Our status, our position, is not determined by the work we do outside but by the work in our hearts and how we assist others. The effort to recognize and speak the truth is the greatest work that any of us can do.Dhyani Ywanoo
We may be forced to take a job serving food at a fast-food place for $4.25 an hour in order to pay our bills, but work is something else. Work comes from inside out; work is the expression of our soul, our inner being. It is unique to the individual; it is creative. Work is an expression of the Spirit at work in the world through us. Work is that which puts us in touch with others, not so much at the level of personal interaction, but at the level of service in the community.Matthew Fox, The Reinvention of Work: A New Vision of Livelihood for Our Time
I think I’m going to like The Reinvention of Work. Like The Goddess Within by the Woolgers, it was written in another decade and predicts a movement that shows no signs of occurring today; in other words, it appears to be wishful thinking. It’s also insightful and thought provoking about why there should be such a movement and how it could benefit each of us and the community (world and local) in which we live.
In his introduction, Fox talks about “jobs” versus “work.” To put it much too simply, a job is something you have so you can pay the bills, while work is something that feeds the spirit and benefits the community.
There are two perspectives from which I see this. The first is based on a holistic wellness initiative we have undertaken at work that focuses on the six dimensions of wellness:
• Emotional • Mental • Occupational • Physical • Social • Spiritual
To be well and to live well, one needs to balance the six dimensions as much as possible. We all know someone who can run marathons and compete in triathlons but who pays no attention to their emotional or spiritual needs. Or someone who loves their job and works 70 hours a week but who is socially unfulfilled or who eats poorly and exercises little. Do we all know someone, or anyone, whose life is reasonably balanced emotionally, mentally, occupationally, physically, socially, and spiritually? Do we know someone, or many, who feels discontent about an aspect of life that they can’t identify or who is depressed, lonely, and frustrated, and unsure why?
I think that Fox would agree that part of our “inner work” is to identify the dimensions of wellness in which we are strong and those to which we need to pay more (or any) attention. This requires us to believe that whole wellness is important for more than our health and longevity. After all, many of us don’t pay attention to our health until it changes significantly. Even then, after of diagnosis of high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or diabetes, it’s a struggle to change our habits. And life expectancy is a mystery over which we have limited control. Conditions such as depression seem to play a greater role in determining life expectancy than one might assume.
No, wellness is not just about health and life span — it’s about quality of life. That means much more than staying physically healthy, maintaining a good weight, adhering to a sensible diet, making an effort to prevent disease, and the like. It means more than brushing after every meal and getting X minutes of aerobic exercise every week. It means paying attention to yourself as a whole person. If work makes us “ornery, angry, frustrated, violent, hateful, and humiliated” (Studs Terkel), then we need to reevaluate our level of occupational wellness, to “reinvent work.”
It seems to me that the occupational dimension of wellness has a disproportionate influence on the others, as work is essential to the human soul. If you are occupationally well, I imagine you are likelier to be well in most of the other dimensions.
The second perspective is based on some changes we have undergone at my own workplace to streamline work flow and improve time lines. These ends are good. Certainly, when there is a smooth process in place and it is followed, and when roles are well defined, work can be a lot less stressful. If you don’t know what’s expected of you and when, you feel lost and without purpose. You won’t know if you’re doing the right thing, how it fits in with what others are doing, or how you are being evaluated. And — this is critical — you may not even understand the purpose of your work, the proverbial “big picture.” If you don’t know that the bolts you drive into metal all day hold critical parts of the vehicle together, or even that you are part of building a vehicle, how satisfied and rewarded can you feel?
We’ve always had “tasking” meetings, during which we discuss what we are working on. I hate the name “tasking” because it metaphorically reduces our work, in Fox’s sense, to “tasks,” which to me evokes routine things that need to be done but that in and of themselves bring no joy — vacuuming, paying bills, cleaning the litter box — things that you have to do so that you can do what you really want to do, the kind of things that your parents told you that you had to before you could go outside to play. “Make your bed first” or “Help with the dishes.”
Now, there may be people who enjoy tasks, and tasks that promote a larger goal can be very fulfilling on a certain level — as long as you are conscious of the goal and your progress toward it. Clearing and cleaning a particularly cluttered space can be purifying. Vacuuming before a party may feel wonderful because you realise your guests will see a carpet and a home that suddenly looks like new. The drudgery of washing windows may be made bearable by the crispness of the view through the clean glass. Although these are tasks, they have tangible, desirable ends that feel good, once you’ve overcome the inertia to start them.
To me, however, our “tasks” don’t feel like that. Part of it is because they drag on for a long time, and during most of that time I have no control over anything that I’ve contributed. The time between the completion of my initial “task” (writing) to the final production can span several weeks, even months.
But mainly I think it’s because we’ve reduced our work, which is creative and has an end that is beneficial to our constituency, to “jobs” contained in “job jackets” that outline our “tasks.” It seems to me that the concept of the “job jacket,” which apparently comes from advertising agencies, inhibits the spiritual aspect of work.
We are handed folders with a list of assigned tasks and dates, complete our task, and pass them on to the next bee. From my perspective, it seems dehumanizing and isolating, similar to the earlier example of putting a bolt in a car part all day. It’s the white-collar version of a production line. The process itself stifles the creativity and the collaboration that most people say they crave.
Ironically, it is, at least at this point, not efficient. Deadlines are missed, and there is no one person who manages them or the projects. Rather, we have turned that function over to project management software, which is time consuming to use. Instead of utilizing our abilities and experience, along with face-to-face communications, to manage our own selves, our own time, and our own projects, we are reduced to having the people who use the software change dates and times and letting the software tell them what we should be doing, how much time we have to do it, and when it should be done.
Men were once enslaved by their animals and crops (hunting and agriculture), then by machines (industry). Now we are letting a different kind of machine make our decisions and manage our lives. How can this possibly nourish the spirit and empower the mind?
Let’s reinvent work. Let’s make it something to be cherished and enjoyed, not dreaded.