The Art of Work in the Age of Anxiety

The Art of Work in the Age of Anxiety

An Essay
By Thomas Gagne

Immense harm is caused by the belief that work is virtuous. – Bertrand Russell

Know Thyself. – Delphic Maxim

The idea of work caught my imagination the other day. Not work in the sense of preparing for a deposition, or some such, but the idea of work. And in the course of my mental meanderings, I recalled the above quote by Bertrand Russell. It struck me as odd that he, of all people, penned this little plum, given that during his ninety-eight years on this planet he was, what we would call today, a workaholic.

The man was a writing machine. His literary legacy included eighty books, two thousand articles, and over four thousand letters. His great work, The Principia Mathematica, sought to derive all mathematics, no less, from logical precepts. He failed, defeated by mathematical paradoxes, but not without cofounding Analytic Philosophy, which would fill the rice bowls of philosophy professors for the next half-century.

Logician, Cambridge don and mentor to the young Wittgenstein, Russell stuck his finger into a dizzying variety of intellectual pies – from ethics to epistemology, religion to politics. He was a liberal darling and a royal pain to conservatives. He was once dubbed “The Most Hated Man In England” after lambasting Britain’s role in the war the First World War a practice he stubbornly clung to until it landed him in jail for a brief period.

Russell was a scion of Welsh aristocracy, so we can understand, at least, a class affinity for leisure. But is he seriously suggesting that worklessness (“idleness,” I think, misses the mark) is the preferred state of being, even given his hypergraphia? I don’t think so, even if there is an authority to the contrary.

Consider Genesis. Adam and Eve didn’t work. So what did they do? I imagine their playing, naming things (Adam seemed to have a talent for taxonomy), sleeping, eating, and fooling around – generally having a grand old time. The world’s first leisure class on an indefinite vacation. But it wouldn’t have been much of a story if things remained paradisiacal, so, like the kids they were, they did the one thing they were told not to do eat the forbidden fruit. Their punishment for their juvenile curiosity (and becoming, in effect, self-aware, in the first great act of self-discovery) seems, at this distance, severe. In addition to deportation, thanks to them humanity now had to survive by the “sweat of their brows” i.e., work in perpetuity.*

This story’s message regarding work is clear – work is punishment. From the beginning, as it were, the western man found himself contra work. Work implied malfeasance, the surest sign of original sin.

This left us the major literary and philosophical theme that if only we could return to our original state we could be happy again.

Later, however, the sting of having to work is mollified. In His Sermon on the Mount, Christ offered: “Consider the lilies of the field; how they grow, they neither toil nor do they spin.” Mathew 6:25. In other words, don’t worry, God will take care of you. It even becomes something a virtue: “A sluggard’s appetite is never filled, but the desires of the diligent are fully satisfied.” Prov. 13:4.

This tension involving the moral value of work is especially apparent in the legal profession due to the predominate belief, especially in America, that hard work is essential in securing a respected place in society. So we cater to work, fetishize it, obsessively react to its whims, obsequiously heed the master’s voice the clarion tinkle of a smartphone, or the jolly jingle of a tablet.

We often despise work, enlisting certain days to reflect our resentment of it. We have “Hump day” or “Thank God it’s Friday.” If we should have a day off, perfect strangers will ask “Not working today?”, as if we were committing some sly misdemeanor with our absence demanding an explanation.

Psychoanalysts tell us that the two most important things in life are love and work, but then doctors tell us work is killing us. We work too hard. We sleep too little. In Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks (1901), Thomas Buddenbrooks, a respectable businessman chastises his no-account brother: “Work! Occupy yourself with something useful instead of indulging in your hypochondria.” Pithy sayings gird our working loins: “Greatness is 10 percent inspiration, 90 percent perspiration,” implying that if we only worked more we too could be an Edison when the bitter truth is there are those who exceed us and will continue to exceed us all out of proportion to their effort.

In college, my friends and I would sometimes debate who worked the hardest and was therefore due the greatest respect – the engineers, the architects or the premeds? The controversy was based on the unstated equation that hard work was directly proportional to merit. I was a literature major, so I wasn’t even in the running, but I always pulled for the architects, those hidden heroes of creativity, sporting BandAids on their fingers, courtesy of the ExactOKnife. Bleeding for your work. Now that’s commitment.

Even our attitude toward downtime reveals our attitude toward work – our need to “get away from it all.” We attend corporate “retreats” as if we’ve been in battle. At the same time, we acclaim work by bestowing upon employees such titles as “Employee of the Month.” Then we turn around and parody work in movies like Office Space, in which bosses are heartless egomaniacs and employees are paranoid zombies substituting clichés for conversation (“Looks like a case of the Mondays”), in which the protagonist’s dream is to do “absolutely nothing.”

We tend to ignore the nature of work, focusing on its attributes or consequences. We are fascinated by how other people structure their working time. Is it best to work harder in the morning and then gradually taper off as the day wears on? If so, why are some people so productive in the evening? Is taking a nap in the middle of the day decadent, or sensible? Should we work in accordance with our “circadian rhythm?” Are we working hard for our families or at their expense?

To refer to a person as “hardworking” implies she is worthy of respect, ambitious, a real hard charger and go-getter. Yet the supreme irony is that many people work to become members of the leisure class, where work is optional. They don’t view the leisured elite’s relative idleness as a moral defect. To the contrary, they pay it the ultimate tribute by imitating its style.
Is it any wonder we live in what some have dubbed “The Age of Anxiety?” Why do we revere work yet simultaneously deplore it? Put simply, why are so many people unhappy in their work?

Obviously, people work because they need money to survive. Then to shine. Not a world-shattering insight by any means. But if we work just to survive, or we choose a vocation based merely on its remunerative potential, and we’re just surviving, or surviving well, is that enough?

For many people, working just for money can lead to dreadful unhappiness. It can foster family discord, anxiety, and other emotional problems; it invites drug and alcohol abuse, even suicide. People end up working at jobs they detest, buy things to impress or to fill an inner emptiness, then buy more things they don’t need with money they don’t have until they have to actually buy extra space to store the things they never use. Caught in a cycle of hyperconsumerism, work becomes their master. Their job consumes their being.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not anticonsumerism. I like my sports car. I carefully watch my investments. I don’t believe the pursuit of money is bad, or wrongheaded. I’m just after a bigger game. I believe man is more than Homo Oeconomica. To that end, let’s conduct an extreme case analysis and consider what most would agree to be Michelangelo’s greatest work of art – The Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (The Ceiling).

The Ceiling, with its tortured torsos of the damned whirling in perfect geometric counterpoint to the exquisite bliss of the ascendants in some kind of celestial ballet, marks a quantum leap in Michelangelo’s artistic development.

Although large frescoes depicting religious themes certainly weren’t novel during the High Renaissance, it was the scale, intensity, and compositional complexity of The Ceiling which distinguished Michelangelo’s great work. His Ceiling transcended the beautiful to become an earthly embodiment of pure spirit. Michelangelo began the project with sixty-five assistants but soon fired them all. How did one man accomplish this artistic miracle?

To understand the amount of effort, it was the custom among fresco painters of the period, Michelangelo first sketched his subjects on large sheets of paper that he would later transfer to the prepared surface. He then applied the details. He would begin with an idea of the subject and its function within the overall composition, a clear enough idea but still largely inchoate, unexpressed. He then sketched and resketched the idea until the form expressed his idea. It wasn’t an intellectual exercise as much as an emotional one. He was after an aesthetic emotion rather than a specific form.
As he neared The Ceiling’s completion, he sketched and painted faster and with more confidence until he no longer needed preliminary sketches. In time, he would paint directly onto the virginal surface, each subject a masterpiece, unmediated, unpremeditated, flowing directly from his brain to his brush to the plaster.

Western science calls the process “cognitive self-actualization.” Colloquially we call it: “getting in the flow.” Eastern thought terms

it “doing not doing.” A perfect example of this phenomenon is the concert pianist. She does not consciously place each finger on preselected keys. The music simply flows from her, flows through her, into the instrument.

Cognitive self-actualization is not a reiteration of the facile saw – “practice makes perfect.” Achieving perfection is not the point. Being the best is not the point. The point is the search, the quest for the unalloyed “you,” that deep authentic center within us patiently awaiting liberation. Shift perspective from the work-product to what the work does to and for the worker. In the case of Michelangelo, work unleashed his inner form, his spirit. Just as he would chisel away layers of marble until his sculptures “revealed” themselves, work eliminated inauthenticity within the artist to reveal the pure idea of Michelangelo, which had always, already existed. Michelangelo’s greatest work of art was not the Ceiling. It was Michelangelo himself.

Of course, there was only one Michelangelo. But it’s been my experience that most people possess at least one talent or ability, if not several, to one degree or another.

I won’t go so far as to claim that everyone possesses a talent, life certainly isn’t that kind, but what is truly sad is that many people won’t let themselves discover or cultivate their talent(s), which, contrary to current wisdom, I believe is innate.

Let me illustrate. I recall sitting in my parents’ dining room, age fourteen, studying Gray’s Anatomy (I can hear the snickers), specifically the structure of the spine (which happens to be the body part I deal with the most as a PI attorney). My interest in anatomy combined with a certain academic success led me to believe I was headed for a career in medicine. Unfortunately, I was all thumbs in the lab – catching my hair on fire by standing too close to a Bunsen burner, spilling concentrated hydrochloric acid on my jeans, among other faux pas (In my defense, I wasn’t the first person to spill acid on his jeans).

Add to that my visceral aversion to dissection (I don’t mind the sight of animal meat, as long as I’m not the butcher), and I came face to face with the first great truth about my future – no matter how well I performed on the theoretical side of science, in its actual practice, I was a disaster. My dream of medical school evaporated, and I was devastated. It was my first great heartbreak. My college advisor suggested I try pursuing something less “hands-on,” something literary perhaps. So, via an undergraduate tour of western philosophy and literature, I settled on the law for my postgraduate studies. To my astonishment, I did well in law school, despite my initially tepid enthusiasm for the subject. It suited my inclination to analyze, argue and write.

Was I on a path to becoming an attorney even earlier, when, at the age of six, I persuaded my father, a merchant mariner at the time, into signing a promissory note I called it a “contract” for $120 when he returned from his next voyage? Was I on that path at seven, when I would write long letters to my father while he was at sea, analyzing such urgent topics as the differences between the Tasmanian Devil in the Bugs Bunny cartoon and the real thing)?

The seeds of my becoming a lawyer seem to have sprouted at a young age, well before I even knew what one was. Environment nor genetics can account for my actions. No one in my family was a lawyer; frankly, none had been to college. Nor does enculturation explain it. I watched cartoons and I Dream of Jeannie, not Owen Marshall, Counselor at Law. Was my career in the cards all along, or am I merely engaging in confirmation bias, longing for meaning in a potentially meaningless world?
Perhaps. But I don’t think so. I believe that my career is a natural extension of my personality, an expression, if you will, of my innate being, having existed all along, which is, even at this moment, furtively, yet inexorably, progressing. So I say: pierce the quotidian clutter and noise of life to see it, to feel it, for yourself that which is within, that’s alive, that’s yours, and that, at the same time, is not yours. And that, patient reader, requires introspection and meditation.
Embrace experience. Commit to the trash your fears and status quo bias. Listen to what the world, nature, and providence is plainly telling you. It’s not a secret. You don’t need a special handshake to get in. It’s not coded so there’s no need to decipher it. Chances are your soul’s vocation (or avocation) is already beckoning.

Finding one’s calling, and thriving in it, is not easy. The search is not without risk or pain. There are no guarantees. Realize too that work is not synonymous with vocation. Work has a greater significance. Work can be one of the highest expressions of one’s inner divinity, in Chinese one’s Ch’i, in Buddhism one’s Prana. Heidegger called it Being. It involves surrendering to the talents and gifts providence and nature have thoughtfully provided. Work is a chance to live a life of true meaning and fulfillment. It enables us to experience moments of epiphany, to celebrate one’s existence, to celebrate life. If this line of thought borders on the mystical, so be it. I think it’s a mistake to indiscriminately adopt the west’s talismanic belief that logic and reason govern all the affairs of this world.

So, with all due respect, I must disagree with Professor Russell on the subject of work. Work is not intrinsically harmful, a chore to have done with, a punishment to endure, an “ethic” that burnishes one’s social status, a means to acquire things, a way to win the esteem of others, a duty to fulfill, a commodity to sell, a means to build a fort to protect us from the world or a temple to our vanity. It is not intrinsically alienating, and it certainly shouldn’t make us neurotic.
Work is a virtue, just not in the way we commonly define the word. It is intimately involved in identity formation** Work should inspire, not imprison, exhilarate, not enervate, if done within the bounds of good sense and balance. How we work, and what we do is the rub.

If we do it right, and with a bit of courage, then it becomes our creative partner in an ever-evolving process of self-discovery, renewal and if we’re lucky transcendence.

*Note that the First Great Crime was malum prohibitum, while the Second Great Crime Cain’s passion killing was malum in se. The implication is clear. Respect for the law precedes and therefore supersedes, respect for the natural or commonsense moral law. This interpretation neatly fits Hebraic tradition and its focus on strict adherence to the lawman’s relationship to God is fundamentally legal, as is, a fortiori, man’s relation to man. There’s nothing per se wrong with eating shellfish – just don’t do it. The fact that an oyster is generally benign and quite nutritious is irrelevant. Respect for the law is the point. The subtext of Genesis establishes the central role law plays in exerting social control and conformity in groups. Ensuring equity and resolving conflicts are important but ultimately secondary concerns.

** For an introductory understanding of the critical role identity formation plays in our psychological development see Erik Erikson’s (1968) Identity: Youth and Crisis. New York, NY: W.Norton Company

Thomas Gagne is owner/president
of the Attorney Offices of Thomas Gagne, P.A. Prior to opening his firm, he was an Army JAG Prosecutor and Special Assistant United States Attorney for the District of South Carolina.

Photo by David Siglin