Book review: The Reinvention of Work: A New Vision of Livelihood for Our Time
The Reinvention of Work: A New Vision of Livelihood for Our Time by Matthew Fox. Highly recommended.
In The Reinvention of Work, Matthew Fox brings together the work of Eastern and Western mystics, ancient, medieval, and modern, to propose a new paradigm for how we work and what we do. Citing Meister Eckhart, Thomas Aquinas, Hildegard von Bingen, the Bhagavad Gita, Tao Te Ching, Studs Terkel, Patch Adams, and progressive economists, Fox explores the concept of work and how it can be healthier physically, emotionally, and intellectually, but primarily socially, environmentally, and spiritually.
Fox believes that the Enlightenment and the industrial age have left us with a machine-centered, anthropocentric world that focuses on outer work and rewards at the cost of inner work and spirituality, and destroys rather than creates. Real wealth results from preserving the health of the planet, not in the artificiality of money or possessions. The result has been a world often at war, where the gaps between affluent and poor continue to spread, where the environmental health of non-industrialised nations is sacrificed for the comforts of the industrialised, and where the work that is available and that most people have serves machines and leaves the worker stressed, addicted to work, ill, angry and even violent, and unfulfilled intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually.
Fox cites mystics like Eckhart and Aquinas to show that they understood what is important and that they prophetically understood the traps that man is prone to fall into. He also recounts the stories of people who reinvent themselves through work, who are willing to sacrifice position and possessions to find an avocation that matters, like the man who gives up a high-paying position to become a fireman and who is ecstatic about the meaning it brings to his life.
Fox carefully sets up all that is wrong with our modern concept of work and, indeed, life, since so much of who we are, how we feel, and how we live is tied up in what we do for a living, or what we mistakenly call “work.” His proposed solutions are centered around creation spirituality, which is a “creation-centered mysticism that is also prophetic and socially transformative.” While creation spirituality is not very clearly defined here — Fox has written several other books about it and refers to them — it appears to center around the idea that creation comes from within and that we create our world, which is part of a greater, interdependent cosmos that continues to undergo creation. For Fox, “enlightenment” might mean recognising and embracing creation spirituality and our responsibility and role in the ongoing creation of the cosmos — a recognition that begins with inner work and extends outer work, and that redefines wealth and poverty. Fox is quick to point out that this is neither communism nor socialism, both of which suffer from the same destructive values as capitalism.
There are many elements involved in creation spirituality, which embraces many aspects of life that have been neglected, distorted, or abused, from education, health care, art, psychology, and sexuality to something he believes is critical yet missing or misused — ritual. In creation spirituality and the reinvention of work, properly conceived and performed ritual is meaningful, bringing people together, bringing out emotions, and acknowledging what has been done in the name of war, destruction, and hate. Ritual can also be playful and energising, for example, circle dances. Whatever the focus, ritual brings us together to share our common joys and sorrows. Ritual heals.
Mysticism appeals to me, and Fox’s assessments of what’s wrong and what could be done to change our course make sense and are supported by the quotes he provides from a broad array of sources, including psychologists, economists, writers, and artists. The consequences of not changing are clear, but it is equally clear that those consequences have not penetrated to either the masses or their leaders. (Even the rising price of gasoline in 2005 has not inspired any more than cautious apprehension.) We are like smokers who are able to quit our habit only when terminal lung cancer has been diagnosed.
To get billions of conditioned consumers (and their consumers-in-training children) to give up their increasingly complex lifestyles, comforts, and amusements in the interest of a healthier, more just world for all and for better personal mental and physical health requires a utopian change that most people will not embrace. As with the Woolgers in their book, The Goddess Within, Fox tries to find a movement in the mid-1990s that has not materialised yet. Generally, people do not choose to change; they are forced to. Perhaps someday, when the gaps have widened too far, and society and our home can no longer support our appetites (and the corresponding waste), we may be ready to listen to Fox and his adherents, at which point they will need to provide practical answers. Who will “make ritual”? Who will produce the necessities and how? Who will distribute them? How will they be paid, or what will replace a monetary/barter economy? What if there is imbalance between what people want to do and what needs to be done? In practical, everyday terms, what does the reinvention of work look like? And do I want to live long enough to experience the disasters that are likely to be required to bring it about?
Eckhart, Aquinas, von Bingen, the Bhagavad Gita, Tao Te Ching — all wise beyond their times. And beyond ours as well.
21 August 2005
Copyright © Diane L. Schirf
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