Total Work #52: Deconstructing Total Work And Finding The Joy Of Being


To Subscribers: The next chapter, on hunters and gatherers, should be coming your way within a couple of weeks.

To Everyone: I believe the conversation with Guy Sengstock (item #4) exhibits the essence of what I’ve been trying, flailingly, to say in writing since 2017.

And to all Patreon supporters, old and new: Very sweet of you—thank you.

Stop The Glorification of Busyness

HT Dylan Willoughby

Above All, More Than 16.8 Million Americans Suffering

#1: OUR GRAVEST ILLUSION | Philosopher Who Says Meaningful Work Is An Illusion | 10 min. | Ethical Systems | Interview

Sum: Note: See how I’ve changed the headline. It actually reads, “Philosopher-for-hire Who Says Meaningful Work Is An Illusion.” The latter is factually incorrect: I’m not actually for hire. Yet the larger point is that the Total Work thesis proves itself by virtue of the fact that in an interview on Total Work, the editor resorts to Total Work terms for the headline. Think this is an anomaly? A Guardian ran a piece in which I was interviewed. The headline? “I Think Therefore I Am.” Or how about a Forbes piece in which I was mentioned—“Why Your Board Needs a Chief Philosophy Officer.” There are other examples besides these two.

  • If you’d like to investigate the argument against the very possibility of meaningful work, then read this short blog post detailing the key difference between purpose and meaning.

  • The fundamental misinterpretations of Total Work, on behalf of the perdurance of Total Work, are spoken about in this sweet conversation with Guy Sengstock.

#2: 16.8 MILLION: Millions Filed For U.S. Unemployment | 2 min. | Reuters | News

Sum: We should be quite cautious while reading Balali S. Srinivasan’s knee-jerk entrepreneurial response. Instead, we should be morally outraged about what is happening! Our brothers and sisters—16.8 million who recently filed for unemployment; doubtless countless more who haven’t!—are suffering greatly! And we’re told, as always, to double down on a system of gainful employment.

When are we going to START THINKING??? The full employment system only takes hold, as I argued in Quartz, after World War II. Why not see what is so obvious—to wit,

  1. The job is a fairly novel conceptual invention.— In Shadow Work, the social critic and historian Ivan Illich mentions offhandedly that unemployment is a “term first introduced in 1898 to designate people without a fixed income” (16). If he’s right, it can be inferred that only around that time is “employment” or “jobbing” becoming more and more pervasive.

  2. A system of gainful employment shouldn’t be ubiquitous.— The system of gainful employment, one ideologically justified by grand-sounding terms like “careers,” “meaningful work,” and “callings,” has been ubiquitous to the point at which we have not thought about questioning. But shouldn’t we? If we did, wouldn’t we find that all sorts of experiments could arise, some of which could be far more sensible in humane? (I talk about this more in a recent blog post.)

  3. A system of gainful employment is fragile.— Obviously, if millions of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck, then this is a fragile system (in Nassim Taleb’s sense of the term).

  4. A far better starting point would be to use the neutral term livelihood.— What if the central point of a sensible, humane economy would be to enable individuals, families, and communities (e.g., intentional communities) to develop decent, reliable enough, perhaps even antifragile livelihoods?

I’m worried, on behalf of those subject to this horrible system, that we’re going to go with the “educational retraining plus job creation” playbook once again…

#3: HURRAY FOR CONTEMPLATION | Benedictine Nuns Release Gregorian Chants To Help Ease Coronavirus Isolation | 4 min. | The Guardian | News

Sum: "The Gregorian chant originated in the 8th C and spread throughout Europe. It accords to St Benedict’s ‘rule,’ in which the day is divided into balanced divisions of manual and intellectual work [sic], prayer, and rest...” That’s not quite accurate: it's manual labor and contemplation. The latter isn't work. Benedict underscored the division of the day into labor, prayer, and contemplative study. As Josef Pieper masterfully makes plain in Leisure: The Basis of Culture, “intellectual work” is an academic neologism that grossly misrepresents, while misunderstanding, the fact that intellection of any proper sort cannot be work.

The nuns’ chanting—I’ve listened to it—is very beautiful and comes, one can just feel it, from a deep, soulful place. I was especially moved by the Maundy Thursday chanting.

#4: MYSTICISM | Conversational Mysticism: Andrew Taggart And Guy Sengstock | 1 hr. 37 min. | YouTube | Dialogue

Sum: This was a very sweet conversation I had with Guy Sengstock on Friday. In fact, the perfume of chanting—to use synesthesia here—was everywhere present during and in and, yea, as the conversation. This one is for the groovier, open-hearted readers out there.

Special Note: For committed readers of this newsletter: this is the one conversation not to miss. If you only take a peak at one item in this newsletter, go with this one. (Second place would go to the Ethical Systems piece above. But it’s not even a close second.)

Deconstructing Total Work And Finding The Joy Of Being

Step 1: Leave No Stone Unturned

Simply examine every conception, every belief, and every feeling you have about the allegedly special value accorded to work and see that it—whatever it is—has no basis, no legs to stand on. Go straight to the heart of the cultural idolatry you’ve inherited. Leave no stone unturned. Don’t let the “fever” you’ve felt in connection with work or working get a free pass. Don’t let any of it get a free pass. If need be, allow yourself a cheat: proceed, provisionally, that is, on the grounds that any work whatsoever is a form of blasphemy (or, to make it simpler still, a swear word). This is nothing more than a ‘tool’ or ‘exercise’ whose point is to see more clearly and to correct a stunning error.

Step 2: Trace It Back To Its Source

Trace this idolatry of work back to your unwittingly taking your stand as the Worker. Here, see @45 min. and following in the Guy Sengstock conversation. See this with the utmost clarity: see that you’ve taken your stand as the Worker and almost everything appears in your eyes, in your thoughts, and in your actions as what is framed in terms of work and non-work. (My First Things piece on “secular monasticism” makes plain the idolatry of “working on oneself.”) If you do not trace your proclivity for restless efforting back to the Worker, then you haven’t gone nearly far enough. Linger here for as long as it takes to see the source of our illusion.

Step 3: Drop The Worker

Right now, drop the Worker entirely. Right now! Right this instant! If you need help, simply ask yourself, “If I am not the Worker, then who or what am I?” And let that question linger in the air. It will show you the way. You don’t have to do anything at all. Let the questioning be your guide.

Step 4: Limit The Understanding Of Work to Livelihood

For the next, say, 3 years and provided that you have carried on through Step 3, see working simply in terms of having a livelihood. From this vantage point,

  • Work would enable you to support yourself as well as those who depend upon you.

  • Work, ideally, would be antifragile: it wouldn’t be subject, say, to binary logic (job/jobless; etc.). Instead, while what you live on may fluctuate within certain limits, it would always be enough for you and yours. (Cf. hunters and gatherers here.)

  • You would undertake what you call work in bursts at different points of the day, but assuming you’re fortunate, the quantity would not exceed 4 hours or so.

  • The work you did would be socially beneficial: this rules out the kind of ideas, goods, and services that are actually harmful as well as those which are strictly bullshit (see, e.g., Graeber, Bullshit Jobs).

  • Above all, you would be like a Daoist sage in that you’d be able to easily pick up work, do what needed to be done, and then put it done—and forget it completely. We read in The Daodejing, “The Daoist sage creates without possessing” and then “forgets it.” Indeed, you’d be able to put it down at the drop of a hat and without resentment of any kind. This will open you up to the experience of beauty.

Step 5: A Nondual Understanding

After some years and through experience and contemplation, it may become perfectly obvious to you that, at least in a sane, humane, caring world, there would be no ontological difference between leisure (which is what enables us to apprehend Reality) and non-leisure. They would be one. A Zen master would see no difference between sweeping the zendo and painting, nor would she see as much as a hint of a difference between zazen (seated meditation) and cooking. Why? Because these activities would all be actualizations of the primal emptiness (no-thing-ness: sunyata) or, what is the same thing, the primal fullness of Being. This is why everything is so very delightfully funny to such a one who sees, and lives, this. Or—to put it in Benedictine terms—everything would be worship of the divine.

One More Thing: Find Your Sweetness!

Don’t “find your bliss!” if “finding your bliss” continues, mistakenly to be sure, to lead you to hunt for that chimera, Meaningful Work.

The good news is that you don’t have to worry about finding meaningful work because meaningful work doesn’t exist. The bad news is that you’ve been looking for years or deluding yourself into believing in a phantasm for decades. I say, “Embrace your inner Newhart and — ‘Just stop it! Stop it right now!’”

Instead, find that in your life that is sweeter than work.

To read the rest of this Medium piece, go here.

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