by Katherine Bielawa Stamper
“You can’t eat the orange and throw the peel away—a man is not a piece of fruit”
Death of a Salesman
Willy Loman, the road-weary, hapless protagonist in Arthur Miller’s play, “Death of a Salesman,” reminds us there is so much more to life than our work. The traveling salesman from Brooklyn, at 63, is tired after 34 years on the road. He’s tired of driving endless miles lugging his suitcase of samples trying to earn a commission. He’s tired of seeing his wife darning stockings because they lack money to buy new ones. He’s tired of watching his sons squander their youth with distorted ambitions and weak characters. He’s tired of borrowing money to pay bills. He’s tired, frankly, of living.
Miller’s play debuted on Broadway in February 1949 with Lee J. Cobb in the title role. The playwright said the work was inspired by family events. Willy’s less-than-favorable character was based on one of Miller’s uncles.
I first encountered this play in a high school English class. Willy has been a part of my consciousness ever since. He’s more pitiful than likeable. He deludes himself into thinking he’s a successful businessman with numerous friends and admirers. He raises his sons to believe that being “well-liked” is more important than hard work and education. He cheats on the one person who stands by him, his wife Linda.
With graying hair, a broken-down car and a mind that increasingly shifts to delusion, Willy realizes he is antiquated, superfluous to his employer. The buyers who used to greet him on his sales rounds are largely gone. He’s a source of jokes to the younger, slicker stock now in charge.
I’ve returned to this play several times over the years, reading the script and watching film and theater adaptations. The message is always the same for me: we are so much more than our work.
My parents raised my sisters and me to work. Money we earned as teenagers eased their financial burden as we purchased our own school clothes, shoes and supplies. My parents rarely took sick days. Limited educations limited income, so moonlighting and weekend and holiday shifts were par for the course. When my dad hurt his back and couldn’t bend down, my mom laced up his steel-toed boots for work. If we kids had colds, we still went to work. I remember bussing tables on a sprained foot, limping around the dining room and customers asking if I was OK. My sister, put her foot down when she sprained her ankle, and refused to go to work. I guess I was a little more malleable. In my family, work was the ultimate responsibility.
I am grateful for the strong work ethic my parents modeled. I am also grateful I decided to diverge from their path, just a little. Although I aspire to do great work, I try to minimize “spillover” into family time. I also eschew working on holidays and try to hold weekends sacred.
Rolling into work, one is far better prepared to dive in if time was afforded for rest and rejuvenation. I like clear and distinct lines between work and play. I like taking vacations where I am not “working.” If I’ve laid the appropriate groundwork, my boss shouldn’t have to call me out on the trail or on the beach. Emergencies happen, but emergencies by definition, should be rare. (I’m not a Millennial in chronology or practice.)
Back to Willy’s fictional character, I wonder…How many family dinners did he miss? How many of his son’s concerts or games was he absent from? How many times was he unable to shovel the snow or help his wife care for sick kids? How many missed chances were there to help his sons with homework or discuss a conundrum around classroom cheating? How many of the small-but-special moments of raising a family did he miss? Everyday life and living together is what cements relationships.
Willy, let go from his job, realizes his life insurance policy makes him worth more dead, than alive. He crashes his car and is buried the day Linda makes the final mortgage payment on their home.
Many of us offer our best energy to our jobs. Layoffs shrink workforces as companies strive to stay competitive in a global marketplace. Offshoring is a fact of American business. Striving to do great work is important. Striving to live a full and complete life is more important. A job can evaporate despite years of dedicated, quality service.
For those tossed out with little more than their peel intact, there is wisdom to be found in that calloused outer coating. Leaving behind the work one once did and finding new ways to engage, sometimes for less money but greater satisfaction, can add new and interesting flavor to life.