Kahlil Gibran on Labor as a Form of Love

Since God exiled Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, work has been understood as burdensome toilthe prophet.  Though the nature of work has changed over the centuries, our conception of work has largely remained the same since the Bible.  Both the 19th century factory worker and the 20th century accountant understood work as a necessary evil: if they wanted roofs over their heads and food on their tables, they had to work, whether that be for 12 backbreaking hours a day in the wretched conditions of a soot-covered textile mill or for 40 hours a week staring at a screen in the mind-numbing monotony of a cubicle.  As positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi observed in his groundbreaking Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, we view work as “an imposition, a constraint, an infringement of our freedom, and therefore something to be avoided as much as possible.”

But though the majority of us consider work drudgery, a job can be more than an obligatory occupation done to pay the bills: it can be an act of service, a demonstration of our deepest convictions, an expression of our truest selves.

In his timeless classic The Prophet, poet, painter, and philosopher Kahlil Gibran argues we should reframe our attitude toward work.  Why?  Because when we dread Monday mornings at the office, when we spend our days shooting crumbled paper into trash cans and bitterly composing what we think are pointless emails, work feels futile.  But when we work with love and devoted attention, when we connect what we do to a higher meaning, our labor— and our lives— seem more worthwhile:

“And all work is empty save when there

is love;

And when you work with love you bind

yourself to yourself, and to one another,

and to God.”

adam & eve

What, exactly, does it mean to work with love?  For Gibran, working with love is working with a lover’s tenderness and an artist’s attention.  Rather than hurry through mundane tasks, we should treat the commonplace chores of life as if they were consecrated.  If we’re washing dishes at a restaurant, we should scrub each dish as if it were to be the place setting for a glorious banquet held in our significant other’s honor.  If we’re brewing coffee as a barista, we should prepare each cappuccino as if it were a hand-crafted indulgence for our lover.  And if we’re at our 9-to-5 office job, we should act as if we’re writing an expressive, heartfelt letter to our beloved— not just another humdrum email.  As Gibran writes, working with love is:

“…to weave the cloth with threads

drawn from your heart, even as if your

beloved were to wear that cloth.

It is to build a house with affection, even

as if your beloved were to dwell in that

house.

It is to sow seeds with tenderness and reap

the harvest with joy, even as if your beloved

were to eat the fruit.

It is to charge all things you fashion with

a breath of your own spirit.”

Labor can be a poignant expression of love.  Through our work, we serve our fellow man: the farmer sows the seeds and reaps the harvest that feeds nations, the doctor heals the wounded and tends to the sick.  Yet most of us begrudge work.  Take a school teacher who views herself as a glorified babysitter.  She loathes writing lesson plans and resents every Saturday night she has to decline an invitation to grade midterms.  Eventually her students get the sense that she doesn’t care and they stop caring altogether.  They read her perfunctory comments scribbled in embittered red ink on their terms papers and— rather than really reflect on how they can do better— only put forth the bare minimum of effort on their next paper.  After all, why would they want to learn the Pythagorean theorem or Einstein’s theory of relativity, why would they devote the time and energy required to memorizing their timetables or composing a beautifully-crafted, logically sound essay, if their own teacher obsessively monitors the minutes until class is over?  In some of the 20th century’s most breathtakingly beautiful prose, Gibran asserts bitterness transforms what could be a noble act of service into obligatory, much despised labor:

“For if you bake bread with indifference,

you bake a bitter bread that feeds but half

man’s hunger.

And if you grudge the crushing of the

grapes, your grudge distills a poison in the

wine.

And if you sing though as angels, and

love not the singing, you muffle man’s ears

to the voices of the day and the voice of

the night.”

For more of Gibran’s enduring wisdom, contemplate his lovely meditations on joy and sorrow, pleasure and pain, and love as our most demanding work.

Mary Oliver on Love, Work & the Power of Books to Save Lives

mary oliverFor British philosopher Alain De Botton, “Books are friends waiting for us any time we want them, and they will always speak honestly to us about what really matters.  They are the perfect cure for loneliness.  They can be our very closest friends.”  Ralph Waldo Emerson shared the belief that books could console and offer companionship.  For him, a library was “a company of the wisest and the most deserving people from all the civilized countries of the world” who could miraculously make “the results of their studies and their wisdom available to us.”  Whereas for esteemed literary critic Matthew Arnold, a well-stocked library was an invaluable collection of “the best that’s been thought and said.”

For Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Mary Oliver— our era’s luminous, large-hearted champion of silence, solitude, and devoted attention— books are a way to disappear into the life of someone else.  In her spirit-consoling essay collection Upstream, Oliver recalls that in her lonely childhood, she found solace in two parallel worlds: nature and books.  In nature, she uncovered a gateway to God, an entry to the sublime and sacred; in books, the profound relief that comes from sloughing off the skin of the self. 

Because a novel is a map tracing the topography of another person’s consciousness, reading is a masterclass in being someone else, a kind of magic portal to another realm.  Between the wrinkled pages of a book, we can be suburban housewives, glamorous debutantes, poor 19th century factory girls.  Though these characters lead vastly different lives from our own, immersed in their stories— their loves, their longings, their plights, their predicaments, their nightmares, their hells— we realize, in the lovely words of Ms. Oliver, there’s an “unbreakable cord” that unites us all; in other words, we find a powerful remedy to “it’s just me” syndrome.  By reminding us of our common humanity, books not only alleviate our loneliness— they widen our circle of empathy and enlarge our hearts:

“The second world— the world of literature— offered me, besides the pleasures of form, the sustentation of empathy (the first step of what Keats called negative capability) and I ran for it.  I relaxed in it.  I stood willingly and gladly in the characters of everything— other people, trees, clouds.  And this is what I learned: that the world’s otherness is antidote to confusion, that standing within this otherness— the beauty and the mystery of the world, out in the fields or deep inside books— can re-dignify the worst-stung heart.” 

In the same way a crush often begins with slight intrigue but ends in infatuation, Oliver’s interest in books began as a passing preoccupation but became an all-absorbing obsession.  For her, reading wasn’t a mere past time— it was a matter of life or death.  In the storm-tossed sea of her dysfunctional childhood, books were an indispensable life raft:

“I learned to build bookshelves and brought books to my room, gathering them around me thickly.  I read by day and into the night.  I thought about perfectibility, and deism, and adjectives, and clouds, and the foxes.  I locked my door, from the inside, and leaped from the roof and went to the woods, by day or darkness.

[…]

I read my books with diligence, and mounting skill, and gathering certainty.  I read the way a person might swim, to save his or her life.  I wrote that way too.” 

Why does Oliver love language?  Much like Rebecca Solnit, a staunch advocate of calling things by their true names in our post-truth world, Oliver loves language because it’s an empowering way to make life mean.  To compose a graceful sentence where— as T.S. Eliot once said— “every word is at home,” to be able to sort airy abstractions into solid semantic compartments of comprehensible meaning is a power unparalleled.  In his compelling argument against cliche, endlessly erudite Alain De Botton wrote that “how we describe the world must at some level reflect how we first experience it.”  Indeed, when we possess the words to more fully name things, we can more fully participate in our experience:  

“I did not think of language as the means to self-description.  I thought of it as the door— a thousand opening doors!— past myself.  I thought of it as the means to notice, to contemplate, to praise, and, thus, to come into power.”

In his groundbreaking Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi claimed work is essential to happiness.  Though as a culture we view work as the antithesis of play, work— when it’s a calling, a vocation— can be a labor of love.  Because Oliver loved writing and wasn’t simply writing to attain some result, her long hours at the typewriter were bliss rather than an interminable hell.  And because she took such delight in composing beautiful arrangements of words, she was able to commit the endless years needed to become a master:

“I saw what skill was needed, and persistence— how one must bend one’s spine, like a hoop, over the page— the long labor.  I saw the difference between doing nothing, or doing a little, and the redemptive act of true effort.  Reading, then writing, then desiring to write well, shaped in me that most joyful of circumstances — a passion for work.”  

In a lovely line, Oliver outlines the life-affirming commandments of her own personal credo:

You must not ever stop being whimsical.  

And you must not, ever, give anyone else the responsibility for your life.”

What makes a life worthwhile?  Poets and philosophers have pondered this existential puzzle for millennia.  But for Oliver, the answer is simple: love and work.

I don’t mean it’s easy or assured; there are the stubborn stumps of shame, grief that remains unsolvable after all the years, a bag of stones that goes with one wherever one goes and however the hour may call for dancing and for light feet.  But there is, also, the summoning world, the admirable energies of the world, better than anger, better than bitterness and, because more interesting, more alleviating.  And there is the thing that one does, the needle one plies, the work, and within that work a chance to take thoughts that are hot and formless and to place them slowly and with meticulous effort into some shapely heat-retaining form, even as the gods, or nature, or the soundless wheels of time have made forms all across the soft, curved universe — that is to say, having chosen to claim my life, I have made for myself, out of work and love, a handsome life.”