“The Dash” is a poem written by Linda Ellis. In 1996, an announcer read her poem aloud on a syndicated radio show. This sparked a tsunami of response to Linda on how the poem touched their lives. The continuous outpouring of gratitude and stories inspired by the poem led Linda to eventually publish her book Live Your Dash: Make Every Moment Matter. It’s sold over one million copies. It’s been widely read and quoted by many speakers and authors. It was read at Senator Bob Dole’s funeral.
On her website, Linda explains what inspired her to write The Dash, “it was during a period when I was working for the top executives of a very large and successful corporation. It was a strict company with a tense working environment. I began to watch how the priorities in many lives there had become misaligned. It seemed to me that the bosses were worrying far too much about things that were inconsequential in the scope of life.”
The first lines of The Dash describe a man giving a eulogy at a friend’s funeral. He refers to the dates on a tombstone and points out, “what matters most of all was the dash between those years.” The poem ends with these lines:
“So, when your eulogy is being read
with your life’s actions to rehash,
would you be proud of the things they say
about how you spent your dash?”
Making a Dash for It
The U.S. philosopher and poet, George Santayana, said, “There is no cure for birth and death save to enjoy the interval.” Too often, our interval can become a mad dash or even a dash for cash. We run around madly trying to do and have it all. We become human doings rather than human beings. This can create “success” needs while starving our souls. It’s easy to lose sight of what really matters. We can become truer to our ego than our soul.
Artists, writers, and performers often talk about finding their voice. Their art becomes an expression of that inner self. The people with the deepest and most meaningful lives are those who have found and used their inner voice. Their life ripples from their soul. The ancient Roman poet, Horace, poses a core being question, “Why do you hasten to remove anything which hurts your eye, while if something affects your soul you postpone the cure until next year?”
Working to Live, Or Living to Work?
Our work is a way that we can be true to our souls. Toward the end of his life, impressionistic painter Auguste Renoir had severe arthritis in his hands. But his voice wouldn’t be silenced. To continue expressing himself through his painting, he had his brushes strapped to his wrists. A friend asked why he imposed such pain and inconvenience upon himself. Without hesitation, Renoir answered, “The pain is momentary, but the art will last.”
Regardless of how humble or prestigious society may consider what we do, our work can be a key means of finding and expressing our voice. In giving a Labor Day speech just after the turn of the 20th century, the U.S. president, Theodore Roosevelt, declared, “Far and away the best prize that life offers is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.”
Our work is part of our dash. If it’s just a job that we do halfheartedly and half well, we can make ourselves miserable and silence our soul. Our inner voice develops laryngitis if we’re in a job we hate (or just tolerate) and don’t take pride in the quality and its impact.
When our work is part of a deeper life calling, we put our heart into it. Our work becomes our contribution to making our family, relationships, community, team, organization, or world better because we passed this way. That’s when our life’s dash becomes a meaningful expression of who we are.
The Meaning of Work: Job, Career, or Calling?
Any job can become a career or calling, and any career or calling can become a job. A scientist, physician, or counsellor may have initially felt called. But if he or she finds their work has become drudgery, it’s then a job.
A production worker or hospitality server may have started in a job and progressed to feel a calling to make better products, happier people, or the world a little better place.
- A means to some other end.
- Providing financial support.
- I don’t expect much else from my work.
- Often, there is little loyalty or emotional commitment (“work is a four-letter word”).
- Move on if a better job (usually more money/benefits) comes along.
- Mark achievements through income, advancements, power, or prestige.
- Usually, it involves ongoing training and development.
- Focus on a particular profession/trade/skill set.
- Often certified, licensed, or credentialed.
- “Topping out” (little further advancement) can cause a mid-life crisis or big career changes.
- A big source of personal identity.
- Fulfilling my sense of purpose and making a meaningful difference.
- Contributing to a greater good that’s bigger than me — a sense of service.
- Aligned with my values and strengths.
- Being (the real me) is more important than ‘doing’ or ‘having.’
- Following my inner voice or what I feel called to do.
- Income and advancement flow from doing what we love, not the main goals.
- Time often flies by.
In Search of It
In the movie “City Slickers,” Billy Crystal plays Mitch, a middle-aged man in crisis who has lost his direction. He and his friends go to a dude ranch to participate in a real cattle drive and search for the meaning of life.
Jack Palance plays Curly, a crusty old cowhand whose job it is to babysit the city slickers along the dusty trail. In one memorable piece of dialogue, Curly asks Mitch: “You know what the secret of life is?”
“No, what?” Mitch responds.
Curly holds up his index finger. “This.” Mitch looks confused. “Your finger?”
“One thing. Just one thing,” Curly growls. “You stick to that and everything else don’t mean sh-t.”
“That’s great,” Mitch replies, “but what’s the one thing?”
Curly smiles. “That’s what you’ve got to figure out.”
In typical movie fashion, of course, Mitch solves his problems by gaining new perspective on his life and knowing what changes he must make. He learns that “it” — the one thing — varies for each of us.
As Mitch tells one of his fellow searchers, “It’s something different for everybody. It’s whatever is the most important for you.”