Conductor extraodinaire, Karl Bohm used to relate an anecdote from his days as a young conductor when he tried both to communicate and experience the transcendent beauty of the music. He had the good fortune to work with the ageing composer Richard Strauss who asked him, “Do you really think Wagner composed the Liebestod in a state of ecstasy?” The point is that work, even creative work, remains work; the rapturous outpourings of Wagner’s music, for example, could not be composed in an alternate state of consciousness but in the prosaic penning of notes in chromatic harmonies for each instrument in the complex orchestration. Anyone who has ever hand-copied, for example, the musical notation of a song and its accompaniment, knows that the task requires intense concentration and patience, constant checking and disciplined attention to produce a legible copy.
My expectations of work, like my expectations of prayer, can help or hinder me. An experienced spiritual director might point out that ecstasy is not the point of prayer. Extraordinary experiences are not the point of prayer, but can be God meeting me where I’m at, indulging my need as encouragement to continue praying and deepening prayer. God is giving me a boost to continue working on our relationship–which is exactly what prayer is. Work can also be like that; it is not always rewarding but it can always be formative; it can teach me to do the job better. Of course one way I learn to work or to pray is by colliding with my limits. In work too, it is essential to learn my limits: I can’t lift something that heavy; I can’t get that job done without a break; I don’t yet have the skills to respond patiently to that kind of a customer. Some limits are invitations to develop my strength, my judgment or my tact; other limits invite others to replace me.
St. Benedict’s Rule for Monasteries has an entire chapter addressed to facing limits. Chapter 68 considers If a brother is commanded to do impossible things; and it tells us: If it happens that difficult or impossible tasks are laid on a brother, let him nevertheless receive the order of the one in authority with all meekness and obedience. But if he sees that the weight of the burden altogether exceeds the limit of his strength, let him submit the reasons for his inability to the one who is over him in a quiet way at the opportune time, without pride, resistance or contradiction. And if after these representations the Superior still persists in his decision and command, let the subject know that this is for his good, and let him obey out of love, trusting in the help of God.
Need I say that this advice is written for a Christian monastic community and not for the corporate world (kids, don’t try this at home). This may not provide immediate help in your workplace unless everyone there happens to be committed to building up the Kingdom of God! And even in a monastery, the Rule of St. Benedict does not provide solutions for our problems. It wasn’t written to do that. But it does offer a perspective, an orientation from which to respond to the challenges of our life. With a little bit of “translating” it could shed some light on the frustrations inherent in any job. For one, it invites us not to be self-sufficient. Once I drop that expectation of myself, I can admit, “I don’t think I can do this!” Of course, admitting that, even to myself, is not enough; I really own that fact only when I’ve shared that discovery with a responsible person. And that’s when the fun begins.
How many times have I run into what seems like a dead-end because I don’t see in myself the capabilities that the people who believe in me can see? How often have I allowed the bad messages other people have thrown at me (“You never finish anything” or “Can’t you pay attention to details?!!” or “Actually, you’re a little too gruff to deal with him”) to blind me to what I could learn to do? It might take effort, docility, patience and a good mentor, but maybe this old dog could learn a few new tricks! But, as I just wrote, it might take a good mentor; I probably can’t rely just on myself. Who can? Does St Benedict’s weight of the burden exceed me in every circumstance or just now in my untutored and solitary state? In the monastery, at least, might I have not been given the job to learn to ask for help and be taught a few new skills? Perhaps that could even happen in a few workplaces–though you’re very blessed today if that is your case.
Whatever the work situation–and either because of cutbacks or because (yes, indeed) we are part of a small monastic community–we may find ourselves in jobs that constantly face us with our limits; and we may have no alternative but to stick with the assignment. In both cases, sticking with the assignment helps pay the bills. There may be no viable alternative. Then what? I can spiral into an abyss of frustration or I can re-order how I see myself or need to see myself. I can start to live as who I am rather than continuing to stucco over the cracks in my persona. I can ask for help and advice; in the process, abandoning my pretenses of competency, I may discover new energy to tackle my challenges. For one, I won’t be expending energies covering up what I can’t do; but for another, I may discover new energy just accepting my limits. My apparent limit may, in fact, be the boundary of some unique personal quality, some virtue, I’d dismissed as irrelevant. Rather than tackling the job like everyone else, I may have stumbled upon a refreshingly unique way to do it better.
Returning to the image of copying a musical score by hand: it’s not elevating work. It can be, however, very centering work, focusing my energies, dispelling distractions; that is, if my attention is not on what comes next or what I’ll do next. If my attention is not on how I will reward myself after work is done. Or if my attention is not on the frustration that going home to family responsibilities will impede rewarding myself…A recent New Yorker cartoon showed a middle aged man sitting on the edge of an examining table for his physical. His doctor tells him, “You’re suffering from stress. You need a less demanding job, a smaller home and a different family.” Sound familiar? So what can I do with the actual life I lead?
The world we live in does not necessarily cultivate the attitude of being present to the matter at hand; rather it provides yet another app to escape what is right in front of me. Alternatively, I must take the initiative not to look at my job as the function that earns what I want to get, but I could approach my job as what is happening NOW. Whether that’s pleasant or not, boring, repetitive, engrossing or interesting, it’s what is happening now. When I accept that now, anything can happen. I might even meet God there. Perhaps you’ve discovered, for example, allowing yourself to listen to someone you’d usually flee to discover that so-and-so is as human as yourself, though entirely different; yet, on some deeper level, no different than yourself. This person is as limited as yourself with longings and wishes that stretch beyond those limits. At least in that moment I can no longer dismiss that individual as an annoyance. No, he or she is a multi-dimensional person (who, yes, may happen to be annoying) as vulnerable as myself, as needy as myself and, not unlike myself, looking for a little understanding and love. Those powerful moments can be an epiphany. And isn’t God in them? That sort of epiphany can only arise from encountering my limits.