One thing that has become clearer to me since reading Michael Walzer’s The Revolution of the Saints (1965) is that we probably owe our fetishization of work in key part and in one specific way to the Puritans. Let me explain.
What’s interesting about Puritans is that they averred that each believer had a “particular calling,” one, to be sure, chosen in accordance with God’s will, and this calling meant that he had come to a “settled course” as regards his business. A carpenter’s calling was to be a carpenter, a merchant’s to be a merchant, a lawyer’s to be a lawyer, and so on. What this effectively meant was that a carpenter would henceforth be doing one thing called carpentry for that was his “office” and so he would not, at some later point, be lawyering.
I believe that this notion of a particular calling very probably has influenced how we think about work well after Puritanism has left the scene and in the very maws of our secular time. What does talk of having a career, of doing meaningful work, and of having a calling share in common?
- Mistaken Belief #1: That the work I do is a single thing. (I know some people are generalists today, but I’m speaking about the common mistaken belief here.)
- Mistaken Belief #2: That that single thing I find and do is something special.
- Mistaken Belief #3: That that single special thing I do is what makes me special.
In short, what must be critiqued is any Unity Principle under which work could be subsumed. Any single profession. Any careerist story, traditional, “portfolio,” or otherwise. Drop all the unities as well as all the purported specialnesses Right Now!
Observe how finding that Single Special Thing is bound up with the desire to Be a Special Somebody. The truth is that this is delusion.
Once you see that it is delusion, you’re free!
- You can do a single thing, in terms of work, but without taking it to be anything special (because it’s not).
- You can do multiple things, in terms of work, yet without making any of these into anything special (because they’re not).
- And in either case, you’ll drop the delusion that you yourself are or could ever be somebody special.
How is this true liberation? Because once you see this, you’re thereafter free to see that whatever work you do can never be any more or any less special than anything else in life–such as watching the breeze blow, making love, chopping wood, writing a poem, going on a long hike, dreaming up an intentional community, filling out tax forms, and so on.
Stop torturing yourself and thus stop trying to find that alleged one special thing that will somehow have made you that special somebody before this body perishes. Consider: is it possible to love all of life? Is is possible to have different–that is to say, right–reasons for the activities you engage with? Can you write a short story or paint a landscape for its own sake? Can you pick up something (whatever that something is), be one-pointedly engaged with it, and then put it down just as easily as you picked it up? Indeed, must even greater commitment (such as mine to philosophy) entail unnecessary clinging or craving due to delusional self-view?
To be in right relation to work is to have made your peace with work. And to have made your peace with work is to have seen work directly and clearly for what it is: nothing special at all.