Duty Bound?
By A.D. Freudenheim

11 May 2003

How duty acquires lustre. - The means of transforming your iron duty into gold in everyone’s eyes is: always to perform a little more than you promise.[1]

I wonder sometimes where I find the energy to keep doing this web site week after week, but I think my need for writing must be deeply ingrained. In high school, I wrote copiously to an audience of one; a friend of mine was the recipient of my constant stream of words, hurriedly penned from one class to the next, and passed off in the hallways every ninety minutes. Actually, it is a miracle I ever got any school work done, since I devoted so much time to writing notes about my parental squabbles or scribbling silly, satirical stories involving our teachers and the indignities we might have wished upon them.

In a funny way, it seemed like work - but the right kind of work, the work that one wants to do, a balance of obligation and almost-desperate desire; it felt like creation. I had so much to say, but I also had someone who wanted to know what it was I had to say. An audience. Since then, I think much of my inner life can be seen through that same lens: trying to find an audience, and the right audience to boot.


At work our office building recently hired a new security guard; he is an elderly gentleman, and it looks as though this is a retirement job, something to get him out of the house for the day. Unlike the other guards, who typically sit at the desk at the entrance and read the newspaper, this man makes an effort to work at his job, despite its minimal duties. In the early mornings, when the flow of people into the building is strongest, he stands at the elevators and holds them for people coming in, which is tremendously helpful; he greets the faces he recognizes, and will give packages to the right people without them having to ask; maybe most importantly, in doing all of this, he fulfills his main purpose, which is to say, he suggests that he knows who belongs and who does not. His actions makes a clear statement: you work here, and so do I - and welcome to work. (Without putting him down, let me be clear: the job is really only one step up from doorman; the “security” piece comes from the presumptive discouragement someone filling that role provides to anyone up to mischief.)

It is not that I would call the other guards lazy, but they treat their jobs with some sense of entitlement and, well, as if they know that they serve no purpose. Except that clearly they might, if they tried. So, what makes them not try - or what makes the new guy decide that it is worth the effort? Why is it that some people work hard, no matter what they do - and others do not?


Every week, I approach this task - writing these articles - with any number of different ideas, attitudes, and emotions. Sometimes I know pretty clearly what I want to write, and other times I have to tease out the article from the fragment of an idea, perhaps one hastily scribbled on a piece of paper on a bumpy subway ride or while walking to work. Occasionally it takes weeks, with an idea transforming into an article only after many stabs at the process.

I work at it, and I have only just started understanding why I do so. Sure, I get something out of it, out of having a forum to express myself, no matter how crazy my ideas. There is also a part of me that treats the process the way the security guard at work treats his job: I’m here, and if I'm here I am going to work at it the best way I know how. As I said, I also have had the desire, the feeling for writing, for a long time, too. I still can't answer the question of why some people work hard and some do not. I expect I will never get an answer, and it may be just one of those mysteries of human life that we have to accept and work with, a little bit of fallibility thrown into the mix of what we expect from others - and ourselves.

[1] Human, All Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits,
Assorted Opinions and Maxims #404, by Friedrich
Nietzsche, translated by R.J. Hollingdale, Cambridge
University Press, 1986
Copyright 2003, by A.D. Freudenheim. May not be used in whole or part without written permission. However, you may link to this page as desired! Contact A. D. Freudenheim for further information.
This page is part of: The Truth As I See It.