I’m doing some work on this beautiful, sunny New York City day from Poet’s House in Battery Park City. I’ve had some inspiring conversations with patients this week about work: what it is, what it isn’t, why we’re so afraid of it, and what it has to do with therapy and growth.
It’s a strange feature of an economy of surplus that many people reach adulthood without much of an understanding of what work is. We tend to demonize work (“I hate my boss!”), see it as something to be avoided (“The micro-chopper takes the WORK out of preparing your favorite dips and salsas!”), endured (“Living for the weekend,” or “I can’t wait till retirement!”) or something we know we should do but we’re just not motivated enough to do it (“I’m just too lazy to exercise/ practice my French/ clean the house.”).
We seem to have lost site of work as a creative activity, i.e. the activity of creating (a career, a poem, a life). And because we malign work, we’re vulnerable to tricks and scams promising ways of helping us create without the work. Why are they scams? Because it just isn’t possible: work is the activity of creating. There’s no way around it.
Psychology and psychiatry are complicit in this. Psychiatric meds promise not just feeling better but having a better life. Psychology has fashioned countless short cuts: fancy techniques you can do on your own or with a therapist that will put you on the fast track to a better life. I’m not opposed to any of this; I think we should use all of the tools available to feel better and grow. What’s critical, though, is that we don’t get caught believing that any of this is going to help us avoid work.
Creating your life is work. Therapy is work. It’s often painful, exhausting, frightening. Sometimes it’s boring, too, with false starts and missteps, paths explored that seem to lead nowhere.
All of which (plus the current setting) have me thinking about one of my favorite poems and favorite poets:
We stand in the rain in a long line
waiting at Ford Highland Park. For work.
You know what work is–if you’re
old enough to read this you know what
work is, although you may not do it.
Forget you. This is about waiting,
shifting from one foot to another.
Feeling the light rain falling like mist
into your hair, blurring your vision
until you think you see your own brother
ahead of you, maybe ten places.
You rub your glasses with your fingers,
and of course it’s someone else’s brother,
narrower across the shoulders than
yours but with the same sad slouch, the grin
that does not hide the stubbornness,
the sad refusal to give in to
rain, to the hours wasted waiting,
to the knowledge that somewhere ahead
a man is waiting who will say, “No,
we’re not hiring today,” for any
reason he wants. You love your brother,
now suddenly you can hardly stand
the love flooding you for your brother,
who’s not beside you or behind or
ahead because he’s home trying to
sleep off a miserable night shift
at Cadillac so he can get up
before noon to study his German.
Works eight hours a night so he can sing
Wagner, the opera you hate most,
the worst music ever invented.
How long has it been since you told him
you loved him, held his wide shoulders,
opened your eyes wide and said those words,
and maybe kissed his cheek? You’ve never
done something so simple, so obvious,
not because you’re too young or too dumb,
not because you’re jealous or even mean
or incapable of crying in
the presence of another man, no,
just because you don’t know what work is.