Total Work Newsletter #13: Sickness and Church Going Still

Total Work Newsletter: How Work Took Over the World

Total Work, a term coined by the philosopher Josef Pieper, is the process by which human beings are transformed into workers as work, like a total solar eclipse symbolized in the logo above, comes to obscure all other aspects of life. In these newsletters, I document, reflect upon, and seek to understand this world historical process, one that started at least as far back as 1800 and possibly as early as 1500.

Announcements: Today I’m away at a zazenkai, a one-day meditation retreat in the Zen tradition. I look forward to receiving your emails and to answering them when I get back.

Soul-Crushing Meeting by, You Know, Fisher-Price

#1: Hermann Hesse on Little Joys, Breaking the Trance of Busyness, and the Most Important Habit for Living with Presence | 10 min. | Brain Pickings | Personal Essay

Brain Pickings Opening: “The high value put upon every minute of time, the idea of hurry-hurry as the most important objective of living, is unquestionably the most dangerous enemy of joy.”

#2: Out of Hours Working Banned by German labour ministry | 2 min. | Telegraph | News HT Pete Sims

Telegraph Sum: “Germany’s employment ministry has banned its managers from calling or emailing staff out of hours except in emergencies, under new guidelines intended to prevent employees from burning out.”


I’ve heard from some conversation partners with whom I speak that garden-variety sickness, for them, isn’t so bad. Sure, there’s the physical pain to deal with. Also, the reminder of mortality. Yet there’s also the chance to exit total work’s regime of busyness and, in consequence, to really feel time slow down and, with it, the apprehension of natural beauty hitherto unnoticed as well as the natal willingness to listen to others whose voices become sweeter and more musical perhaps owing to the sweetness of the languid one lying supine. Sickness, accordingly, may be a reacquaintance with taking one’s time, with perhaps even the merest touch of eternity, and convalescence may come as a godsend. Then too–why not?–could the body’s languor, its achy fatigue lead one to think earnestly of the deep possibility that one is, in an ultimate sense I mean, not one’s body?… The melancholy and the reverie may melt into one another, into the scene, thence into Life.

#3: Ask Polly: ‘My Job Is Making Me Sick and Miserable!’ | 5 min. | The Cut | Letter HT Paul Millerd

The Cut Sum: “The Cut’s advice columnist, Heather Havrilesky, addresses a reader who feels like a failure at her miserable job.” The letter is quite interesting, the advice written by Polly not very.

#4: More than 80 Percent of Women in Tech Say They Feel Pressure to Return Early from Parental Leave 2 min. | Recode | News

Recode Sum: “Nearly a third worry about losing their jobs, according to a new report from Indeed.”

All Moved, and Moved Us

Samuel Beckett, Krapp’s Last Tape (1958):

We drifted in among the flags and stuck. The way they went down, sighing, before the stem! (Pause.) I lay down across her with my face in her breasts and my hand on her. We lay there without moving. But under us all moved, and moved us, gently, up and down, and from side to side.

#5: AI 'Poses Less Risk to Jobs than Feared' says OECD 5 min. | BBC | Analysis HT Erlend Klette

BBC Sum: “Far fewer jobs are at high risk of being lost than had previously been claimed, says an OECD study.”

Don't Wish for It...

As seen by Alexandra Taggart

Church Going Still, As It Were

In early March, one reader of this newsletter wrote to ask whether I could offer “some practical advice on how​ to… find the stillness within the stillness.” This is a revised version of the letter I sent him. [1]

* * *

1. Preliminary Exercise.– Look very closely at whatever distracts you, whatever “hijacks” your attention. In the last issue, I spoke of deleting Facebook, of downgrading to a dumb phone, and of putting a sign on any remaining electronic device: “Do not open without attention.”

This is only a start. Keep looking: where does your attention go when you’re bored, tired, or, above all, restless? The Desert Father Evagrius spoke of “demons,” of thought patterns that turn our attention away from that stillness, the stillness of Being.

Next, proceed to the ways in which total work commonly manifests itself in our everyday actions and thoughts. Which is to say: to Exercise #2.

2. The Useful, the Necessary, the Expedient, and the Urgent.– Look at your life and see how the useful (I’ll do what’s useful or what has utility or what pays off), the necessary (I’ll do what needs to be done), the expedient (I’ll do what’s more efficient), and the urgent (I’ll do this now) have all vied for your commitments. Observe how the question, “What shall I do next?,” harasses you, nags at you, tugs you into the future. I would argue that none of these are all that important. In fact, they are all forms of enslavement. Aristotle held that the “liberal arts” trained us to love what’s free, for it was slaves whose fates were governed by the useful and the necessary. In Exercise #2, we create space within ourselves so that we can receive what’s more, other, and greater.

Exercises #1 and #2 are preparatory exercises. Without attention that can tarry and linger with what is, there can be no perception of greater, abiding reality. Without “space” within ourselves, there can be no availability to abiding reality.

Now onto Exercise #3.

3. Available Forms of Contemplation in the Modern World.– I believe that these are the four forms of contemplation available to us today: love, art, philosophy, and religion or spirituality.

  • Of love: you can love a single being or you can show agape love for all beings.

  • Of art: you can cultivate an aesthetic sensibility concerned with what uplifts the spirit.

  • Of philosophy: you can start asking the most basic questions of human existence and seeking to answer them.

  • Of religion or spirituality: you can open yourself up to the possibility that reality is vaster and more mysterious than what strict materialist atheists aver.

How? For example,

  • By being open to falling in love with someone. Or by acting charitably (agape).

  • By training your attention to linger on the beautiful. “Beauty itself,” Byung-Chul Han writes, “actually invites us to linger; it is the will [i.e., that which guides our actions] which stands in the way of contemplative lingering” (Saving Beauty, p. 67). Go out into the fields or go up onto a mountain and linger there. Or go into a museum and linger.

  • By asking: “Who, really, am I? Why, ultimately, am I here? What, in the final analysis, is all this about?” Write out your answers. Discuss them with others. Hold the questions in mind throughout the day. Treat them like koans. Philosophy is born of wonderment and takes flight from there.

  • By going to a place of practice (e.g., a Buddhist sangha) or, e.g., to a Catholic church in the middle of the day. I love going to a Catholic church when mass is not being held and just sitting there. I believe that Philip Larkin was mostly wrong when the poetic speaker implied that churches (save for being houses of seriousness) would lose their meaning entirely as they ceased to be frequented. Pace the spirit of secularism, I think we desperately need sacred spaces where the profane cannot enter in and where, as witnesses, we find our home in silence that doesn’t, because cannot, speak.

End Notes

[1] My title is an allusion to Philip Larkin’s “Church Going,” a poem I love heartily and disagree with wholeheartedly.

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Comments, Suggestions, Articles on Total Work?

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