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Work, among all its abstracts, is actually intimacy, the place where the self meets the world. Work is intimacy and discovery even through the boredom, even through the imprisoning necessities of toiling for another, even through the traumas of rejection and dissatisfaction, even through being badly recompensed. Distance and dissatisfaction in our wok is only the inverse measure and mirrored representation of the ancient and heartfelt human need to be needed, to be see, to give something to another, to come alive through our contribution to the visible world, through finding something interesting in our work, something a little more rewarding, a little more satisfying, and perhaps even intriguing and mysterious, and something especially, we want to make somehow completely our own, whether we work for ourself or for another.
The essence of work after providing for our simple survival is an intimacy between two seemingly opposing poles: an interior closeness to a deep foundational self attempting to make its way in the world, and the felt longing for some recognized far horizon in our endeavors: the ability to sustain an alchemical, almost lover like relationship that touches both the mystery of the present and the longed for future to which the work leads us; the essence of work lies in the practiced, imaginative love of this far horizon combined with the ability to stay alert to the practicalities of the here and the now, including especially, the physically felt, close-in invitations that first draw us, sometimes helplessly, to our calling.
Work is freighted with difficulty and possibility of visible failure, failure to provide, to succeed, to make a difference, to be seen and to be seen to be seen. Work is robust vulnerability, and a good part of the time, a journey leading us through very unbeautiful private and public humiliations. We find the core essence of work, firstly through its fear-filled imagining, secondly, in the long necessary humiliations of refusal, courtship and apprenticeship, thirdly in the skill and craft we learn by doing and finally in the harvest of its gifting and then, the surprising ways it is both received and rejected by the world and then given back to us. Profit, recognition, wealth: these all seem to be beautiful by-products only when they come as the children of this falling in love, this patient courtship; this falling down and getting up, this learning to live with and this long careful parenting of our work.
Work is the inside made into the outside. Like a real marriage or relationship, the outer forms of togetherness seem to have life and vitality only when the mystery and intimacy of the connection is kept alive in the physical here and the physical now; in the way our hands touch another or touch our work. We stay alive and our work stays alive, through the willingness to remain the life-long apprentice, through the humiliations and abasement of the lover, through the care and confident abilities learned and then applied to the materials and conversations that make an everyday marriage and an everyday work real, and especially in the heart break and the satisfactions of the parent, watching those imaginings go out into the world.
To reduce work in our societal imagination merely to competition, and to the act of beating the competition, is to condemn our societies, our communities and our individual lives to imaginative poverty of the very worst kind. In the real world it is also an isolating approach that closes off the possibilities of cooperation and conversation across scientific boundaries and artful borders. In the mystery of real contact and of real creativity, as in the lover’s embrace, there is no abstract other and no competition. With the right work, the right relationship to that work and the mystery of what is continually being revealed to us through our endeavors, we find a home in the world that eventually does not need debilitating stress, does not need our exhausted will and does not need enormous amounts of outside energy constantly fed in to sustain it.
We make what we make, we give a gift, not only through what we make or do, but in the way we feel as we do, and even, in the way others witness us in our feeling and doing, giving to them as they give to us, as fellow lovers, fellow struggling marriages: with a person, with a work, with a craft, attempting to keep the conversation alive with the core mystery of what makes us make; a gift that is twice given, physically in the present and imaginatively in the future; a work and an identity that holds both together, not only for an end, but for every step that shapes an onward way.
© David Whyte: March 2014: Excerpted from 'WORK' From David Whyte's book of essays CONSOLATIONS: The Solace, nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words.