“Work is love made visible.” Kahil Gibran, The Prophet
Labor Day is like Memorial Day; in fact, I often get the names of the two confused at times. Why? Because they are still within that small group of holidays that have not been merchandised much. Although department stores advertise their Memorial Day sales and Labor Day Blow-Outs, they are merely using the dates as a window of shopping opportunity.
The only real Memorial Day purchase you might make is in a paper poppy to wear in your lapel in honor of the Fallen. And if there was a symbol for Labor Day what might that be? A lunch bucket, a time card, a freeway commuter lane, a computer?
I think work basically falls into two categories- what you do for money and what you do for love. If you’re lucky, or talented, or determined, or play your cards right, or have a very low overhead, maybe the two shall meet.
A couple hundred years ago, a person didn’t think much about what he or she wanted to be when they grew up. You pretty much did what your parents did or else apprenticed yourself to one of the local townspeople. Nowadays, a person has thousands of occupations from which to choose; so many choices, in fact, that there are guidance counselors to help you make the decision and psychological tests to tell you what you’re the best at, and salary surveys to show you where the dough is.
I was always a little envious of kids who knew what they wanted to be – the ones who had an obvious talent for art or music or the desire to be a doctor or teacher or engineer. I was still wondering what to be when I was thirty years old and had a master degree in English.
There was something in my head that said if I was “meant” to do something, if I had a talent, the direction would come effortlessly, or a voice would call out of heaven and lay a sword on my shoulder along with a mission, or there would be a knock at the door and the call to adventure would sweep me out of a hum drum existence and whisk me away. The other big scenario was that the knight would come and rescue me from said hum drum existence and together we would discover lost cities or buried treasure or create masterpieces.
When I was growing up, if women didn’t get married right away, they had a variety of choices – they could be a secretary, teacher, nurse, waitress or airline stewardess. Men could work in the mill or on the factory line, be a salesman or be a business “executive.” If you had artistic tendencies, you might consider – if you felt daring – being an art teacher in elementary school.
To be a real artist, to have your daily bread depend on your artistic ability and creativity was just as ridiculous as deciding to be a novelist or poet when you grew up. It was a chump’s choice because everybody knew that artists don’t make any money, their children starve and they live in rat-infested attics. On the other hand, when a kid talks about being a doctor, the first thing people said is “that’s at least eight years of college,” followed by “you’ll make damn good money when you’re done.”
One of the tenets of Buddhism in living the good life is to have right livelihood- that the work you pursue does no harm to others and hopefully, gives something back to life. If conscience was added into our life’s equation could we continue working for corporations who indenture third world countries or land developers who clear forests or merchant emperors who sell people what they don’t need for too much money or bankers who horde the money they have stolen?
When we think about working and jobs, we’re not able to answer the question “what do you really love to do,” because we have been conditioned not to love anything that doesn’t promise money as a return on the investment. For example, job choices and career decisions are not advertised by the amount of satisfaction they offer or the possibilities of self-discovery or self-expression. They are sold by the dollars per hour or yearly vacation time or medical benefits. What good is it to have full medical coverage when your heart breaks a little more every time you walk through the door?
The first time I watched Joseph Campbell’s series, The Power of Myth, I was very enthralled by his obvious love of what he was talking about. Often times when Bill Moyers, who was an intelligent Mr. Everyman or a Mr. Practical-Striving-for-a-Vision, would ask Campbell questions like, “What should we do? How do we know? Where should we look?” – those Zen questions that expect an inside answer from an outside source – Campbell would usually say, “Follow your bliss.”
Well, I’ll tell you, I was so removed from allowing myself to feel any kind of emotion or hope for the future, I wasn’t even sure I knew what he meant. What is bliss anyway, I wondered? And had I ever felt it? It certainly was more than satisfaction. It was different from happiness. It smacked of the spiritual. It hinted at an abandonment I rarely permitted myself to feel. And if I couldn’t even recognize what bliss was, how could I ever follow it, and if I couldn’t follow it, how could I ever be “saved?” For somehow in my mind or in my life, salvation was tied up with a commitment to work – another nebulous term.
When I was pondering these things in my late 30’s or early 40’s I tried to remember the times when I had been perhaps not blissful but a little happy. Upon reflection those times almost invariably had to do with writing or art or nature or talking one on one with another soul. I remember reading Barlett’s “Familiar Quotations” for fun and writing poems I wouldn’t show anyone and writing stories that weren’t very good and sketching out pretend business cards that said Marie Taylor, Artist & Writer. After a very long time of pondering, I discovered that those were my dreams, my wanna-be’s, my some-day-if’s.
When I think about Joseph Campbell’s advice to follow our bliss, it is not advice to do what makes us happy because happiness is a very personal emotion and what makes us blissful can be loaded with pain at first. I think what it is, is a return to being more and more of who we are, of returning to our own true nature, of being the person we were when we were three years old, only grown up now and with intelligence and experience.
I also think that when we do follow our bliss, there is never any talk of retirement or quitting. Our work is a natural part of ourselves and to stop working is to stop living. It doesn’t matter that the fruits of our work may not reach the same standards that we enjoyed in our prime, because it is journey, not the destination, that matters.
“And, pausing before one who was blind and furthermore had lost a limb, I pondered. So old, so near the grave was he, groaning like a rusty mill-wheel when he moved, and halting in his speech, for he was full of years and the light of words had grown dim for him – yet ever he was becoming more luminous, brighter, apter for the task for which he had made the barter of himself. With trembling hands he continued perfecting his fretwork, which had become for him as an elixir, ever subtler and more potent. Thus, escaping by a miracle from his gnarled old flesh, he was growing ever happier, more and more invulnerable. More and more imperishable. And, dying, knew it not, his hands being full of stars.”
Antoine de Saint-Exupery, The Wisdom of the Sands
(Speaking of work, there is a new post at http://MarieTaylorArt.wordpress.com. Stop by and sign up – if you feel so inclined. Only post every month or so. Hope to do more later.)