Last year I saw a movie called City of Angels. It opens in the emergency room of a hospital where a little girl has just died, and the camera slowly pans away from this scene until we’re looking down a long corridor in the hospital, with a light at the far end. The little girl is walking down the corridor, toward the light, holding hands with an angel played by Nicholas Cage.
Halfway down the hallway, the angel turns to her and asks, So, what did you like best about it? Meaning life. And the girl says Pajamas! I’ve posed this exact same question to several thousand people in the last year in my Callings workshops; asked them to imagine that they’re walking down The Corridor toward the proverbial light, holding hands with an angelor with Nicholas Cage if they preferand the angel asks them what them liked best about it.
Not one person has ever said work.
They say food and friendship. They say walking along the ocean, skiing down a mountainside, music and gardens and laughing out loud and love in all its manifestations. They say the chance to create something and the chance to help someone. They say the sheer physical beauty of the Earth. Usually someone will say chocolate. But no-one says work. I have to assume, however, that in a roomful of 100 or 200 people, some of them do love their work, but no-one ever says so.
And yet, most of usmyself includedspend the vast majority of our days on Earth working. If you live to be 90 years old, you’ll spend 30 of those years just sleeping; of the remaining 60, you’ll spend 30-40 of them working, and a lot more if you define working to include all the doing and achieving and pushing and juggling and trying to make those confounded ends finally meet, and generally keeping ourselves so busy that we often don’t even take the time to wonder if we’re doing our right work, or if those ends that we’re struggling to meet shouldn’t perhaps be reevaluated altogether. To say nothing of stopping to question the inherent lunacy of a system in which we work 50 weeks a year and are granted 2 weeks off for vacation.
Tom Peters, who wrote the book In Search of Excellence, said that excellence is a high-cost item and you must give up things to achieve it. He was referring primarily to professional and material excellence, and he said that what you must give up is family vacations, Little League games, birthday dinners, weekends, lunch hours, gardening, reading, movies, and most other pastimes. In other words, most of the things we’re going to be telling the angels about when they ask; most of the activities that make life enjoyable, keep us out of divorce court and away from the doctor, and lend life some modicum of balance and grace. He’s also saying that all work and no play makes you a valued employee.
But what Peters calls excellence is, in my opinion, just another word for workaholismwhich, broadly speaking, is simply the compulsion toward busyness. A job, in other words, is definitely not the sole focus of workaholism. You can work yourself silly (or sick) at just about anything: caretaking, housework, retirement, vacations, spirituality, child raising, and increasingly just being a child.
And then we wonder why our obituaries look like nothing more than posthumous resumes, lists of accomplishments: books authored, titles held, military ranks attained, degrees earned. They’re summary statements of our lives, testaments to what we hold in esteem, and there are precious few hallelujahs for time spent with family, for attending your kid’s Little League games, for afternoons given over to long, dreamy walks by the ocean, or for emotional and spiritual triumphs, which for some people are the greatest accomplishments of their lives, not the material and professional accomplishments.
The Lesson of Sisyphus
I used to think of Sisyphus as the patron saint of workaholics, which I consider myself to be in some measure. Sisyphus is the fellow who was condemned by the gods to roll a boulder up a mountain, but just as he reached the summit, it would roll all the way back down to the bottom and he had to start all over againthe archetype of endless and futile effort.
Recently, though, I began to feel that I’ve been overlooking the true instruction of Sisyphus’ life, which is that each time his grindstone rolls to the bottom of the mountain, he is granted a rest while he walks back down to retrieve it. Though he must work for all time, according to the myth, he does not work all the time.
Nor, I decided, should I.
I had just completed a book that took me 15 months of 12-hour days, at the end of which I hit a wall I have never hit in my life as a working manburnout. The thought of doing another day’s work on anything even remotely related to the machinations of building a career, earning a living, getting ahead, or trying to find the it in making it, was enough to buckle me at the knees. As it was, in the waning days of the book project, I pulled myself up to my desk each morning as if to a chin-up bar. After such an intemperance of work, no trip seemed too extravagant or protracted, no binge too vulgar, no amount of goofing off too unreasonable.
I refer to my work, my job, as my occupation. But I often forget the double-entendre of that word. It also means to be taken over, as in an occupied country, and that’s exactly how I felt. I was overwhelmed by my work, and that book was only one of the projects in my in-basket, one of what the Taoists refer to as the ten-thousand thingsthe projects, the meetings, the deadlines, the errands and dinner dates and power lunches and housework and fitnessand the spiritual books are always reminding me that it isn’t what I do but how I do it, that I need to bring mindfulness to whatever or however-many activities I engage in. This is, of course, very true and a noble idea, but sometimes it isn’t about bringing mindfulness to my frenzy, but being a little less frenzied.
I was traveling in Mexico some years ago, and one afternoon I watched an eagle dive-bomb into the water of a bay in the Sea of Cortez and thrash around violently on the surface. He’d rise a little and then get yanked back down, almost underwater sometimes, by some unseen force. This went on for nearly a minute. Finally, he rose with a huge effort, clapping his wings loudly on the water, and lifted out a fish that was almost as big as himself, and carried it off to a nest in the cliffs.
I know for a fact, however, that the outcome of these contests isn’t always predictable. Sometimes the fish dives and takes the eagle with it. I recently read an article about a fisherman who caught a halibut that had two eagle claws embedded in its back, the rest of the bird having long since rotted away.
My point is that we, too, can sometimes be tenacious to the point of self-destruction. We can sometimes take on too much and be pulled under by it.
In a short story by Leo Tolstoy called How Much Land Does a Man Need? a man is given the opportunity to own as much land as he can run around in a day. So he runs and runs and runs and at the end of the day, having run himself to a complete frenzy, he collapses and dies of exhaustion. It turns out that all the land he really needed was about six feet by three feet.
The amount of land there is to run around, the amount of work there is to do in life, is inexhaustible. We, however, are not. And it’s imperative to know when to stop, how much is too much, how much is enough, and when to say Enough is enough!
The Japanese have a word for what Tolstoy’s character experienced: karoshi. It means death by overwork, and you don’t get a word like that in your language unless there are a few statistics to back it up. And whether we love our work or not, workaholism has all the earmarks of an addictionanesthetizing ourselves, trying to control life. The experts just call it a process addiction instead of a substance addiction. It is also one of our very few socially-sanctioned addictions, so you can put it on your resume. You can’t do that with most addictions.
But even if all our works are good works, even if all our busyness is in the service of worthy and noble causes, when the means to those ends is an addictive process, the end result is a loss of soul and a depletion of spirit.
The Spirit of Sabbath
In the case of my book project, the end result was also complete exhaustion, the kind of nausea smokers describe when they talk about trying to quit by binge-smoking three packs of cigarettes in a row. I was literally sick of working.
So I decided to take a break. In fact, I decided to extend the spirit of Sabbath to outlandish proportions by taking four months off, living off savings, and for a brief period there in the middle of my work life seeing what it would feel like to simply not work, to make time for the kind of creative idleness that an acquaintance of mine calls power lounging.
What I needed was what people obliquely refer to as space, a distance from what was pressing in on me, a penetrating quiet inside, and I needed to hold that silence up to my ears, like an empty shell, and listen to the roar of my own life. I needed time to reacquaint myself with some nonwork modes of expression, with activities that had absolutely no socially redeeming value, activities that were explicitly non-utilitarian, that I couldn’t put a price on or attach a goal to. Not even hobbies would do. I also needed to open myself to some of the things that gave me joy as a child, to savor, for instance, the benediction of playthe kind of play in which I take as much pleasure from knocking my blocks down as I do from building them up.
When I told a colleague what I planned to do now that the book was done, he asked, What are you, rich?
No, I replied. Desperate.
And this is usually what it takes, it seems, to get us off the hamster-wheel; some kind of desperation, whether it comes through a crisis or an accident or an illness or burnout.
Back in the 1980’s, just north of the Inside Passage along the coast of Alaska, a glacier pushed its way across the narrow entrance to a fjord, blocking it with an ice-dam that turned the fjord into a 34-mile-long lake. Millions of gallons of water poured into this new lake every week from the surrounding glaciers.
Four months later, the ice-dam burst from the pressure backed up behind it, and in little more than 12 hours, the entire lake, which had risen 82 feet above sea level, poured back into the ocean at a rate 14 times greater than the amount of water that pours over Niagara Falls every second. Witnesses said that it pushed icebergs the size of four-bedroom houses out to sea at 20 miles per hour.
Nature is one of the master gurus in matters of balance, and here the lesson is that sometimes a collapse is the only way that equilibrium can be restored. Sometimes the pressure builds to such colossal proportions that the soul, or simply the body, finds a way to release it, and you’re probably going to be standing in its way when it does, although Nietzsche once said that whatever doesn’t actually kill you will probably make you stronger.
Busyness As Usual
The first phase of my sabbatical from work was marked by the postpartum depression that followed the delivery of the book. A big project, to say nothing of a lifetime of working, generates a tremendous momentum that doesn’t end just because the work ends. It’s a bit like a head-on collision. The car stops, but the passenger doesn’t.
This seemed to set the tone for my entire sabbatical: a delicious and bewildering freedom marked by a maddening restlessness that routinely propelled me back into my office as if in a trance, despite my policy statements to the contrary. There I would sit for sometimes hours, twisting slowly back and forth on my chair and pulling anxiously at my lower lip, listening to the blathering traffic of noises in my head, while my legs vibrated like tuning forks.
This is what it must be like when men retire, my wife Robin declared after a morning of watching me pace around the house aimlessly, opening the refrigerator half a dozen times.
The pull of work, the rhythm of the 9-5 world, exerts a force that is nearly tidal in its irresistibility, and cut off from it I lost my bearings. But unconsciously and instinctively I began reestablishing the routine, and before I knew it I had managed to fill half my time with busyness that looked suspiciously like business. I felt as though I were cheating on a fast, or taking my briefcase with me on vacation.
What I began to realize with crackling clarity is that I come from a long line of doers, starting with a workaholic family that hardwired me to excel, to stay on top of things, to expect that hard work and material wealth would put me in line to receive the key to the cosmic washroom, or secure me a place in heaven. This, in fact, is the basis of the Protestant Work Ethic: the belief that hard work and material success will secure us a place among God’s elect, which I consider at best an illusion. Spirit can certainly come through one’s work, but we’re not going to work our way to heaven.
Heaven is not like Studio 54 where God stands up on a platform picking only the richest and the prettiest and the most successful people to get into the club, and I suspect that those who subscribe to this belief are in for a shock. Like the mythologist Joseph Campbell once remarked, what if you worked your whole life climbing the ladder only to discover at the end of your life that the ladder was up against the wrong wall? An old Far Side cartoon sums it up neatly: Colonel Sanders is standing in front of the Pearly Gates, but instead of St. Peter holding forth as the admitting angel, there’s a very stern-looking chicken.
During my work-fast, I saw more clearly than ever that droning away in the boiler room of this culture is a juggernaut of a machine, and it pumps out a powerful and insistent message: WORK! Value adheres to what we produce; we are what we do, and if we’re not doing something then we’re not being of value. So we’re constantly doing, and when we’re busy doing, we don’t have to be busy feeling; feeling that maybe we’re burned out, or we need a change, or our hearts aren’t in the work anymore, or that work itself, which normally confers upon us a sense of control over our lives, has instead made our lives feel like a parody of being in control, like we’re frantically trying to shovel coal into a furnace that’s burning it up faster and faster. Working in that condition is like being bitten by a rattlesnake: you panic and run, you work harder and harder, but it only causes the poison to travel faster through your system.
I’ve learned in my own work-life, though, that motion is not necessarily progress or productivity, any more than noise is necessarily music. And lying fallow is no more a waste of time than winter is a waste of time just because seeds aren’t flying around. In fact, I know of a poet who used to hang a sign that said The poet is working on his door while he slept.
People use the term vegging out to describe not doing anything, just hanging out, taking it easy. But a few years ago I had an experience that taught me something about the absurdity of equating vegging-out with inaction.
Off the coast of French Guiana, on the Atlantic side of South America, is a place called Devil’s Island, which used to be the world’s most notorious penal colony, a place where the French sent men they wanted to disappear. Ten years ago I visited that island, about 40 years after the prison was closed down and abandoned, and in that time the jungle had almost completely reclaimed it, torn the buildings limb from limb with its vines and roots, and rotted the iron bars clean through with its humidity. In barely 40 years, it reduced the place to rubble.
So when I think of the term vegging out or vegetative state, it is clearly not a description of not being productive. A vegetative state is a very productive state, and doing nothing can also be a very productive state, especially if we’re talking about work addicts, or anyone who’s trading off health for productivity. For them, not-working is definitely progress, because when you’re standing on the edge of a cliff, progress can be defined as taking one step backward!
The rub is that it’s hard to feel like you’re taking a step backward, or to let go of the status quo even when it’s threatening to send you over the brink. There’s an old joke in psychoanalytic circles that illustrates beautifully this need to maintain and defend the status quo even when it’s killing us. A man goes to a psychiatrist convinced that he’s dead. The psychiatrist is unable to shake the man’s delusion, so he finally says, You’ve heard, haven’t you, that dead men don’t bleed?
The man nods.
So the psychiatrist takes a pin and pokes the man in the arm, making him bleed, then steps back and says triumphantly, Well, what do you say now?
The man looks at his arm, then at the psychiatrist, then back at his arm, and says, Well, what do you know. Dead men do bleed.
A Friendly Universe
The poet Howard Nemerov once said, Even if someone soothes us by setting our toothache in a perspective of light-years, galaxies and spiral nebula, the toothache continues to hurt as though it has not heard. Toothaches can sometimes be dealt with by dentists, but never by philosophers.
I mention this because I want to give an obedient bow to the fact that slowing down the pace, to say nothing of stopping it altogether, is much easier said than done, no matter what kind of perspective you put it in. But I don’t think it’s more work that’s going to help us feel secure enough or in control enough to let go of the reins. I think it’s a little more faith, a little more trust.
This may simply be trust in our own ability to survive working less, or it may be the kind of trust that Albert Einstein was referring to when someone once asked him, Of all the questions you’ve posed about the mysteries of the universe, which question do you think is the most important? Einstein’s response: Is the universe a friendly place or not?
How you personally answer that question may determine your willingness to trust in life enough to occasionally unharness yourself from the plow and let yourself just wander in the pasture and graze.
When I look at a simple one-dollar bill, there on the back of it, above the eye on the pyramid, are the Latin words Annuit Coeptis, which mean our undertakings are favored. Right there on the most basic medium of exchange in our culture is this small article of faith, this vote of confidence in our endeavors, a kind of financial backing. And I can’t imagine who needs it more than those of us who are afraid to trust in our own undertakings, and in the essential friendliness of the universe, even when it’s full of tragedy and food-chain activity.
But the act of stepping away from the plow is an act of trust, a way of communicating to our souls that we have faith in their intimacy with the creative force of life.
About a month into my leave of absence from working, I had a dream that was to prove pivotal. A Zen monk gave me a large block of wood to sand down to nothing. As I neared the end, and began looking forward to checking it off a list, the monk came back and took my sandpaper away, telling me to use only my fingernails. The point, he said, was the process, not the goal. Every life ends the same way, I understood him to be implyingthe hero always diesso why be in such a hurry to get to the finish line?
With that dream, something shifted inside me, and I became determined to not only take the full time off, but to use it well. Although it was a tremendous discipline to not be disciplined and goal-oriented, to stop looking for work, to stop feeling like I was wasting time (when really it is time that is wasting me), I slowly began immersing myself in the kind of activities I had originally intended for my sabbatical.
The day after the dream, I succumbed to the lazy lure of a spring afternoon spent in my own backyard, watching the shadows of clouds bend in the folds of the hills, the hawks and vultures sweep into view on long, slow arcs, the tomcats stalk birds in the low branches of the fig, and for a brief spell I was released from being pinned to the ground by the gravity of my endeavors.
Over the next three months, as the days flicked by like white lines on the freeway, I took great long walks by the sea and in the forests, lost myself in epic novels, wrote poetry again, traveled, and stopped postponing jury duty. I went surfing, joined a men’s group, got to know my friends better, and even did my exercises with greater observance, not so grimly and perfunctorily. I felt expansive and that life was full of possibilities.
I not only discovered that I can stop work for months at a time and my life doesn’t crumble, but that having my nose to the grindstone, my ear to the ground, and my shoulder to the wheel is, for long periods of time, not the most comfortable position. Sometimes lying in the bathtub is.
As my time off drew to a close and I prepared to re-enter the world of work, to start writing in earnest again, I felt as I usually do at the end of vacations: not ready to come back, but renewed nonetheless. And though I saw that I’m not quite the master of my fate that I claim to be, I also realized that my life utterly belongs to me, and that it is meant to be savored and not just worked at.
Gregg Levoy is the author of Callings: Finding and Following An Authentic Life (Random House), from which this piece is adapted, as well as This Business of Writing (Writer’s Digest Books). He has written for The New York Times Magazine, Washington Post, Omni, Psychology Today, and others, as well as for corporate, promotional and television projects. Recipient of a first-place feature writing award from the Associated Press, and former adjunct professor of journalism at the University of New Mexico, he lives in Tucson, Arizona. His website is www.gregglevoy.com.