To my hardworking friend

I came across this article on brainpickings.org today, about David Whyte’s book, The Three Marriages, and I thought of you.

Don’t worry, its not what you think. The title of the article was: David Whyte on How to Break the Tyranny of Work/Life Balance.

Before I begin, I just want to clarify that I’m not trying to convince you to live your life in a different way, or in a way that think is ‘better’. It is a reminder to all of us, in our mid-20s, that what we’ve been told by the previous generations (to work hard, earn enough money for a comfortable life, etc.) might not be the only ‘good’ way to live.

The original article, by Maria Popova, said this:

“work/life balance” — a concept rather disheartening upon closer inspection. It implies, after all, that we must counter the downside — that which we must endure in order to make a living — with the upside — that which we long to do in order to feel alive. It implies allocating half of our waking hours to something we begrudge while anxiously awaiting the other half to arrive so we can live already. What a woefully shortchanging way to exist — lest we forget, so speaks Annie Dillard: “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”

The idea that we should work hard if we want to play hard is not new, yes? It has a bit of a… sad (?) ring to it, doesn’t it?

In David Whyte’s book, he says that we often use this term as a kind of punishment for ourselves, and suggests looking at it from a different perspective.

The word ‘balance’ itself is a PR term, an ideal state that makes everything ‘good’. Whyte says this:

Poets have never used the word balance, for good reason. First of all, it is too obvious and therefore untrustworthy; it is also a deadly boring concept and seems to speak as much to being stuck and immovable, as much as to harmony. There is also the sense of unbalancing that must take place in order to push a person into a new and larger set of circumstances.

Now I’m not exactly trying to promote the idea that people need to constantly move into new environments to grow, or suggest that you change jobs or something (though that is perfectly fine as well), but it has been proven, by many examples throughout history, that moments of instability make a person react in ways that they are not used to.

Whether that reaction or change results in growth or destruction, however, is another thing.

I’m saying that balance is impossible, even detrimental for our development. If you are in a perfect state of balance, where everything is fine and good, will you truly be ‘satisfied’?

To be a bit more dramatic: is that all there is to life? To live a safe, stable life, and then die?

Is that even possible? That no accidents or bad events (or good events!) will happen to you? Car accidents, illnesses, striking the lottery, rich woman taking a fancy to you, the list goes on…

So let’s say, it is impossible to live a perfect, stable, balanced life. So we should find another goal, yes? Or at least look at life from a different perspective?

Whyte’s version of this argument is:

The current understanding of work-life balance is too simplistic. People find it hard to balance work with family, family with self, because it might not be a question of balance. Some other dynamic is in play, something to do with a very human attempt at happiness that does not quantify different parts of life and then set them against one another. We are collectively exhausted because of our inability to hold competing parts of ourselves together in a more integrated way.

The government, your teacher in school, and even your parents, might tell you that, if you plan well for life, it will play out in the right ways. However, they forget that we are human beings.

Oh, we definitely try to study human beings like we study machines: through medicine, psychology and the social sciences. But humans are more than the sum of their parts.

This unidentifiable and difficult-to-catch factor, is exactly what makes human interaction fun! And, of course, unpredictable.

Thus, Whyte writes:

Human beings are creatures of belonging, though they may come to that sense of belonging only through long periods of exile and loneliness. Interestingly, we belong to life as much through our sense that it is all impossible, as we do through the sense that we will accomplish everything we have set out to do. This sense of belonging and not belonging is lived out by most people through three principal dynamics: first, through relationship to other people and other living things (particularly and very personally, to one other living, breathing person in relationship or marriage); second, through work; and third, through an understanding of what it means to be themselves, discrete individuals alive and seemingly separate from everyone and everything else.

These are the three marriages, of Work, Self and Other.

[…]

We can call these three separate commitments marriages because at their core they are usually lifelong commitments and … they involve vows made either consciously or unconsciously… To neglect any one of the three marriages is to impoverish them all, because they are not actually separate commitments but different expressions of the way each individual belongs to the world.

As human beings, we don’t bring the same self to every occasion. You don’t behave the same way you do in front of your boss as you would behave in front of the friends you go go-karting with.

Your values and mindset and attitudes might stay the same, but your behaviour is different.

You also behave differently at a wedding and at a funeral, because different environments call for a different side of you to come out. And yes, you have many sides, it is how we are social.

So, the three main lifelong commitments in our lives: marriage to Work, marriage to our Self, and marriage to Other (i.e. your spouse).

Whyte says above that to neglect any one of these marriages is to fail on all accounts, because they are not separate promises to different people, they are all part of you and your life.

Regarding compromise, let me paraphrase Popova: she says that the idea of compromising is a lose-lose situation. A compromise implies that one can reach a happy balance between two or more clashing needs, but in order to compromise, one will always have to cut off the ‘excess bits’. This cutting off means that you decide that somethings are more important and somethings are less important, based on the assumption that you only have a certain amount of time, or a certain amount of energy, to handle these things.

But what if they are all important? And what if the part that you ‘cut off’ ended up being the very part that you needed?

So, Whyte instead proposes that because all three marriages are nonnegotiable, they are all important in ways you might not even understand, thus they should not be balanced against each other. Instead, he says that we should:

start thinking of each not as something to be balanced against the other two but as something “conversing with, questioning or emboldening the other two.” Only then can we begin to shift away from “trading and bartering parts of ourselves as if they were salable commodities.” Because work and life are not separate things, he argues, they can’t be “balanced” against one another; instead, they are best treated as a “movable conversational frontier.”

What this means is that when you strengthen one, you strengthen all. When you weaken one, you weaken all.

Work, like marriage, is a place you can lose yourself more easily perhaps than finding yourself. It is a place full of powerful undercurrents, a place to find our selves, but also, a place to drown, losing all sense of our own voice, our own contribution and conversation.

[…]

Good work like a good marriage needs a dedication to something larger than our own detailed, everyday needs; good work asks for promises to something intuited or imagined that is larger than our present understanding of it. We may not have an arranged ceremony at the altar to ritualize our dedication to work, but many of us can remember a specific moment when we realized we were made for a certain work, a certain career or a certain future: a moment when we held our hand in a fist and made unspoken vows to what we had just glimpsed.

[…]

Work is a constant conversation. It is the back-and-forth between what I think is me and what I think is not me; it is the edge between what the world needs of me and what I need of the world. Like the person to whom I am committed in a relationship, it is constantly changing and surprising me by its demands and needs but also by where it leads me, how much it teaches me, and especially, by how much tact, patience and maturity it demands of me.

The above passage is so good, don’t skip it.

If we see work as a means to an end (usually money), then you lose the possibility of seeing any non-monetary value in it. Especially when it becomes mechanical, repetitive and monotonous, the details of your work make you lose sight of the big plans you had in the beginning. The big plans, not for your future house or your future car, but for the growth of your skill and knowledge. The growth of your contribution to a greater cause.

If children move into their late teens with no inkling of their future vocation, not even a glimpse of the star, it is time for the adult world around them to become rightly and increasingly worried. At this point a seemingly wrongheaded but determined direction is far better than none at all. It may be, in fact, that most of the great work done by individuals through history has often been accomplished through long years of dedicated wrongheadedness.

Even if, we end up doing work that is not our ‘passion’, we can grow to love it through our commitment to it. Grow to love it, not grow to be good at it. Being good at something has long been seen as a pre-requisite for others to affirm your ability to complete a job, but make no mistake, the process of doing itself has to mean as much, if not more than the product.

There are more people who end up doing well because they enjoy what they do, than those who enjoy what they do because they do it well. We cannot all hope to be the latter, it is an impossible dream. Just ask any dancer friends you know.

Besides the two most visible marriages – to work and to spouse – the most challenging of the three must be the “internal and often secret marriage to that tricky movable frontier called ourselves.”

While poets and psychologists agree that the self is a fluid phenomenon and there is no such thing as fixed personality, we still cling to the comforting falsehood that the self is a stable foundation. And yet in its very instability, Whyte suggests, lies its promise of satisfaction — the self “moves and changes and surprises us as much as anything in the outer world to which it wants to commit,” and that outer world invariably shapes our inner experience.

Like I said before, it is not so much that you never know who you really are, for obviously there are things about ourselves that we try to keep the same: our morals, for example.

A lot else we seek to, or ends up changing over the course of time anyway. All those bitchy comments about somebody being two-faced? How can they criticise nature? It is the most hypocritical thing someone can do, to criticise others for changing.

Whyte uses the analogy of a river to describe how we change:

We are each a river with a particular abiding character, but we show radically different aspects of our self according to the territory through which we travel.

He says that, when we neglect this marriage to ourselves, we become much more vulnerable to the external pressures of work and relationship.

We find ourselves unable to move in these outer marriages because we have no inner foundation from which to step out with a firm persuasion. It is as if, absent a loving relationship with this inner representation of our self, we fling ourselves in all directions in our outer lives, looking for love in all the wrong places.

[…]

The marriage with the self is difficult because it is connected to the great questions of life that refuse to go away and which are also connected to our own mortality. In the silences that accompany a strong internal relationship with the self we see not only the truth of our present circumstances and a way forward but we also realize how short our stay is on this earth. Life waits for us in this internal marriage, but death waits for us also.

In Chinese culture, death is something we don’t speak of. We say ‘touch wood’, or ‘choy’ whenever ‘unlucky’ topics like that come up. But I think death is one of the things that makes life so beautiful.

When you accept that, you have no good reason to exist on this planet at this time, and that there is an expiry date for your life, everything that happens in between becomes less burdensome and more wondrous, does it not?

We did not ask to be born, and most of us don’t ask to die, but in this situation that makes no sense, we meet each other, we get to do and learn things, we get to exist together with other forms of nature.

Maybe I am a being a bit emotional about this, but isn’t that notion itself beautiful?

There is no reason for you to tahan anything that you hate, unless it is for something that you know you will want in the future. That could be to do good for the greater humanity, or that could be for a higher leg extension.

As a small digression I want to add that I don’t really like the word ‘responsibility’. I definitely believe that having a sense of responsibility is good, but to use the word ‘responsibility’ on other people (family, friends, spouse, children) seems to imply that you are doing it out of society’s expectations of you, and not out of the sincerity of your own heart.

On tasks, I acknowledge that it is sometimes necessary to ‘be responsible’ because it is difficult to like every part of your job, but again, if the task does not bring satisfaction to yourself in the long run, why are you doing it? If you are satisfied by the monetary pay, I have nothing to say, but let’s be honest, who is ever satisfied with their pay?

When I say, I have to wash the dishes because its my responsibility as a part of this family to contribute to cleaning up our messes, it implies that I wish I didn’t have to do it. And while that was true (and continues to be true if I’m in a bad mood), I now try to look at it as an act of love. If I wash the dishes, the others that I love can spend more of their time doing the things they want to be doing.

Here is someone else’s blogpost on how acts of service are acts of love/kindness.

So to bring things back to the main issue, ‘responsibility’ is not something you use to burden yourself with, because that’s disrespectful, I would say, to both your loved ones and yourself (because in spite of the limited time you have, you choose to do things that you don’t like in order to please others). Ultimately, I do think you should be pleased with everything you do. If serving others does not ultimately bring you happiness, then won’t it be kind of hypocritical to do so?

This willingness to look at the transitory nature of existence [is] not pessimism but absolute realism: life is to be taken at the tilt, you do not have forever, and therefore why wait? Why wait … to become a faithful and intimate companion to that initially formidable stranger you called your self?

The use of the word marriage, Whyte says, means “a mutual invitation to which both partners must respond wholeheartedly……it is something that lives over the horizon as much as it exists in the here and now. It is full of keen daily pleasures and shattering disappointments. From all of these early, optimistic appearances and depressing disappearances we realize we have had a first glimpse of secret imagined possibilities, until now unspoken.”

I think this is really important: in any kind of marriage, both parties have to be fully committed to it in order for it to be successful. It is true in terms of marriage to another person, but also true in terms of marriage to one’s work.

I believe that good employers will react to employees who are truly invested in their work. I think we’ve all seen examples of this as well, whether is by being headhunted or by being rewarded with bonuses, good employers know that by appreciating employees, the returns will be greater.

On the other hand, if one is stuck in a work situation where the superiors don’t appreciate enthusiasm or are just plain lazy and make their way up the ladder by scheming (like in Korean dramas), you should know enough to get yourself out of that situation too.

When a relationship becomes an abusive one, it doesn’t matter how much you give, because the other party is not wholeheartedly contributing to the relationship too.

To conclude, our marriage with ourselves is the foundation upon which everything else is built upon. To have a weak foundation doesn’t mean you can’t build anything on it, but you’ll have to keep repairing and strengthening it. I think you will know, too, because not being curious about your own personalities and changes will eventually result in a lot of confusion and being lost.

Our marriage to significant people in our lives and to our work are more similar than we think: it isn’t healthy to give everything you have blindly, unless you can be sure that the other party is also fully committed to the same cause. In most cases, enthusiasm and positivity are infectious, and the other party will reciprocate in return. However, if the other party doesn’t, you must be grounded enough in your understanding of your limits, in order to know that it is time to move on.