(AP/Ron Edmonds)

Work/life balance? For 82-year-old Ruth Bader Ginsburg, work and life aren't in conflict

Finding meaning in one's work is a gift -- just ask Sandra Day O'Connor, Jimmy Carter & Dmitri Hvorostovsky

Linda Hirshman
October 6, 2015 3:58PM (UTC)

When tall, silver-haired heartthrob baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky strode onto the stage of the Metropolitan Opera (last week), all action stopped.  Screaming and clapping and cheering and standing, the audience let the opera go on only after the singer broke his role, placing his hand over his heart, to acknowledge the ovation.

He was on vacation . . . from his treatments for brain cancer at a London clinic. While he waited to resume his medicine, he flew to New York to sing as many performances of Verdi's "Il Trovatore" as he could. 


At the curtain call, the orchestra threw white roses at him from the pit, and his costar Anna Netrebko sobbed audibly. There wasn't, as they say, a dry eye in the house. Including mine. 

One of the most successful and famed singers in all of opera, he certainly did not have to do it -- not for the money, not even for the fame. We clapped and we cried because we knew he was there for us. That to a great artist like Dmitri Hvorostovsky, to perform for an audience is a lot of the meaning of his life. And he was going to use what he had of life -- and I hope it is a long time -- in the way he always had, singing and acting and bringing a great and complicated role to life on the opera stage.

As I walked home after the opera, I found myself wondering if the most famous opera fan in America -- Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, aka Notorious RBG -- had been there, too. She is often seen at the opera, and I hope she was. Just as Dmitri was singing his heart out for us opera lovers, she took her place at the opening of the Court's October term. She is 82, and she doesn't need the money or the fame either. Yet nothing raises her hackles like the suggestion that it is time for her to step down from her work, as the Court's oldest Justice and often the most senior member of the liberal bloc. She is going to use what she has left of life -- and I hope it is a long time -- in the way she always has, thinking and arguing and judging and writing opinions or dissents. In recent years, she is also playing a role as an inspiration to a whole new generation of women and girls following her delicious Tumblr page on the Internet.


And it’s not just the operatically inclined who find meaning in their jobs. Retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor told the world after her bout with breast cancer that it was the work that saved her sanity. “I don’t know,” she said, “what people who don’t have a good job to go to do to cope.” When, many years later, “Happiness Project” author Gretchen Rubin asked O’Connor for her secret to happiness, she responded instantly: “Work worth doing.”

“What about relationships?” Rubin asked, thinking, “if you had to pick a single factor as the one most likely to lead to a happy life, having strong relationships would be a strong candidate.” “No,” O’Connor said. “Work worth doing, that’s all you really need.”

President Jimmy Carter, who just received an ominous cancer diagnosis, is about to leave on a business trip to Nepal! He’s going to join volunteers for Habitat for Humanity. It’s his 32nd trip.


We read a lot about “work and life” as if the two were completely divorced from each other and in constant conflict. Unsurprisingly, the work/life conflict story usually appears in articles illustrated by sad babies peeking out of women’s briefcases. Because women should see work as something divorced from real “life,” meaning, of course, babies. Even men realize how meaningless work is, we read, when they are on their deathbeds. “I never met a man on his deathbed who wished he spent more time at work,” we hear.

Well, here are people showing us something different. How, even when in their '80s or deeply threatened, they value their work and their art. How much richer we all are for their dedication. As the audience screamed until the house lights went down to drive us into the night, Bravi. Bravi.


Natalie Portman Postpones Ruth Bader Ginsburg Biopic

Linda Hirshman

Linda Hirshman is the author of “Sisters in Law: How Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg Went to the Supreme Court and Changed the World” (Harper 2015).

MORE FROM Linda Hirshman

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Aol_on Jimmy Carter Opera Ruth Bader Ginsburg Sandra Day O'connor Work

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