On the Nature of Work

A couple of months back I had this moment of epiphany, a moment of significant insight without any previous notice. They normally only happen to me when I am bleary-eyed or really jet lagged in a far from home timezone. The state of surprise they are accompanied by is pretty comparable to talking to my HGA. You never get what you expect, but are forced to completely change your level and position of perspective. Only when talking to my HGA I have come to expect the unexpected - which is not necessarily yet the case when I ride home from the airport deep at night.

I looked out of the window, saw cars and people passing, looked at their faces, how they were dressing and where they were headed and suddenly realised that I had misunderstood all of them, myself included for what they really are, all my life. There is a wonderful pragmatic quote that fits in here: 

Inspiration is for amateurs, the rest of us show up and get to work.
— Chuck Close

Yet, what I had misunderstood is what the term ‘work’ actually stands for. The Latin word ‘producere’ can be translated literally as to ‘bring forth’ or ‘draw out’.  So in my simple Western mind ‘work’ was something that flowed from the inside outwards. From intend to action and from action to result. I understood work as the process of achieving a state of change by means of applying ourselves to the world. May it be through the help of our hands, of our minds or words. Whatever interface between us and the world we choose to use, work was an active noun, the opposite of death almost, and altogether a pretty safe sign for being alive.

I also thought of the term ‘work’ as closely connected to performance and productivity. Work was the process through which things were produced - may they be intellectual or physical, creative or transactional. Work was really why we had come here in the first place. It was what filled most of God’s schedule in the week - and who were we to break away from such habit?

So what was different in this moment? In that moment, for a brief second, I looked at the people on the streets as if all of them were bow instruments that had turned deaf. There were streets full of violins, violas, cellos and contrabasses all of them busily walking around. Everyone had a slightly different form, a different colour and makeup. But what truly set them apart from each other where the sounds, the vibrations they emitted while walking. Unfortunately they had all grown deaf and couldn’t hear these sounds anymore. Neither their own nor the sounds of the others. They were like a huge concert that had turned into a cacophony because all of the instruments had forgotten why they had come here?

Now what ‘played’ these instruments were the subtle vibrations that emerged from how they and the world met each other. Think of their skins, their minds, their senses as their strings. Every touch, every sensual impulse stirred these strings and played a tone. One would have needed to put them into a completely silent and shielded room for these humans instruments not to emit a single sound. The wind from a subway exit, the exhaust of the cars, the screeching of the breaks, the voices of the other passengers, the weather everything stirred their strings and called forth notes from the resonance body that they are.

Crowley had said ‘every man and every woman is a star’. I guess that is exactly what I saw. People walking around and without their notice constantly emitting vibrations. If one closed their eyes to the human world and opened them on a higher level, all they would have seen were these randomly emitted vibrations. Set forth through the contact between each human being and the world around them. As if the light that the stars emitted depended on how they were touched by the darkness that surrounded them.

Now, maybe this is a lousy metaphor but it has something to give. And this is it: What if we are constantly being worked upon? What if we are constantly being played? And what if what mattered most in this world wasn’t what we did, created or produced ourselves, but how we were present? Because it’s the state of our presence, from one moment to the next, that defines whether we emit chaotic sounds or can string these together to turn into a melody.

I drove in the taxi towards Paddington and realised that I had completely misunderstood a main aspect of our purpose as human beings. Suddenly it wasn’t any longer about how we shaped the world, what mark we left upon it or whether we were remembered once dead, but how we allowed the world to shape ourselves. What carried meaning therefore was much less defined by what we did or created and much more by how we encountered it.

If it was somewhat true what I realised in this moment, I could sit here, stop writing, sip my coffee, watch time pass - and call it getting on with work. If it was true how I looked at the world at that moment, we could understand productivity as something that happened to us. Constantly, at every single moment of time, a string of pearls of moments, each one of them co-created between us and the world we live in. All it took was simply being.