writing on suffering and awakening

Who is left when the work stops?

In an essay published in Commonweal Magazine, the writer Jonathan Malesic describes visiting the Benedictine Monastery of Christ in the Desert. Struck by the deliberate pace of life sustained by the brothers, he observes his own discomfort at the thought that endless labor is not the path of virtue.

Many would share his discomfort. Indeed, even new brothers at the monastery struggle to slow down. But as they have for centuries, the monks take their time in everything they do. If some task is unfinished at the end of the workday, that’s okay. It can wait for tomorrow. Or next week.

The essay is worth reading in full, but one section in particular stands out:

Un travail de bénédictin—literally, a Benedictine labor—is a French expression for the sort of project someone can only accomplish over a long time through patient, modest, steady effort. It’s the kind of thing that can’t be rushed: illuminating an entire Bible, writing a thousand-year history, recording the position of stars at each hour of the night and each day of the year. It’s work that doesn’t look good in a quarterly earnings report. It doesn’t maximize billable hours. It doesn’t get overtime pay.

But it’s a way to work without the anxiety that drives us to put in long, intense hours and uproot our lives every few years in pursuit of “better” jobs.

This emphasis on humane, humble effort reminds me of how the Dalai Lama advises measuring one’s spiritual growth. “Check in every ten years,” he says. In other words, awakening can’t be forced, and it’s not worth spending much time looking for results.

I’m lucky enough to work from home in a job where I can set my own hours. But frankly, I’m unusual—many folks I know (or see on social media, for that matter) are more caught up in the rat race of long hours. I see that and then the voice in my head starts whispering: look at what other people are accomplishing. You’re not working as hard as you should.

Malesic points to this sort of experience when he observes the extent to which many of us base our sense of self-worth—and of our value to the community—on how much we work. He and the other guests at the monastery actually found themselves inventing work for themselves when the brothers told them there wasn’t anything for them to do. The instinct to justify one’s day is a strong one.

My feeling is that we also get caught up in the idea of progress, both in our own lives and on a larger, societal and technological scale. Things are moving and we want to take some credit in that. We want to help.

That’s not a bad thing. But I do think that in our rush to build up a gleaming modern society, we’re missing that progress is often more about tearing down: letting go of our fixed ideas about who we are and jumping into the river. Less is more, in our understanding of reality, at least. We work long hours to bolster our sense of self, only to be left wanting when the bolsters collapse as tomorrow becomes today. Eventually, it’s worth asking: what’s the point?

More uncomfortably, perhaps, we can also ask: who is left when the work stops?

Still, most of us do want to make use of our time and energy. So what kind of progress is worth working towards? A quiet mind, a caring heart, a nurturing community. But these things can’t be measured, only experienced. We don’t get to brag about them. Real progress is intertwined with humility.

The Benedictine monks pay more attention to the quality and experience of what they are doing than the results. They know the latter isn’t really up to them. What if we all lived like that?

Ian Cooper