaska involving questionable professional ethics that haunt the lead character. Insomnia is a very good movie about a Los Angeles detective played by Al Pacino who goes to Alaska to investigate a crime. While there, he is unable to sleep from the constant daylight and from being haunted by his past choices. The movie, directed by Christopher Nolan, features excellent acting by Al Pacino, Hilary Swank, and a creepy Robin Williams. It reveals how our jobs can take us down a well-worn path where we feel we do not have control.

Most likely, there were other factors contributing to the Nicholas Marsh tragedy besides the ethics investigation, and it is ridiculous to think that lessons from an action movie or a folk song could save a life. But music and movies can make us think about our lives and maybe change our attitudes a tiny bit. And that’s something. As Charlie King sings, “Think how our life could be, feel how our life could flow / If just for once we could let ourselves go.”

King, Charlie – Our Life Is More Than Our Work

{Our Life Is More Than Our Work – Charlie King}

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