Surviving or Flourishing?
“Listen, are you breathing just a little, and calling it a life?” - Mary Oliver
Full immersion. It’s the recurring theme of Mary Oliver’s work. As a poet, she constantly invites and even provokes readers to question how fully they are engaged with their One Wild and Precious Life. If you applied her challenge to your work life, what answer would it evoke?
21 days ago I had a sabbatical from my usual routines and took part in a rewilding retreat with the tagline A chance to slow down for 20 whole days, live in a magical location and breath deeply. The respite from email, Facebook, mobile phone and computer, was a welcome break from all the surface noise. Having neglected to do a great deal of reading over the last few years, I savoured a couple of books, including Studs Terkel’s classic, Working - people talk about what they do all day and how they feel about what they do.
In an interview he held with a movie critic, she spoke of traversing a sea of unfulfilling jobs until finally landing something she loves. Reflecting on the pilgrimage she said, “I never felt they [office jobs] were demeaning, but they exhausted my energy and spirit. I think most people work at jobs that mechanize them and depersonalize them.”
One of the most poignant interviews takes place with a lady who works in a call centre. The depersonalising nature of her work infected every other area of her life. She detached from the strangers she commuted to work with and eventually became short and terse with people outside of work. Terkel summed up her despondency with a phrase from the poet, Edwin Markham. He described her as being, Dead to rapture and despair.
Another interviewee ruefully went on to say, “You become your job. I became what I did. I became cold, I became hard, I became turned off, I became numb... I don't think it's terribly different from somebody who works on the assembly line forty hours a week and comes home cut off, numb, dehumanized. People aren’t built to switch on and off like water faucets.”
Aside from becoming numb and dehumanised, others trapped in wrong vocations endured ulcers and lethargy, became embittered, drug and alcohol dependent... the litany of suffering was unending. Terkel’s overriding theme is that one pays a heavy cost in attempting to compartmentalise what they do and who they are. This notion of trying to decouple your life and its career aspect will be a major theme of our upcoming workshop.
Just as we are collectively beginning to oppose caging and inhumanely treating animals such as battery hens, it’s time we do the same with our working lives. A fellow participant on the retreat felt like she has been shackled to her computer for years. Over the 21 days of liberation from it, she recalled the enrichment once found growing up on a farm, where she was constantly moving while feeling immersed in nature and the cycles of the seasons.
Terkel’s book left me with a deep sense of gratitude in that I love what I do. It was heartening when he shared the odd interview of someone who felt ideally placed in their job. The psychotherapist Scott Peck shared how contagious is the pleasure of witnessing, “A human being doing what she or he was meant to do. We delight when we see a parent who truly loves taking care of children. There is such a sense of it. Conversely, there is always a sense of dis-ease when we see people whose work and lifestyles do not fit their vocations. It seems such a shame, a waste.”
The other book I devoured was Philippe Petit’s memoir, To Reach the Clouds: My High Wire Walk Between the Twin Towers. After Man on Wire took out an Academy Award for the documentary of his tale, The Walk, a film version of his feat, has recently been released to offer an even more visceral retelling of his story. You can accuse Philippe of being intense, manic and somewhat crazed, but it’s impossible to say that he lacks Joie de vivre. Reading of his audacious act I found myself agreeing with a reviewer’s comment which said, “By the time I came to the crossing itself, my pulse rate had accelerated perceptibly.”
And that is one of the wonderful things about witnessing a person individuate. Their example stirs something in us, forcing us to face the prospect that there too could be a seed of greatness lying dormant within us.
Among the retreat participants and others who popped in, there was the usual range of varying levels of job satisfaction, but there seemed to be a common thread in that most people were searching for greater depths. There were the youthful idealists panning for vocational gold, the game designer who has spent years working on a project, only to wonder if it was actually the best use of his time, as well as the public servant who had been decades in a safe and secure job but secretly wished for more.
Aside from learning about those seekers who were reimagining possibilities, I had the pleasure of speaking to an outlier who had not only located their career aspiration, they are currently actualising it. Grand endeavours like Philippe’s twin tower crossing leave us enthralled but they can inadvertently serve to overwhelm us with their epic scale. We forget that Philippe started small and took years to work toward his great coup.
This outlier was the creator of the retreat, Kate. Emily Dickinson once opened a poem with the line, Dare you see a Soul at the ‘White Heat’? It is a fitting description of the vitality of Kate, a young woman so open-hearted and infectiously optimistic, that she has managed to quickly draw in her surrounding community in a symbiotic manner.
In keeping with the pace of our age, Kate arrived at a quarter life crisis in her mid 20’s. Being both talented and diligent, greater job opportunities kept presenting themselves to her. Although attracted to new challenges and greater responsibility, the demeanor of her managers and executives was utterly devoid of joy. The more ‘successful’ her colleagues were, the more they carried the appearance of lions confined to zoo pens until all their regal qualities and sense of aliveness had been drained away. Rather than chase promotions and the inevitable loss of vitality that accompanied them, she conceived the idea of creating an eco-village that would act as a dream factory, giving people the space and connections that might serve as the impetus for people to conceive and chase their own dreams.
Kate has found her opportunity to individuate and the lives of all those she comes in contact with are better for it. Taking part in her retreat rekindled my long-held desire to launch a contemporary vision quest. The retreat presented a local lady with the opportunity to begin her foray into self-awareness based facilitation. Kate’s venture also served to reignite another local’s dream. He has always hoped to summon the courage to leave his 9-5 job and move onto the land, where he could become self-sufficient and offer intimate music festivals. Witnessing the shared passion and capability he and his partner possess, it is now going to be simply a matter of time until his dream becomes reality.
I’ve met many people like Kate, in the sense that they dream big. But I have also met a distinct few like Kate, in that they actually DO the hard yards to realise their dreams.
Her example reminded me of an important truth shared by Sydney photographer, stylist and writer, Pia Jane Bijkerk. Upon creating a blog which followed her international exploits doing all kinds of things that she loved, people began writing to her and expressing how much they wished they could live a life like hers. Holding a dream is one of the safest and most pleasant escapisms a person can indulge. Pursuing one’s dream, on the other hand, is arguably the most difficult, but authentic approach to life. As Pia remarked:
“A lot of people have these dreams on their shelf and they just let them sit there. I’ve never done that. I pick it up and I go with it, but it takes the fantasy out of it. The truth of achieving this dream is that it becomes your reality and that means there are all sorts of things involved in it. There are lows, there are highs. Then there are other people who just let that dream sit, they just let it sit up there and they prefer to fantasise about it. I say to these people, you have to decide whether you prefer to fantasise or whether you want to take it on. If you take it on, you have to know that it will no longer be ‘a dream’ in the sense of what a dream is. It will become your reality and it will have everything that reality has.”
If you find yourself among the ranks of people who aren’t wildly enthused about their jobs, then something needs to shift. It all starts with new thinking, which opens you up to greater possibilities. It seems that we have only 3 options available to us - 1) Stay unfulfilled and grow progressively more numb, 2) Dream of greater possibilities, but never take action which might actualise it or 3) Dream, act and remain resilient until our vision is realised.
The columnist Courtney E. Martin recently captured the stirrings within a society that has tired of simply surviving and disassociating from their lives. As she so eloquently puts it:
“Here’s my attempt at synthesizing what I see among my friends, family, colleagues, and co-housing community. We want to be paid enough to live without the specter of an empty bank account or an empty cupboard hanging over our heads. We want work that demands something of our minds and our bodies; we want to think and move. We want to feel like our gifts, whatever weird and wonderful things those might be, are put to good use (which first requires knowing what they hell they are). We want to work alongside other people who see and celebrate those gifts, people who teach us things, people who want to make cool stuff with us, people who are kind and mostly good and don’t create a lot of unnecessary drama. We want to be trusted, to know how and when and where we do our best work. We want to wake up in the morning and feel like there is a place to direct our energy and that place, while it may not define us, dignifies us.”
If you want those same things, know that you’re not alone. Are you ready to rethink your work life and recognise what a monumental bearing it has on all the other facets of your life? Consider having one of our career re-evaluation sessions to help kickstart your vocational reawakening.
As Phillipe, Pia, Kate and countless others who individuate continue to demonstrate, “One moment your life is a stone in you, and the next, a star."