work: the verb

Last week I mentioned a book I’ve been reading, David Whyte’s “Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity,”¬†and I’ve loved the experience enough to dedicate my blog’s first series to it; this October’s Sundays shall be dedicated to my (and Whyte’s) ideas about work.

I want to explore this topic for four weeks because it’s my current obsession, and it touches everyone, absolutely every single one of us. And no, I’m not just talking about my new job; I’ve been working in one way or another for most of my life. So have you. ‘How?’ you ask. It began when you were very small, failing to push the round peg through the square opening, working to find a solution, and guess what? It never ends, for the rest of your life, until the day you die. And why? Why endlessly work? For money? For status? For independence? For knowledge? Because we are expected to? Most likely you work for all of these reasons and many more. And most likely, you tend not to think about it, you just do, because it doesn’t seem correct not to do now, does it?

Before I cause any further confusion, let’s start this off right with the first quote I tagged in “Crossing the Unknown Sea”:

“There is no hiding from work in one form or another. Through the great sky of our endeavors we live our lives, growing we hope, through its seasons toward some kind of greater perspective … [Work, then,] is achieved through a lifelong pilgrimage.”

‘Wait a minute,’ you’re probably thinking. ‘Work is just something I go to and get away from. Work can’t be lifelong, because it begins and ends everyday, and it leads to retirement.’

A lot of people think of work this way, and a lot of people are unhappy with their life’s work. Let’s take the discussion back to the small child playing with blocks. ‘Playing?’ you think. ‘I thought you said s/he was “working toward a solution”?’ Ah, you caught me, you caught me bringing the two “opposites” together: work and play. Why would I do that?

Well, ultimately I do that because they belong together. You, as a child, playing at blocks without ever realizing how truly hard you were working to gain a greater perspective of the world around you. Yes, you worked while playing at blocks to learn many things: that the world does not bend to your will, that applying more force or pressure is not always the answer, that the game (and life) has rules, that sometimes the game (and life) won’t come with instructions, that to get what you want, you might have to do something differently.

Let’s take another look at that quote.

“There is no hiding from work in one form or another. Through the great sky of our endeavors we live our lives, growing we hope, through its seasons toward some kind of greater perspective … [Work, then,] is achieved through a lifelong pilgrimage.”

So, what IS work? Many people would say it’s what you do. Picture a slightly awkward social event, and what’s the first question the disinterested stranger asks you? So, what do you do? Instead of answering truthfully, we answer generally (“in an IT firm”, “with an insurance company”, “in the education field”), tending to avoid the verb of the matter entirely.

And what is the verb of the matter? To answer that we must solve the problem of work, the noun.

Work, the noun: Work is not just the job you’ve got. You can have a job and actually do very little work there. You can have a job where you legitimately work, but it does not work FOR YOU. You can be jobless and still wake up everyday to work toward meeting the goals you’ve set for yourself. Yes, you can do true work at a job or in your career or in the classroom, but they are not synonymous. Why? Because the best kind of work is a verb! A…

Productive, perspective-giving verb: work is a series of tough, wonderful, inspiring, rewarding actions that last a lifetime and use your specific talents to give back to the world in a positive way. In this way, the verb work is:

“the arrival in an outer form of something intensely inner and personal … a bridge between the public and the private, a bridge of experience which can be an agony and an ecstasy to cross” (Whyte)

A life-long pilgrimage moving through the seasons toward a greater perspective.

I feel like that curious child in my new job working at an insurance company, critically examining the blocks and their purposes in my training program, gaining the knowledge I’ll need to truly help people get back on their feet again after the unexpected. I will bring my own voice to this process just as I have brought my own voice to this blog, sharing intensely personal views with the Internet in an effort to gain understanding while disseminating it.

I work toward a greater perspective everyday, and when the sun sets on these days I feel productive, accomplished, useful, and happy for the way I am working through my life.

Next week will bring more words to this discussion, but I’d like to hear what you think. What has work meant to your life thus-far, and what do you want it to mean for your future?

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