Monday, April 28, 2014

On the Horrors of Ecclesiastes

What follows was originally intended to be the companion essay to an earlier post (see On the Concept of Expertise).  You should probably not read this article if you are fresh out of school and just beginning your career—you need to stay energetic and focused on your goals!  The future, your future, is ahead of you. 

Of course, a powerful antidote to an idolatrous zeal for work and career—forgivable in the young—can be found in certain books of the Old Testament.  For example, there is nothing quite as effective as a passage or two out of the book of Ecclesiastes for taking the wind out of one’s sails:

“For a man may do his work with wisdom, knowledge and skill, and then he must leave all he owns to someone who has not worked for it…What does a man get for all the toil and anxious striving with which he labors under the sun?  All his days his work is pain and grief; even at night his mind does not rest.  This too is meaningless.”—Ecclesiastes 2:21-23

(And this is a much abridged version of the section.)

Often there is an imperfect fit between an individual and his or her work.  Either the boss is a jerk, or the employee is, or the issue, whatever it may be, lies somewhere in between.  That ‘hell is other people’ as Sartre has suggested, seems easily demonstrated, at least in the office. Work, though full of the potential to achieve a meaningful good in the world, is often frustrating and dismaying.  Employees often experience a huge distance between what is the ideal, and what is the actual result of their daily work.  Which distance requires considerable irony and cynicism to cross.  Perhaps a cynical joke or two banishes whimpering, at least for awhile.

Many of us who began our careers in the mid to late eighties were comforted by the work of a renowned expert in mythology and comparative religion, Joseph Campbell.  In his famous The Power of Myth (1988) and in other books, Campbell encouraged readers to follow their “bliss”, to do those activities which, when completed, left people themselves with an experience of psychological and spiritual completeness.  Though never precisely defining what he meant by bliss, Campbell compared it to being at the hub of the “wheel of fortune”, and not on the rim where one may be carried up or down by success or misfortune.  He suggested that “invisible hands” guide the individual and support him or her while they are focused on the unique tasks that bring about a feeling of bliss.

Being able to discern these tasks, which amount to doing what your really want to do in life and what you are uniquely developed to do, is an intuitive process.  Life provides experiences that allow the perceptive among us to determine out of the universe of occupations and pastimes those which lead to bliss.  Not only that, but engaging in these unique activities creates an altered state of consciousness:  concentration is empowered, the awareness of time fades away, and the person experiences great energy and clarity of thought.  There is a feeling of oneness when the individual and the activity merge, producing a kind of holiness because of the rightness of fit.  An echo of this experience may be found in the notion of a special or religious calling, as well as in Maslow’s principle of self-actualization and the Jungian notion of a “transcendent function”.

But anything approaching “bliss” is difficult to pull off in the average office.  It may be impossible in the cubicles where 60% of us office workers are employed.  So the rest of us must somehow muddle through, living our work lives of quiet desperation instead of collectively following our bliss.  (By the way, an excellent history and sociology of cubicle life is Nikil Saval’s book Cubed, published this year.)   On the other hand, who will make the coffee, sweep the floor, wash the dishes, and deliver the pizzas—if everyone is off following their bliss?  So it seems that socio-economic status has an impact on the hope for self-actualization, at least in the world of work, as it has for centuries.

It seems that the ultimate oppression, in terms of economics, politics, religion and social expectations, lies in preventing individuals from becoming whole—becoming their truer selves.  In the end, this is what evil is: the lack of goodness, of unity, of wholeness, that might otherwise have been in the world, and in the individual life.  And the lack of time in which to pursue this.   

The first book of the Bible is not comforting either about the potential of finding fulfilling, self-actualizing work:

“Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life.  It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field.  By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.”—Genesis 3: 17-19


And yet, Ecclesiastes, “the Teacher”, could at least offer this:

“A man can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work.  This, too, I see is from the hand of God, for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment?”  (2: 24-25)

And this:

“Sow your seed in the morning, and at evening let not your hands be idle, for you do not know which will succeed, whether this or that, or whether both will do equally well.”  (11: 6)

And finally:

“Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come and the years approach when you will say, ‘I find no pleasure in them…” (12:1)

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