Celebrating Work

Several days ago I visited a 90 year old friend who is suffering from cancer and a stroke.  As I entered his room, he was sitting in a wheel chair, a frozen and, to my mind, horrified look on his face.  After saying hi and kissing him, I asked:

“You’re not reading are you?”

“No.”

“What are you doing?”

“Thinking.”

“About what?”

“Chapter 15.”  It was the chapter he had been working on before the stroke.

I thought the exchange captured the essence of Daniel’s life.  As social and charismatic as he has been, his primary focus is always on his work.  It has occupied and nurtured him, bringing him equal measures of challenge, comfort, passion, and just plain engagement. He is an unapologetic working man, dedicated to his craft and, no matter how others judge him, content with his lot.

I have another friend, named Rebecca, who is consistently animated by working.  A few years ago she left her secure university position and simply continued her research and writing—minus the committees and the departmental squabbles.  When she isn’t absorbed in her writing, Rebecca gardens, which she does with much the same seriousness and total engagement that she brings to her research.  Gardening is work for her, and that’s a very good thing.  Rebecca tells me that she’s always been this way and sees no reason her focus on work should ever end.

I think that work has gotten a bad rap in our culture.  When we picture very hard workers, we imagine “workaholics,” people who are addicted, people who can’t help what they do, people who avoid family and friends.  They are said to be limited, stunted. Their husbands and wives often feel abandoned and comfort themselves by making fun of their “obsessed” spouses.  Listeners sympathize.  They understand how much the “workaholic” is missing in life.

Long ago, Sigmund Freud insisted that love and work were the cornerstones of the good life.  Without one or both, we would be alienated from our basic needs and drives.  Work, itself, isn’t a problem.  It’s when we work long hours in ways that fail to engage us.  Karl Marx called this “alienated labor,”  that is work that without meaning, which distances us from our true selves.  Many of us, for instance, work long hours without relish because we fear being fired or worry about failure and humiliation.

At this point, you might want to make a class distinction.  To be sure, many millions of people work under terrible conditions, seeking only the means of food and shelter; and  they would avoid this kind of work if they could.  It would be arrogant and misguided to speak for them.  But move just a rung or two up the economic ladder and there’s a difference.  Farmers traditionally hold fast to their work, with all of its vast variety.  We all know plumbers, carpenters, and mechanics who find their work sustaining.  The appliance repairman, who came to fix our stove a couple of weeks ago agreed:  “I was just on vacation for a week, sitting around.  I couldn’t wait to get back to work.  I love fixing things.”  Today, my barber, unbidden, went on and on about how much she loves her work.  “How about your colleagues,”  I asked.  “Most of them do, too, she responded.  “It’s just a great way to spend our time.”

I think that work has gotten a particularly bad rap for retired people.  The objection to work follows two lines of reasoning.  First, those who continue working demonstrate the workaholic gene—or germ.  They are addicts who can’t make a ‘healthy’ shift.  Second, retirees who continue to work are actually resisting rest, relaxation, and freedom because their identity is so completely wrapped up in their professional roles.

Yet all the people that I know who are of retirement age and still working, either in old jobs or new engagements, seem particularly pleased with their lives.

Lately, I’ve been reading a memoir by the poet, Donald Hall, age 89, and still working with energy and pleasure.  The book is called Life Work.  In part, the book is an homage to the farmer’s life lived by his grandparents.  He is at pains to show us how his life as a poet is not so different.

Years ago, Hall quit a tenured and well paid professorship at the University of Michigan to move to his ancestral home in rural New Hampshire.  He had liked teaching well enough but it took him from his greater love, writing.  The transition represented risks.  How would he support himself?  How would he respond to the isolation of small town life?  But the promise was greater than the risk: to spend hour after hour totally absorbed in his writing.  Absorption, energy, and enthusiasm are his measures of the good life.  Each morning, as he awakens, for instance, he can’t wait to get lost in his writing.  He will be hardly aware of the passing hours.  That is the sign of success.

Hall works in a state of he calls “absorbedness,” which is a close cousin to Csikszentmihalyi’s notion of “flow.”  Flow is achieved when you are totally focused on a task, usually a task that requires you to extend yourself beyond your regular capacity.  The activity demands your full attention.  There are no distractions, no thoughts of what else you might do, what you might have done, what you should be doing.  Your mind is quiet.

Hall summarizes this state of mind in describing his wife, Jane Kenyon, a fellow poet.  “Her garden,” he tells us, “is work because it is a devotion undertaken with passion and conviction; because it absorbs her; because it is a task or unrelenting quest which cannot be satisfied.”

I have friends whose engagement with work echoes and amplifies Hall’s commitment.  One friend, a highly successful doctor and hospital administrator, retired early, partly because of the anxiety of so much responsibility, partly because of the constant static in his mind.  At first, Stephen simply relaxed, read, ran, saw friends—and distanced himself from responsibility.  Within a few years, though, he began to organize his reading, then to write and publish it in increasing profusion.

By my lights, he is back to work–without the anxiety that had plagued him for years.  Why?  I think it’s because the new work has been so freely chosen that he is not distracted by thoughts of failure, particularly thoughts of failing others.  Stephen seems to have found a late life calling.  A calling is a sense that the work almost chooses you; and when you are free to accept, even embrace the call, your mind is quiet.

I have another friend, Manny, who for more than 40 years, helped to build and manage a school for highly troubled children. It was good work that, for six or seven hours each day, fully occupied his attention.  In retirement, he has been able to extend the disciplines—Tai Chi, Meditation, prayer, exercise—that have been his passion for 50 years.  Now he pursues them for many hours each day, unencumbered by the boundaries of family and occupational life.  You might say that he has continued to work.  But this might be even more fulfilling.  Unlike the work he had done with the school, he is not pulled and tugged in many directions.  He is like the Zen Roshi:  When he eats an apple, his disciple tells us, he is only eating an apple.

My friend, Gary, was a businessman, who had his successes and failures, but labored in for decades but without fulfillment.  He was rarely able to bring the best of himself to the job.  He was often aggravated and anxious, and rarely at peace.  Retirement brought relief.  For a while Gary luxuriated in the freedom from work.  But with time, freedom from is being replaced with freedom to pursue his true love, music.  It is there that he can immerse himself and lose himself, or, in Hall’s terms, where he achieves a state of “absorbedness.”  Yes, Gary is retired, but he’s also working again, and that feels sweet this time around.

I know that my homage to work fails the subtlety test. I’m such an advocate.  But I really do think that work has gotten a bad name, especially for retired people, who are supposed to take advantage of the freedom they have earned.  They have, indeed, earned the right to relax, to putter—and, if they have the resources, to work as much or as little as they choose.  They are also free to work and work hard, which I am convinced is good for the soul.

Committed and absorbing work feels good, period, and when conducted in the service of a good cause, it feels even better.  Work is best when it is freely chosen and highly challenging, and even better when it feels like a calling.  When optimally engaging, work displaces the internal chatter and judgment about how much better a person you should or could be.  It quiets the mind.  Productivity and a quiet mind.  That works for me.

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Wisdom and Me

I have always wanted to be wise.  So far, I’ve not reached wisdom’s shores but, on occasion, I’ve come close enough to make some reasonable guesses about the terrain.  Since my understanding keeps changing, decade by decade, let me begin by trying to articulate my current view.  Wisdom is the ability to make sense of experience and to make sound judgments based on that understanding.  It is the attainment of a peaceful inner life, far removed from petty concerns and injuries.  And it is the feeling of being connected with all living things and calmed by the loss of a bounded individual self.

As a boy I wanted to be wise because it meant that people might take me seriously, even ask my opinion about important matters.  At age eleven I wandered into a synagogue, not sure what I was after but drawn by the sound and feel of the chanting and the serious ways of the men.  I found moments of peace but none of the deeper meaning and spiritual rewards I had sought.

As a teenager, I began to think of wisdom as a way to rise above the fray.  Those were years of great sensitivity.  I was easily hurt, and finding a refuge from emotional injury had great appeal.  At Harvard, I came upon William Butler Yeats poem, Lapis Lazuli, which described three wise men upon a mountain top “whose ancient, glittering eyes were gay.” This was a metaphor that carried me for some time.  It was secular enough to allay my dislike of religion and romantic enough to soothe my adolescent soul.

I had grown up idealizing the life of left wing intellectuals, preferably those who wore  berets, lived on the New York West Side, published in the Paris Review, and argued passionately with close friends late into the night.  I now recognize the imagery for what it was: the dream of being a learned man, a secular version of the life led by my many rabbinic ancestors.  And, throughout my life, I’ve never strayed very far from this idea.  I earned my badge with a Harvard PhD in intellectual history and continue to read books on history and philosophy.  Maybe this was to be my path.

Before I completed my PhD, though, my mother’s voice began to demand more room in my mind.  Hers was the voice of action.  To continue the Jewish theme, she was suspicious of mere thinkers and believed in justice, tikun olam, for which you must change the world.  So I left graduate school to work at the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, helping to write legislation and organize politicians in support of criminal and housing justice.  These were holy grounds, an expression of wisdom, I could believe in.

Then crises struck, one after another. The year was 1971. My father, with whom I had been deeply identified, died suddenly from pancreatic cancer.  My wife and I divorced.  I had a baby to care for, mostly by myself, since my now ex-wife wasn’t so inclined.  I fled the halls of academe, which then seemed self-indulgent and shallow.  My mind entered a state of painful chaos.  I craved any kind of action that would release me from my bleak and obsessive thinking.  I was lost, heart and mind thrown open in search of answers.

If ever I was ready for salvation and a guru to lead me there, this was the time.  But even in the midst of crisis, that was not my way.  Instead, I entered the spiritual pathways as an interested but skeptical onlooker.  I met people who were determinedly marching on the path towards enlightenment.  With them, I read Alan Watts and D.T. Suzuki on Zen, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche on Tibetan Buddhism, and the wonderful Carlos Castaneda series about the mysterious Southwestern teacher, Don Juan.  I heard Baba Ram Das hold forth and attended three-day retreats at Sufi camps.

The secular commune that I founded, much to my surprise and chagrin, was rapidly transformed by my then girlfriend, Barbara-turned-Saphira–into a Sufi community.  We filled up with young and wide-eyed devotees.  Saphira thrived and I began to drown in their sincerity.  We were often visited by the international leader of the sect, Pir Vilyat Inayit Khan, who would spend the night.  I liked him and I believed that he had things to teach me but, as was my wont, I held back from devotion.  I could not dance myself into the frenzy of Sufi wisdom.

Over the next decades, I continued to read in the fields of mysticism, Buddhism, general spirituality, and transformational psychology, but I never found a particular teacher to follow.  Each time I’d come close, my independent or, some would say, my counter-dependent spirit would rear up.  But it didn’t stop my pursuit of wisdom.  I have continued to meditate for over forty years now—even though the meditation often becomes routine, neither inspiring nor even particularly calming.  I have continued my search for the perspective that brings calm.

The only vessel that has been carried me consistently towards wisdom’s shores has been my journal, which I have pursued more or less continuously for almost fifty years.     It’s a stream-of-consciousness process that, in itself, makes me very calm.

The thoughts, themselves, have been far less important to me than the calm and the process of discovery that the writing brings to my life. It feels like magic.  All I have to do is keep my writing hand moving until I lose an awareness of time and place.  Self consciousness flees.  I am still.  Then ideas, images, and solutions to problems begin to flow.  There are no auras or revelations that visit me.  But at the moment when I am still, I do feel like more than just myself.

As I age, Buddhism’s emphasis on the present has become more and more compelling.  For much of my life, the future was balm to my pain and anxiety.  If things weren’t good now, I could make them better in the future.  The future is quickly disappearing for me.  At any moment, I could become sick or infirm—or I could die.  Placing a bet on the future seems a bad decision.  Trying to suck the marrow of the present for all it’s worth is clearly the better choice.  My long term interest in Buddhism as a trustworthy guide to wisdom is finally the right idea at the right time.

At this point in my life, there are two seemingly conflicting ideas that are most compelling to me.  The first begins with Buddhism’s down to earth emphasis on what is right in front of you – real things, real issues, real people, real injuries and challenges, and real joy.  There is suffering throughout life, says the Buddha.  We know that there is a great deal of suffering in old age—aches and pains and, eventually, the diminishment of self.  These are real.  Running from them only makes things worse.  Facing them contains them.  The pain is just the pain and not symbolic of more and terrible experience.  By containing suffering to what it is, you leave room for other feelings, like pleasure, calm, curiosity, and joy.

The second idea concerns the impermanence of the self.  Here’s how this idea comes to me.  I might be walking, meditating, writing in my journal.  My mind is wandering.  Ideas, images, and experiences from my past come into view.  They are vivid but I know they are not exactly as they were when I first lived them.  They are just images and feelings now, not concrete experiences.  They have changed over the years with forgetfulness and with new experience.  They enter my mind also shaped by my current thoughts and needs—and by future expectations.   My mind has now stretched out from my beginnings into an indistinct future.  It has become timeless.  As I experience this timelessness, I enter a zone that feels vast, oceanic.  In that ocean, I am suddenly unattached and floating.  The sea of imagery grows quiet.  In that serene space, there is no self.  I feel conscious – so conscious — but not self-conscious.

I have no idea if this expanded sense of awareness is wisdom or just a pleasurable sensation but I’ll take it whenever it arises.