Work at Its Worst
Recently, I was watching a pastiche of Stallone films. In one scene he is being broken down through a classic method for degrading the personality and resistance of prisoners:
- He is not allowed to rest.
- He is disturbed at unpredictable times.
- He is taught to refer to himself by a series of numbers rather than his name.
- He is driven to do a series of meaningless tasks.
Ironically, these same four points could describe high-stress white-collar jobs proliferating across industries and disciplines in this generation.
Toward the end of an extremely difficult project, I sat at the table with my boss and listened as she told me she felt I had become too tough while working on this project where toughness had been required for survival and for which toughness¾”strength”¾she had previously praised me. Now, she wanted me to focus on being less defensive and “softer,” as though I could flip a switch. We agreed that she would hire additional staff so I could decrease the number of hours I had been regularly working and that I would take five days off to try to re-orient. And, in a later conversation, she coached me that wearing a skirt and high heels had never done her career any harm.
That night I drove to a wonderful hotel on the ocean, arriving around 10:00p as I had worked late. I fell gratefully into the blue and white sheets and quilts of the airy room and fell asleep after reading a short time about life in Norway, my fairy country of the mind. And, I found myself wide-awake and ready to go to work at 4:15a as had become my habit.
I dressed and wandered the hotel until I found the library on the third floor where the tea water was still hot and the chairs were all comfortable and pleasingly varied in design. I settled in with a selection of magazines and a cup of chamomile tea to watch the reflection of the sunrise on the ocean. By 7:00a I was ready for my first nap and breakfast was not ready for me, so I made my way back to my room and that comfortable bed. In minutes, I was out again. And, minutes later, I woke to the sounds of my own hoarse screams as I dreamt that a particular, now dismissed, project manager had been re-assigned to my project and was walking my way, calling my name. No more sleeping would be done, obviously, so I rose, dressed, and went out for a walk on the beach and, to my surprise, a good cry filled with resentment and fatigued disgust at, perhaps, not having more attentive to my own experience. Dogs cavorting along the surf were enough to pierce the veil that held back this awareness.
The next day, having been alerted to the signs of my own unraveling by yet another friend who had “been there,” I found myself sitting on a bench on the bay front talking to a prospective therapist on my cell phone, making an appointment for two weeks out. This is part of the way back from the desert when you have gotten too close to the cold. Sometimes you have to traverse this path repeatedly before you know the turnoff when it looms into view. Knowing what’s down that road, you can then choose not to make the turn.
This kind of crisis can be seen as the soul’s rebellion against the soullessness of corporate life. It feels like a breakdown; it is actually that which is most human within us reaching out and demanding to be fed. David Whyte in The Heart Aroused speaks at length to the nature of the worker’s soul and the degree to which it is refined through work-based challenges. He uses literature, especially poetry, that exhalation of the soul, to typify the heroic challenges put before us in the modern workplace driving home two points in doing so. First, the modern corporation, though it has superseded the church as the crucible of the soul, is itself soulless. And, second, there are ways the individual can nurture her soul while undergoing the smelting process that, at its best, is the progression of her calling or career. With regard to the deeply felt challenges in the workplace and particularly those pivotal moments when the individual is called upon to prove his mettle when faced with a compromise of himself or his values, Whyte writes:
The psychological view of this situation would be to say that we are projecting our fears onto parental figures, particularly those at work whom we feel have power over us, and must overcome this tendency. But the soul’s view might be to see these traumas as constantly repeated opportunities for courageous articulation, opportunities that the soul takes endless pains to engineer and place in our way until we step back through the doors of perception, back into the life promised to us before we sealed ourselves outside. We may think we are in the meeting room to preserve our job and our career, while at bottom the soul is making another bid for firsthand experience through courageous speech. It has no interest in being right; it simply intuits another life . . . Folded in on itself by our strategies for survival, it is trying to open as much of its hidden interior surface area as possible. (Whyte, David (1994). The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America. New York: Doubleday. , p. 134)
 Whyte is here referring to “The Garden of Love” by Blake, which he had quoted earlier:
I went to the Garden of Love
And saw what I never had seen:
A chapel was built in the midst,
where I used to play on the green.
And the gates of this chapel were shut,
And ‘Though shalt not’ writ over the door;
So I turned to this Garden of Love,
That so many sweet flowers bore.
And I saw it was filled with graves,
And tomb-stones where flowers should be,
And priests in black gowns were walking their rounds
and binding with briars my joys and desires.