On living out indirect proofs: Not the vocation, the career, or the project but the life-work

1. We might say that life is one long indirect proof. We have to live a conception out before we can rule it out. In ruling it out, we come upon a more hopeful conception of a well-lived life.

2. Throughout the history of western civilization, we have lived out a number of conceptions of the good life: most recently, the vocation, the career, and the project. The first has been ruled out, the second is holding on by its long fingers but, by my lights, is coming to an end, and the last is getting a try-out which, on its own, it is likely to fail.

Can the life-work do the trick in the early twenty-first century? Let’s see.

3. Embedded within every social order is an ideal of the well-lived life. I have written elsewhere that “the medieval order was divided into those who prayed, fought, and worked,”  ancient regime into “the four noble professions” of law, medicine, religion, and military. But we do not belong to either of these social orders anymore.

Particular to the religious understanding was the idea of being called to become a man of the cloth. It is difficult to conceive of how a “vocation” can be held onto without also holding onto the concept of a higher being who “does the calling.” For those who doubt that God exists, the vocation cannot be an intelligible concept.

The concept of the career, therefore, has seemed more suitable for a secular age. Elsewhere, however, I have suggested that the conception of a career has also lost or is losing its sense. It is going the way of the ruins.

Suppose I’m right. Then “vocation” is out and “career” is also out, and there’s no going back. One of the terms now taking the place of the career is the notion of the project.

4. The trouble with the project, i.e., as a conception of a well-lived life, is that it is discrete. On its own, it lacks a sense of inner and outer cohesion (integritas), and it cannot bring a life into unity. How the projects fit together into something higher or larger: about this freelancers remain agnostic. But that also means that their lives, under the “project dispensation,” must also feel pulled apart.

5. In order to retain some sense of the vocation (to wit, being called for a higher purpose), to let go of the career (that nasty, brutish thing), and to get beyond the one-off projects, we may find that the life work is a workable conception. Here’s how I want to parse “setting out to make life work”:

i. “We set out to make life work.” That is to say, we need a form of life that is workable, individually and collectively. Think of the following expressions: “Well, it seems to me that this will work. This works! This is good enough.” Making life work is a provisional, ongoing, good enough, well-designed undertaking.

ii. “We set out to make life work.” That is to say, we are looking for a kind of work that is intrinsically valuable, i.e., valuable for its own sake. Hence, good work must not just be non-evil; it must also be non-trivial (where trivial = frittering away one’s talents.)

iii. “We set out to make life-work.” That is to say, to make our life INTO a form of life that achieves unity and wholeness.

6. Can a project fit into the schema of a life-work? Yes, provided that project X fits into or contributes to one’s life-work. If it does not, then it will pull you apart at the seams.