Working to Live/Living to Work

Reading 1:

Why, who makes much of a miracle?
As to me I know of nothing else but miracles,
Whether I walk the streets of Manhattan,
Or dart my sight over the roofs of houses toward the sky,
Or wade with naked feet along the beach just in the edge of the water, 
Or stand under trees in the woods,
Or talk by day with anyone I love, or sleep in the bed at night with anyone I love,
Or sit at the table at dinner with the rest,
Or look at strangers opposite me riding in the car,
Or watch honeybees busy around the hive of a summer forenoon, 
Or animals feeding in the fields,
Or birds, or the wonderfulness of insects in the air,
Or the wonderfulness of the sundown, or of stars shining so quiet and bright,
Or the exquisite delicate thin curve of the new moon in spring;
These with the rest, one and all, are to me miracles,
The whole referring, yet each distinct and in its place.
To me every hour of the light and dark is a miracle,
Every cubic inch of space is a miracle,
Every square yard of the surface of the earth is spread with the same,
Every foot of the interior swarms with the same.
To me the sea is a continual miracle,
The fishes that swim-the rocks-the motion of the waves
-the ships with men in them,
What stranger miracles are there?
~ Walt Whitman ~


Reading 2

Kahlil Gibran – From The Prophet

Then a ploughman said, "Speak to us of Work." And he answered, saying: You work that you may keep pace with the earth and the soul of the earth. For to be idle is to become a stranger unto the seasons, and to step out of life's procession that marches in majesty and proud submission towards the infinite.

When you work you are a flute through whose heart the whispering of the hours turns to music. Which of you would be a reed, dumb and silent, when all else sings together in unison?

Always you have been told that work is a curse and labour a misfortune. But I say to you that when you work you fulfill a part of earth's furthest dream, assigned to you when that dream was born, And in keeping yourself with labour you are in truth loving life, And to love life through labour is to be intimate with life's inmost secret.

[…] all work is empty save when there is love; And when you work with love you bind your self to yourself, and to one another, and to God.
And what is it to work with love? It is to weave the cloth with threads drawn from your heart, even as if your beloved were to wear that cloth. It is to build a house with affection, even as if your beloved were to dwell in that house. It is to sow seeds with tenderness and reap the harvest with joy, even as if your beloved were to eat the fruit. It is to charge all things your fashion with a breath of your own spirit, […]

Work is love made visible. And if you cannot work with love but only with distaste, it is better that you should leave your work and sit at the gate of the temple and take alms of those who work with joy. For if you bake bread with indifference, you bake a bitter bread that feeds but half man's hunger. And if you grudge the crushing of the grapes, your grudge distills a poison in the wine. And if you sing though as angels, and love not the singing, you muffle man's ears to the voices of the day and the voices of the night.



The first of May was just a few days ago, although the turn in the weather might make you think otherwise.  When we dig a little bit, we so often find that the holidays we celebrate today have deep Pagan roots dating back to ancient times, and that is the case with May Day.  May Day appeared in Europe before the introduction of Christianity.  The Celtic observation of Beltane was one such observance.  It marked the time when the livestock were driven out to summer pasture.  May Day marks the arrival of summer.  Traditionally, May first was the first day of summer – and many still celebrate the arrival of the season on this day with May poles, flowers, and – here, but not where I’m from – with something called Morris Dancing.

Do you know where the tallest maypole ever erected was? London.  It stood on the Strand in 1661 and was reportedly over 143 feet high.  It stood for some 56 years until it was taken down to be used by Isaac Newton to support a new telescope.

Today, few of us have any use for an occasion reminding us that it is time to take the sheep out to pasture, but we do often need reminders of the wonders of nature and the rebirth of new life after winter’s cold and dark. Walt Whitman tells us of the many miracles to be found around us – and particularly in the natural world – our naked feet in the sand at the ocean’s edge, honeybees, animals in the fields, the delicate gravity-defying flying things, the simple wonder of gazing at the vastness of the skies hung with the luminous ornaments of moon and stars…

These are among nature’s glorious gifts. Many of us tell of experiencing our nearest communion with the divine – not in prayer or traditional rites – but in communion with the wonders of nature.  May Day can be a reminder of that opportunity to reconnect with the sacred.

May Day has come to represent something else besides the change of seasons… it is a day when many focus on the struggles and progress of workers.  

What a revealing juxtaposition that is! We celebrate the coming of summer and of nature’s glories and at the same time we bring our attention to the world of labour. The business and busyness that often confines us to stuffy indoor spaces with fluorescent lighting…  If we’re lucky, there might be a potted plant nearby…  So, in our world, how much time do we really have available to engage with the natural world?  

Leisure time is in short supply in most of our lives.  Perhaps we can find and seize an opportunity to enjoy the natural world when we reach retirement age, but those of you who are retired seem just as busy – or busier – than anyone else! For many, Whitman’s words paint a picture of a miraculous world that remains almost as inaccessible as the stars themselves. 

And so, with the conflict between work and the natural world in mind, with May Day just behind us, let us take a few minutes to think about work. 
The reality is that the vast majority of people in this world have little freedom when it comes to work. They must work in order to have food and shelter. They do what work they can find and work as much as needed to obtain the basic needs of life. They are working to live.  

Others of us – and I count myself in this group – work more than we really have to.  You might say that we are living to work.  A study a few years ago found that one third of people in the UK work at least 50 hours a week.  Many spend as much as another eleven hours thinking about work even when they’re not doing it. And here, we’re talking about paid work.  What about all that other work we do?  Cleaning and maintaining our houses or flats, cooking, taking care of children or pets.  Volunteer work. Helping others.  The list goes on.  We can do a pretty good job of filling up all of our time with all of our “obligations.”

For most of us, the time we are working – for pay or not – makes up the largest part of our waking hours.  Whether we choose to work such a great portion of our time or not – whether we are intentional about it or whether we move through it as though in a trance – this is truly how we spend our lives.

The question I would ask is whether we can do better. Can the part of our life that is called “work” be more meaningful and more rewarding for us?
The answer will be somewhat difference for each one of us, but for most of us, the answer will probably be yes.

If we work to live, we may have relatively few choices about the kind of work we do, or when we do it, but we do have choices. In “The Art of Happiness at Work”, the Dalai Lama speaks about the situation of a prisoner as an extreme example. Even the prisoner, he says, “may discover small choices they are able to make.”  And so, no matter what our work, we can choose to act in the way we want to live.  We can choose to live our values – treating each person with the respect that we believe they deserve as fellow human beings.

We can also choose how we will react to our own suffering. Will we become resentful and angry?  Will we become despondent?  We can not choose what will happen to us in this life, but we can choose how we will respond – what we will do with it. Responding by shrinking inwards and becoming more protective makes us smaller and tighter and separates us from the rest of existence.  Using our suffering to grow a larger more open heart – an openness and compassion for all the world’s suffering – is part of the path to becoming more whole and joyful.

While many of us must work to live, others more nearly live to work – working more than we need to.

I hasten to say that I am not in favour of what we might call a “life of leisure.”  Idleness does not seem to be compatible with happiness.  Although we may imagine some idyllic existence for the rich, virtually ever study shows that they are not happier than others – that there really is very little correlation between money and happiness. 

How often have we heard of people who retire early imagining a life of golf, family, and relaxation? If they are lucky, they find something rewarding to do and soon.  If they don’t, they often seem to deteriorate rapidly.  The human animal can not go long without purposefulness and meaning. Lazing around may work well for some creatures, but not for us.

“When you work you are a flute through whose heart the whispering of the hours turns to music.” says Kahlil Gibran.  We may be the flute, but with the frenzied nervous energy that many of us experience in our work – filling our days with busyness – the sound that emerges may be no music that anyone would want to hear.

When we recognize this sense of frantic busyness, it is a signal telling us to look more closely.  Is there something that we are avoiding with our busyness? Are we trying to make up for some emptiness in our hearts? What is the lesson to be learned in this? We may gain powerful insight into our own needs by becoming more aware of our frenetic impulses and mindfully observing what is driving us so hard. Only through such insight, can we begin to approach Gibran’s vision of a work that is truly done with love.

By accident of birth, most of us have access to more resources and a higher standard of living than the vast majority of the world’s population. This does not necessarily make us any happier though. We are subject our own forms of suffering, and these are closely related to and affected by social and economic the systems in which we reside. But we do have choices along the way.  We can choose to live mindfully and with love, or we can walk through life as if in a dream.

Today, let us resolve to wake up – to be mindful to our own lives and present to the lives of others. The past and future are unrealities.  The present moment is all we have.  Let us make the most of it.  May your work become love made visible.

So may it be with you.