I had just run in for a late afternoon cup of coffee. I stayed to listen -- and learn.
It seemed an unlikely group for a conversation: two Chicago cops, one black, one white, older, evidence of too many coffee and doughnut stops over the years; a tree trimmer, middle-aged, covered with saw dust; a teenage girl, punk haircut and dress, full of energy.
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"When I get older, I'm going to marry a rich guy and take it easy!" she proclaimed. "No work for me."
"That's what you say now, but wait, you'll see," the tree trimmer said, glancing over the rim of his coffee cup.
I noticed most of his teeth were missing -- disease, too many fights, or a stray tree limb -- I couldn't tell.
"No, I mean it. Why work like you guys?"
"We were made to work. That's how God built us," one of the cops said.
"Work is part of life; it's part of what keeps you going. It gives you a reason to live."
Now we were getting down right existential.
"Work? You gotta be kidding. Not me. I'll take play any day." The teenager was not about to give in on this one.
"Just wait," the other cop said. "We all feel that way when we're your age. Play is great, but it just isn't enough."
I left shaking my head in amazement. Who said philosophy is dead?
I'm not sure I can say it any better than our doughnut shop pundits, but I do want to expand on their comments a bit. I think there is a great deal of wisdom in their words, and some truth about human nature, which we all need to be reminded of every now and then.
Freud, one of the grandfathers of modern psychology, suggested that among the basic needs of humankind are love and work. Though I am not into Freud all that much, that is one insight that most of his successors in my discipline have confirmed.
We all have within us the desire to be in long-term, intimate relationships and to be involved in a vocation in which we are competent and productive. When met, both of these needs give focus, direction, meaning and fulfillment to life.
I would actually add to Freud's list. As our teenage debater noted, play is an important part of life as well. And we also need to pay attention to our physical, rational, social and spiritual selves.
Yet work is one of the most important parts of life. From child rearing to walking on the moon (which may have more in common than is first apparent), from janitor to chief executive officer -- we all need work.
And it is not just a matter of putting bread on the table. How often do we read about the instant millionaires who wind up never leaving their jobs, or return to them, or involve themselves in some sort of volunteer effort?
Nor is our need for work limited to our "younger years." Look at the number of older people who continue to do some sort of work. And remember all the stories of people who retire to the golf course and get bored, depressed, ill, or even drop dead because they feel useless unneeded, unwanted.
Sure, we can, and often do, go overboard. Work can become too big a part of our lives. Workaholics pay a heavy price for letting their lives get so out of balance.
But we can also get too caught up in our need for relationships, or in our intellectual pursuits, or our physical selves, and so on. The key seems to be balance, keeping things in perspective.
Work, though, is part of that perspective. And if we find ourselves caught in a job that does not add to our sense of satisfaction, fulfillment, or meaning, then we need to do one of two things.
First, we may be able to find such satisfaction in our job if we look for it. I really do know people who have what would seem to be very repetitive, boring, menial jobs who make a point to take pride in their work and in themselves.
On the other hand, we may need to change our work to find what we need. Certainly all change is risky. And changing jobs, or retraining for a different field, or going out on our own will always involve some element of risk. But in the long run, not taking the risk of finding meaningful work may be even worse.
Work is part of who we are. And it needs to be a positive part. If your job is not something that you can feel good about, you probably want to ask yourself some questions about it.
You might even start with a cup of coffee and a doughnut. It seems to help.
• Dr. Ken Potts is on the staff of Samaritan Counseling Center in Naperville and Downers Grove. He is the author of "Mix Don't Blend, A Guide to Dating, Engagement and Remarriage With Children."