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Courage and Conversation: Setting Out With A Firm Persuasion
Then I asked: Does a firm persuasion that a thing is so, make it so? He replied: All poets believe that it does, and in ages of imagination this firm persuasion removed mountains; but many are not capable of a firm persuasion of anything.
William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell
Work is a very serious matter in almost all respects, whether it is work in the shelter of our home or work in the big, wide, dangerous world. Through work, human beings earn for themselves and their families, make a difficult world habitable, and with imagination, create some meaning from what they do and how they do it. The human approach to work can be naive, fatalistic, power-mad, money-grubbing, unenthusiastic, cynical, detached, and obsessive. It can also be selflessly mature, revelatory and life giving; mature in its long-reaching effects, and life giving in the way it gives back to an individual or society as much as it has taken. Almost always it is both, a sky full of light and dark, with all the varied weather of an individual life blowing through it.
There is no hiding from work in one form or another. Under the great sky of our endeavors we live our lives, growing we hope, through its seasons toward some kind of greater perspective. Any perspective is dearly won. Maturity and energy in our work is not granted freely to human beings but must be adventured and discovered, cultivated and earned. It is the result of application, dedication, an indispensable sense ofhumor, and above all a never-ending courageous conversation with ourselves, those with whom we work, and those whom we serve. It is a long journey; it calls on both the ardors of youth and the perspectives of a longer view. It is achieved through a lifelong pilgrimage.
William Blake, that unstoppable creator, as both poet and engraver seemed to have a direct and conversational relationship with the wellsprings of work. Over a lifetime he exhibited a continual inspiration, a profound vision and an indomitable ability, despite his poverty, to follow through with the tiniest details of his art. Blake called his sense of dedication a firm persuasion. To have a firm persuasion in our workto feel that what we do is right for ourselves and good for the world at the exactly same timeis one of the great triumphs of human existence. We do feel, when we have work that is challenging and enlarging and that seems to be doing something for others, as if, in Blake's words, we could move mountains, as if we could call the world home; and for a while, in our imaginations, no matter the small size of our apartment, we dwell in a spacious house with endless horizons.
"My fingers Emit sparks of fire with Expectation of my future labours," said the passionate Blake, in a letter promising plenty of hard work to his patron, Hayley. He was speaking from a felt sense of fulfillment and from the very last part of the eighteenth century, an age when our Western ideas of work were going through enormous change, an age when the factory was born, and production in and for itself was first conceived as an imaginative good. But Blake stood firm amid it all in his approach to work and in his writings, saying essentially nothing had changed. Factory or farm, individuals needed a sense of belonging in their work, a conversation with something larger than themselves, a felt participation, and a touch of spiritual fulfillment and the mysterious generative nature of that fulfillment. Blake might have said that they needed a conversation with the angels. Earning and providing were all very well, but once the basics were met, human beings naturally turned their inward and outward eyes to greater horizons.
Whether fulfillment lasts for a month or for a lifetime, most of us would not complain of its appearance in our lives however long or short its stay. If we cannot have Blake's lifelong experience of wonder and inspiration through our labors, we will take just the merest touch now and again. Some have experienced fulfillment for only a few brief hours early on in their work lives and then measured everything, secretly, against it since. Some have felt eager and engaged by their work for years and then walked into their office one fine morning to find their enthusiasms gone, their energies spent, their imaginations engaged in secret ways, elsewhere.
To have a firm persuasion, to set out boldly in our work, is to make a pilgrimage of our labors, to understand that the consummation of work lies not only in what we have done, but who we have become while accomplishing the task. To see life and work as a pilgrimage is not a strategy for increased production (though by understanding the wellsprings of human creativity, there is every chance it might happen); it does not mean that we can lay out our careers in precise stages, clearly and concisely, as to when, where and how everything should happen. All of our great artistic and religious traditions take equally great pains to inform us that we must never mistake a good career for good work. Life is a creative, intimate and unpredictable conversation if it is nothing else, spoken or unspoken, and our life and our work are both the result of the particular way we hold that passionate conversation. In Blake's sense, a firm persuasion, was a form of self-knowledge; it was understood as a result, an outcome, a bounty that came from paying close attention to an astonishing world and the way each of us is made differently and uniquely for that world.
Faith And Work
Blake saw the great powers of life working on us like a kind of permanent gravity field, the currents of life acting and pulling upon us according to our particular heft and spiritual weight, our makeup and our nature. These currents surround us and inform us whether we are in the kitchen or in the office, in the woods alone, or crowded in a downtown elevator. To have a firm persuasion, according to Blake, we must come to know these currents that surround us in an intimate way and build a kind of faith from the directional movement that results from a close conversation with these elements. Almost like a sail conversing with the wind, every sail will respond differently to the elements according to its shape and the vessel it propels. And the response of the sail, with a steady hand at the tiller, creates movement and direction. In this conversation no one can get stuck for long; as an individual, you simply need to present some surface area to life. In Woody Allen's words: Just show up; then it is only a question of direction.
Showing up for work is difficult. You would think not showing up would be impossible for living, breathing human beings, but we know enough of ourselves on a bleak Monday morning, or certain co-workers of a bad day, to realize that as human beings, we are the one part of creation that can refuse to be itself. Our bodies can be present in our work, but our hearts, minds, and imaginations can be placed firmly in neutral or engaged elsewhere.
Faith And Doubt
Sometimes our hiding from others has been so successful that we can no longer even find ourselves when we want to. We feel submerged, heavy, immovable, stuck forever in the mud of our own making. I think of the patterns of air that circulate around a plane's wing, lifting even the deadliest, heaviest part of us up and away, off the ground. Blake must have believed that every human being has access to these metaphorical aerodynamics; he drew figures depicting the dramas of human existence, people flying, falling, coming to earth or spiralling upward. He thought of the artist as a whole man or woman, someone with utter faith in the conversation, alert to the forces that stream around us. To waken this inner artist, we must assume a certain shape that puts us in conversation with the elements; we must cultivate a kind of faith in the moving energies around us and the way they to come to our aid, give us lift, no matter our circumstances or difficulties.
If the Sun and Moon should doubt,
They'd immediately go out.
Blake said, sure of the brilliant and reflective nature of faith. Not that any life is free from doubt, especially when it comes to our work and the places we work. Many's the time we gaze into the mirror in the course of a long work life and see our own faces shaded and eclipsed by a complete loss of connection with our striving. The eyes dimmed, the professional smile false and forced. We pick up the phone and make the call, though we have nothing to say.
Whatever doubt we have, Blake asks us to put that doubt in conversation with grander, more eternal, more essential parts of ourselves. Underneath the face, underneath the surface professionalism, underneath the brief obituary in the paper, there are forces grander than any individual human life at play. To lose contact with these forces is to lose a real sense of living, and especially of living a life we can call our own. Suicide, literal or metaphorical, is the loss of conversation with these forces. Any life, and any life's work, is a hidden journey, a secret code, deciphered in fits and starts. The details only given truth by the whole, and the whole dependent on the detail.
A Vocabulary of Faith
By Kathleen Norris
Copyright © 1999 Kathleen Norris. All rights reserved.