Rules of Work started out as a project of thinking about work and what it means in the wake of the economic collapse in my country – one that put me out of a regular job and set me on the path to self-employment. Like all of my web sites under many and various pseudonyms, it is also a self-authored instructional manual for my life and a personal manifesto. When I write “you must” I really mean “I must”. It’s a contemporary writing form that you find in such works as those by Chris Guillebeau (How to be Awesome, A Brief Guide to World Domination, 279 Days to Overnight Success). It is the journal of what you mean to do – what you have decided you must decide. It’s the eschatological and prophetic writing of the personality – it is one’s future outlined in the form of one’s intention. This has been a week of particular inspiration, so here are some of the principles I want to assert. Each of these is its own mini blog post, but I include them here in one, for convenience.
Reach forward instead of reaching back – prefer goals to nostalgia. I’ve spent a good chunk of my life on a quest – trying to re-acquire TV shows from my childhood, music from my youth, and to revive or relocate relationships from my early manhood. But those TV shows have lost their fascination, that music has lost its context, and the previous relationships have long since lost their substance. I was looking to consolidate and add up the parts of my past that seemed best – seemed most like bright spots – and when I had them in hand, they had crumbled like houses made of sawdust. Today I stopped in to a store that specializes in media from the old days – from Atari cartridges to movies on Betamax. Within moments, I realized I have moved on. There was absolutely nothing there that held any interest. What has changed is that I’m looking ahead. Not that I am unaffected by the past – not that it doesn’t hold agony and power – but that my aspirations are not there. Another thing that finalized this was a failed attempt to reconnect with my father. I realized this week that I had to cut my own rope and sail on, and also that I had only just now cut it by, having accepting that he was never going to do his part and cut it for me, drawing new boundaries. I have drawn and stuck to them, and stuck to them some more, and I find myself at last on the open ocean in that final arena of the past. And just as holding back had negatively affected my old outlook on my business, letting go and cutting loose has finalized a new one. It’s been a rough week but with ultimately beneficial results.
Risking a life of the imagination means shaking off a passion for safety and certainty. By “imagination” I mean not fictional or ‘unreal’ but a life that is the repository of what you’d hope for, reach for, strive for if you didn’t have anything to worry about. Have you ever asked yourself that question? What would you spend your life upon if you knew that you could not fail, knew that you would succeed in it, knew that nothing could harm you, hurt you, derail you, or destroy you. In my religious tradition, we might ask, “What would you do if you had no fear of death, nor of all its manifestations as suffering, pain, loss, and frustration?” Imagine yourself at the end of your life, standing up to accept an award for success, and having one chance to state your motto – the slogan under your identity – the “it’s the real thing” under your Coca Cola logo. What would it be? That too is this form of writing. Would your speech be: “Thank you very much. I’m glad to be here. I have always lived by one overriding principle: I have successfully evaded all the suffering I could. This is what I have achieved. I thank you for the award. I can die now, a successful and happy individual.” I’m not knocking it for someone else, truly, if that’s what they really want, more than anything – merely to avoid the risk of getting hurt. But it’s not what I want. A colleague of mine says, “People that insist that you live by that motto never do anything.” He has a point. They are not asking you to gear yourself toward doing – they’re asking you to gear toward avoiding, evading, and dodging an endless assault of life’s potential bullets. Ill health, financial ruin, people not liking you, their own disapproval… and on and on ad infinitum. That last because the possibilities for failure are all consuming and never ending. A life spent avoiding things is a life spent dedicated to things that do not exist – on making sure they never exist – a life spent making sure the monster under the bed never acquires actual substance. It is not, in fact, a life spent on bringing things into being. I know hurt very well. I’ve had many times more than my share. But I would relive every moment of it again gladly for nearly any of the moments I have now. But if I’m going to spend my life dedicated to things that do not currently exist, then I’m going to spend it on the life of my best imagination, not my worst fears. I’m going to spend it energized and enervated by desire and determination to achieve what I dream of most, not evading what haunts the nightmares of others. Again, I’m not knocking that for you, if you want it differently, but it must be our own dreams by which we live our own lives, not those of our parents, our bosses, our teachers, or anyone else. We must each be free to dream our own dreams, not lash ourselves to the mast on the dream ship of another captain. For me, I would rather spend myself running toward life than running away from death.
The only life you have is the one you are living right now – choosing the future is choosing today too. The Orthodox saint Maximos the Confessor made a philosophical and religious observation that I have found incredibly liberating and empowering as I evaluate the philosophies offered up by others. He said that hypotheticals don’t exist. Put another way, what you are afraid of that might happen to you does not occupy the reality governed by the desire you are currently working toward. The latter is real, in that it governs your life right now, and it cannot share that governance with the fearful awe of the hypothetical – it’s one or the other. To reverse this order is to live a kind of non-life governed by as yet unrealized terrors. In the Shawshank Redemption by Stephen King, character Andy Dufresne makes his escape from prison by snaking his way through the foulest imaginable sewer pipe. In an almost mysteriological expression of what redemption really is, baptismal symbolism intentionally intact, Andy ‘crawled through a river of slime and came out clean on the other side’. The question I would put to Andy is “If your life ended a moment later, would the effort, risk, and every moment of planning and execution up until then have been worth it?” I have already given you my answer and, in terms of suffering, my life for some 40 years has not been that different from his, except in the particular facts. There’s a sense in which merely living more of life in a hypothetical future is less important than living life at all. What would your answer be? In other words, if you ask yourself, “In your own judgment, which is the only one that matters, would this moment of your life have been worth how you have lived, what you have sought, and all that you have aspired to, if you knew you were about to die?” If your answer is “yes”, then I tell you that you are a success. This is the only measure, in fact, of success, because it is the only one that you can entirely and truly own. There are people who are brutally robbed of this by others. The Thai girl-child sold into sexual slavery for the pleasure of affluent foreign visitors. A host of other creatures throughout all of history. I offer them no quasi-religious positive thinking solutions that tell them that if you just have the right attitude your life is fulfilled. I offer them no merely spiritual “Heaven is all that matters” scenario. Your life matters right now, Heaven or no. But I offer no such solution, because neither I nor you can tell another what their life means. We must each answer the question ourselves. And if we have been robbed of it, and have fallen and failed, if despair and the will of others has overtaken our lives, then we may very well answer “no”. And that is truly hellish, and words won’t make it otherwise. All lives have meaning, whether or not they are fulfilled. The one question may be religious or philosophical, but the latter question is deeply personal. We may have been so blinded by others who keep us psychologically captive that we only know a world of shit with no exit at all. I lived a childhood like that. But even that past is gone, and will never exist again, and is not my life, however much I am informed by it or scarred by it. There’s no hypothetical life in the future, either, as much as I choose to direct my life forward toward my desire and not backward toward my fear. The only life I have is the one I am living at this precise moment. And I am truly grateful, because I judge it a bright and shining success. I have been permitted mastery of the moment, despite the obstacles.
Think in terms of success not of failure. I have defined success, indirectly, as a life directed toward one’s deepest desire, one’s highest hope, one’s brightest dream, and not toward one’s darkest terror. With that understanding in mind, I find that a successful life is one lived with the intention to win rather than the contemplation of losing. The “realists” will offer a toxic antidote to success. They will tell you the wise person lives a life of caution, of care, of concern for the possibility of disaster. But as a successful man, able to consider my life a “win” even if I drop dead as I write this, I can tell you that I have found quite a contrary principle to be true. A life focused on your dreams – a life of imagination and hope at the *expense* of a focus on potential disappointment and discomfort – does itself protect you from the very things others are concerned and cautious about. Let me give you an example: I do not spend much time thinking about my clients leaving me, my business going bankrupt, or getting too sick to work. A “realist” would say these are ‘healthy concerns’. I argue they are an infection upon a healthy and going concern. And I bend that meaning intentionally to make a point. When I focus on being awesome at helping my clients succeed, I find that they keep me in business. When my attention is on the delight and triumph of making my clients money, I find that I make a living. When I dedicate myself joyously and enthusiastically to what I love (which is what I choose to do for work – and if you love something, I recommend you find a way to do it for work too), I notice that I actually get healthier, that I develop a strong resistance to the things that have tended to undermine my health (fear, stress, despair), that I’m more motivated to engage in and enjoy healthier activities (like exercise and a better, less desperate diet), and finally that (financially) I’m better able to do about the only thing left that any of us can do to compensate for some kind of injury or illness (i.e. buy healthcare). Sure, my hands could fall off, and I couldn’t type. But I notice that once I accept that I will always do all I can to pursue a life of meaning and joy, I find myself far more adaptable – far more certain that I’ll always be able to pursue those things regardless of what life throws at me. A more concrete version of this: I have zero fear that I’ll ever find myself unable to start a business, precisely because I am always open to seeking meaning in anything, and then doing it as a vocational pursuit. My original maxim, folks – the primary rule of work – has always been: “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing as work.” So if my hands fall off, I’ll make videos. If I lose the power of speech, I’ll draw cartoons with my toes. If I lose those too, I’ll tap out novels in morse code for my secretary with whatever bloody stump is left. And if my brain caves in on itself, well I’ll create fabulous worlds in my own mind which is, after all, the source and repository of all the joy and meaning I can find. Whether you think the afterlife is just food for worms or what, while I live, I’ll really live, and nothing is going to take that away from me. And if it did, I’d still say it was worth it. If this moment right now is worth all my past, then it’s worth whatever the future holds as well. So why exchange an inexchangable, incomparable, irreplaceable life that’s worth having at the expense of all the bad things that have or might happen, for a life that’s actually focused on all those bad things that might happen? The notion of a “healthy fear”, friends (call it “caution” or “concern” or disguise it as whatever canard you like) is toxic. Fear is the obliteration of all that’s healthy, all that’s joyous and full of meaning – fear isn’t what leads to a successful life – fear is the antidote to life. If I let fear govern me, I’ve already given up, and all the moments ever after wouldn’t be worth living. A life focused on achieving your dreams is unburdened by a sense of defeat. In fact, most of the other successful people I admire say that a kind of “arrogance” toward danger – a heady confidence – a disbelief and scorn for the possibility (and acceptability) of failing (not setbacks, but utter and irretrievable failure) – is actually a necessary trait in success. By implication, the stubbornness to get up and go forward again, no matter what happens to you, is also a required vice. I used to run contingency scenarios in my head (what the CIA calls “games”) – what I would do if I was homeless, to proceed, to go on. Psychologists prescribe this as the antidote to fear – you think about your worst fear happening to you, then you think about what you are going to do next, and so the fear begins to lose its power over you. You can see your life beyond it – see your life in terms of your goals, your intentions, your desires – not in terms of your fears. Would that such light had governed the U.S. in the previous presidential term. Recently I heard that Jackie Onassis was asked the same question – “What would you do if you lost all your wealth?” – she answered, “I would take any job I could get, and save up $300, buy an excellent suit, and go where the rich people are.” She could lose it all – we’ve seen how economies of scale go under quite recently, if we’ve seen anything – and yet, she’s not afraid – more importantly, she’s not focused on fear – she’s looking the other way – the thing the fearmongers always tell you not to do.
Toxic attitudes are the poison potions that kill meaningful work – shun them as heresy. I don’t know how to explain all of this in a way that breaks through the conceptual barriers of those who urge a focus on safety, security, and certainty. What they offer is a life that might achieve all of those at the expense of everything else, even of truly living. I don’t know how to convey that a life focused on your heart’s desire is the safest, securest, most certain life one can live. They won’t hear it. The non-life of evading nightmares is incapable of processing the actual living of pursuing dreams. Even though if you do the latter, the other will take care of itself. What they want of you is not that you will be safe, but that you will think like they think, that you will see the world as they see it, a terrifying obstacle course where the only value you have is existence itself – the moments you can steal wherein you don’t suffer. You’ll never have enough money in the bank, never enough insurance, never enough fright to satisfy their worries, because it’s not about that – it’s about a shift in direction. You focus on dying, not living. I really believe that such a teleology, and it’s accompanying semantic, is so toxic that it can only retranslate the attempt at life, of transcending despair, into a perceived foolishness and a detachment from the world that its epistemology asserts is “real”. We do not occupy the same ‘ground’, to use the philosophical term. We cannot really argue or have a discussion about it, because we don’t really share any common assumption. As John Duns Scotus said, unless we have at least one shared premise, we cannot even really converse. A life lived obsessed with safety is a life hovering over the abyss of all possible Hells. The life we’ve been describing is that narrow path to the one and true Heaven of meaning and otherwise inexplicable joy. It is not without reason that people in my religious tradition say that we must find the thing that calls out to us to do with ourselves from the deepest part, not the surface – that ‘vocation’ that is built into our individual clockworks by whatever has created us as individuals – distinct from one another, and we must do it as our very salvation. Our work, the work that comes from the deepest part of the soul, and from the frame – the very tangible and historical character of our bodies subsisting in time, is our soteriological participation in the uncreated energies of God. It is the way in which we experience the joy and hope and faith of angels and saints. In short, what we are meant and made to do is what we are meant and made to do, and it can be enjoyed for good or distorted for evil, piloted by hope of life or scuttled by fear of death. Trying to claim the latter is the source of meaning is really our only heresy, summarizing all the others.
Work is a church. I have been casually accused of “making a religion out of work” – to which I can only reply that it was always religious. What deserves more of our fervor? What requires more of the joy of our sinews, the hope of our being, the affection of our consciences than a life dedicated to do what one’s very cells and membranes, harmonized with the intelligent perception of the soul, cry out to accomplish? And the epistemological attitude necessary to such a life is one that looks forward (eschatology) to the worth of the heart’s desire rather than backward to the nostalgia of an already spent youth, that risks the theoretical safety of avoiding hypothetical failure for the present certainty and beatific vision of a world conceived and so experienced without fear (soteriology), that dwells by intention in the incomparable worth of the present (phenomenology), and abides in the expectation of glory as one’s present assurance and purpose in living (teleology). Atheism in regard to work can only tell you what might not succeed. It cannot account for the inner force that determines otherwise while simultaneously defining its own standard for success. I have always disputed reaching for empty faith – the kind that merely builds and hopes – invests in a coffee shop in a town of twelve or opens a hair salon on the invisible hind end of a shopping center (by the dumpsters) because I just really want to run a successful organic java joint or really like thinking of myself as a famous hair stylist. Those aren’t the inner voice – they’re the denial of it – they’re the very fear we reject turned into a program of despairing refusal to apply the whole self – they are the leap of the body without the mind, or the desire without the work of the sinews. The Christ, when invited to throw himself off a cliff after a vision of achievement without religious dedication, devotion, and sacrifice said ‘You don’t dump your own involvement and let God or the forces of the universe take care of everything else.’ But in rejecting that kind of attitude, he rejected fear in kind, and so a very different understanding of faith would be articulated by one of his apostles: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for.” In other words, there’s a kind of “faith” that involves the whole self – the hopes, dreams, aspirations, intentions, desires, determination, and complete commitment of the faithful – and what you have when you invest those things is a life lived with assurance – with a kind of certainty of success that can seem counterintuitive to a vocationally atheistic denial of meaning and focus on the hypothesis of the abyss. So if that oddly less desperate freedom from doubt is what we mean by “faith”, then yeah, I think faith is essential to success – I think it’s the very sign and representation of success. And I think every day of a life lived with that kind of faith is a day worth living even if there are no more days ever again after that. Every such day is the recapitulation – the sum of all the other days that ever were or might have been – totaled as a successful life, as though all the things that have ever been or will be for you have “worked together for good”, despite what they might have meant individually and taken out of that perspective. My great grandfather, an agricultural man, had but one wish in his last years – to die with his hand set to the plow, so to speak. We found him at the woodpile, ax in hand. That is holy. A monk’s work is to pray endlessly for the peace of the world. A priest’s work is to serve the Incarnate God to the people. And our work, we who are neither priests nor monks, is to carry every bit of the same meaning and dedication to all the days of our lives. I hear people saying the goal is to put up with work until you can afford to just play. Religious or not, they talk of work as a curse placed upon the first man – “by the sweat of your brow, you’ll make your bread from among thorns”. That’s heresy. The goal is to find no difference between work and play. The first man was made to do one thing – “tend the garden and keep it”. It’s not work that was the failure – it was what man did to change the garden – to alter work and make it an agony. The original work, and the work many of us find in our hands today, is a church.
Venerate the evangelists, not the skeptics: A religious philosopher with whom I disagree in almost every respect was once casually asked “What would you do if you knew the world would end tomorrow?” In the supreme moment of clarity, concentrating on his work, he blurted out “I would plant a tree.” In other words, ‘I would do whatever I was going to do anyway. If not, why am I doing it at all?’ My wife, who is a hair stylist, and is one because that is the complete joy and absolute delight of her vocational life, without knowing of this account, told me today that one of her clients asked her what she would do if she knew she would die tomorrow. She answered, “I would show up for work and take hair appointments.” When I look at her, I see that rapturous grasp of work, one’s true work, the destined work of one’s hands, as a font of meaning, that abiding assurance of a life lived to its fullest because, while she is not yet entirely as famous as Tabatha Coffey (most awesome stylist on TV), she lives every day with the fearless abandonment of a caution for failure, the almost reckless attention to what it is she is doing, and the happy disposition of someone who figured out what she’d rather do than anything else and then wouldn’t let anyone talk her out of it for anything. My wife is a saint of the church of work. She’s a religious icon of the gospel of vocation. When I met my wife, I made it my mission to help her find and fulfill her vocation as the highest and best devotion I could give her as a life partner. And to witness her utterly happy, while I myself am utterly happy, each in our primary pursuits, each in how we spend the majority of our waking hours, is not only supremely gratifying, but means that neither of us is ever without an immediate example of why we bother to get out of bed in the morning. This is the way of my house, the way my household greets the day. It may hold no shine for some – it may not be what they want for themselves – but no amount of skepticism as to its reality can detract from lives lived in the continual experience of it. Real is not “realism” – real is how we are actually living. And belief, my friends, is properly that which corresponds to reality, that which is verified in the lives of the believers. Fear, by contrast, has no reality. It is the illicit preoccupation with the hypothetical. Be atheists about our belief, if you want, but denying something is not the same as that something failing to be real. Like St. Paul encountering the Messiah on the road to Damascus, I can only tell you what has happened to me and how it abides with me still and, as I believe, ever shall. Amen.
So, as I say, a fruitful week. Seven new rules of work, and no doubt more to come.