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Narrative: David Whyte - Crossing the Unknown Sea - Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity

Crossing The Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity by David Whyte is one of the best books I've read on the issues surrounding lifework and our identity. From the opening sentence, "Work is a very serious matter in almost all respects, whether it is in the shelter of our home or work in the big, wide, dangerous world." David Whyte takes us on a journey centered on the meaning of work in our lives. In the previous entry, I introduced the idea of "lifework" - the idea that our sources of inspiration and passion in life and our work should not, and in the end cannot be separate. Living life means doing some kind of work. In its most general sense, work means putting forther effort in making or doing something. When we use the word "work" we naturally think of limited things like jobs, careers, and money. While this understanding of the word is obviously important, it is a very narrow, misleading and potentially harmful limitation...

David Whyte asks us to think about our work as a "lifelong pilgimage." What is important here is that Whyte has first asked us to expand our sense of time and to consider work as a journey through life that involves unknowns. Work is as much about the journey of the soul through the world as it is developing a career and making money.

Taking his cue from Art, Whyte extends William Blake's dedication to relentless creativity that he referred to as a "firm persuasion." This firm persuasion is our source of inspiration, passion and creativity in life that involves us in "a conversation with something larger than ourselves."

"... 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."

"... we must cultivate a kind of faith in the moving energies around us and the way they come to our aid, give us lift, no matter our circumstances or difficulties."

"Work is where we can make ourselves; work is where we can break ourselves."

"Failure in truly creative work is not some mechanical breakdown but the prospect of a failure in our very essence, a kind of living death. Little wonder we often choose the less vunerable, more familiar approach, that places work mostly in terms of provision."

"I think that there are some experiences you can only crawl into on your hands and knees in order to understand them."

"To my mind, one of the great disciplines of any human life is the discipline of memory, or remembering what is essential in the midst of our business and busyness."

"Humans work hard and build imaginatively, generation after generation. Then, as Camille Paglia says, 'Let nature shrug, and all is in ruin.'"

"Often, in order to stay alive, we have to unmake a living in order to get back to living the life we wanted for ourselves. It is the cycle of making, disintegration, and remaking that is the hallmark of meaningful and creative work."

"Our work is a measure not only of our own lives but of all those who came before us and created the world we inherit. I hope they did not labor, starve, bear innumerable children, nor cross oceans to make a new life so we could give it all up in the promised land by some bland acquiescence to corporate career safety."

"Human beings left to their own devices - a very rare event - seem to work according to the quality of the season and learn similarly in cycles. Good work and education are achieved by visitation and then absence, appearance and disappearance... Constant learning is counterproductive and makes both ourselves and the subject stale and uninteresting."
- Crossing The Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity

Crossing The Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity is a creative and relentlessly practical book. Many other books I have read related to work present themselves as practical guides designed to help people identify and capture a career, yet the limited focus on preparing people for the workforce make them extremely impractical, if not counterproductive and destructive.

David Whyte has gone beyond these limitations and provided a holistic view of lifework. The key ideas in the book are intricately woven with real life narratives. Since he is a poet, the language is a wonderful experience unto itself - it is a great pleasure not to be reading yet another one of those "plain language" books that use a "conversational everyday language" style that often makes for poor conversation anway. If you're interested in a quick-read / quick-fix / self-help style of book, then this is not the book for you. If, however, you are interested in finding an inspiring place to reconsider your own lifework, then this is a book that will be impossible to read only once.

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