This article first appeared in the May/June 2009 issue.
The current understanding of work-life balance is too simplistic. People find it hard to balance work with family, family with self, because it might not be a question of balance. Some other dynamic is in play, something to do with a very human attempt at happiness that does not quantify different parts of life and then set them against one another.
Human beings are creatures of belonging, though they may come to that sense of belonging only through long periods of exile and loneliness. Interestingly, we belong to life as much through our sense that it is all impossible, as we do through the sense that we will accomplish everything we have set out to do. This sense of belonging and not belonging is lived out by most people through three principal dynamics: first, through relationship to other people and other living things (particularly and very personally, to one other living, breathing person in relationship or marriage); second through work; and third, through an understanding of what it means to be themselves, discrete individuals alive and seemingly separate from everyone and everything else.
These are the three marriages, of Work, Self and Other.
The First Marriage: The One We Usually Mean
Marriage is a word loaded with associations; not only the longed-for associations with the mythical horse and carriage that carries us off in perfect felicity, as Jane Austen described it, but also the whispers and echoes it finds in our mind, depending on the particular partnership our own parents made. Each of us has a profound inherited notion of marriage or partnership from the success or failure of our own parents in their commitment to each other and their ability or non-ability to bring us up.
To the unconscious mind, the coming together of our parents gave birth to our own growing and was the foundation of our present adulthood. We look at the pictures of our astonishingly youthful mother or father all those years ago, looking intently into the camera and see ourselves waiting for them in their future. Their commitment, however long or however transitory, is the ultimate background to the foreground we now explore as consenting, independent adults. To children, the union of their parents, good or bad, in a still photograph or in a moving memory, is the mythic meeting of the two gods who brought them into life and who provided, by their presence or by their disturbing absence, the surrounding universe of their growing.
Our attempts to make a successful marriage as adults often depend on the image we carry of marriage from our childhood. Inhabited by two wise and benevolent gods, marriage can be a paradise for children, a seedbed, a garden; a safe cradle for the seasons of their coming and going, and subsequently, an unconscious anchor for their going out in the world. But at its worst, inhabited by angry, unhappy or absent gods, it can be a lonely, constant battleground, a weed-strewn plot, an underworld where things seem to come only to die. Most often it is both, with the weather of life blowing through according to outward circumstances and to the trials and difficulties of married life but also the extent to which children may make life difficult for the ones who brought them to birth.
Many a marriage grinds onto the rocks of parenthood with a shock that was never quite anticipated when both parents were happily thinking of names for the newly arriving child. Many free themselves again and rise with the tide of a new arrangement of their love, but many also struggle to find the ability to think of themselves as a couple again, their past romantic desires lost in the labors and logistics of parenthood.
Arriving in the middle of all this, children experience up close and in parallel, often without speaking, all the affections and exiles of their parents’ marriage and become not only a close and unconscious student of their relationship, but a sobering mirror of marital happiness and unhappiness from the moment they are toddling around the kitchen, distinguishing right from scolded wrong. The lessons of marriage are read very early into the textbook of a child’s mind.
Even in their unhappiness, children who grow up within a bad marriage are alert to other happier marriages in the world; like a moth to the flame the young imagination flutters toward happier families in neighboring houses or to ones that exist only on the television screen, as if, in that constant looking, the search for a happy human partnership were entwined deeply in the human genetic code. A young but unhappy child almost always has an instinctive sense of the kind of family he would like to have been born into. Our myths and fairy stories are full of infants led out into the forest to die, being found and adopted, and as the story unfolds, restored to their rightful parentage.
The internal pictures of marriage we carry into adulthood often represent the need to return to this rightful parentage. The instinctive human approach to the word marriage always includes our own biography. I do remember as a young, newly married man in my twenties, feeling an urgent necessity to create a marriage and a form of parenting that would set all wrongs to rights and fill each of the gaps I felt so keenly from my own growing. With maturity and a truer sense of my own sins, I find myself with an almost opposite perspective, trying to live up to the example of self-sacrifice that I now see my parents endured in order to provide for their son and daughters and see us right in the world. But the original instincts seem to be a necessary blindness for each generation.
The first marriage is the first of the three big marriages and the three big questions—the three questions others ask us repeatedly through our lives, and the three questions we ask ourselves repeatedly in the mirror: When are you going to get married? When are you going to get a job? And, when, oh when, are you going to grow up?
Most of us grow up only during a marriage or a work-life or a sweeping self-examination, not before then. Strangely, despite this fact, in the marriage ceremony we commit to all the ideals beforehand, in public, before parents, before friends, before extended family; as one comedian said, before strange foods we will never eat again, and I might add, before crowds of perfect strangers we may never meet again.
The act of marriage is an act of faith and an act of courageous imagination as much as it is an already established fact. In our ideal imaginations we stand together in a church in the Cotswolds, a cliff edge in Hawaii, a synagogue in Israel or a wide tent on the edge of the Egyptian desert, surrounded by a crowd of loving support. But actually, it doesn’t matter; even if our declaration is limited to an elderly, hard-of-hearing Elvis impersonator in a Las Vegas wedding chapel, society and the state vests even in that lowly “king” the omniscient eye of absolute, lawful witness. We have been seen to commit publicly and the solid die for our future is cast. Historically, of course, the “king” has loomed much larger and the perceived witness has been much wider and deeper. In almost all societies we have committed in marriage beyond society, beyond the present moment of history, beyond any earthly king and given ourselves in a new way to God.
The first marriage, then, the one we most commonly use the word for—two people entwined for as long as we can imagine the future lasts—is emblematic; is a representation of, is in many ways a magnified dramatized public version of, all those other commitments we make in life, in work, and even in that third, inner marriage, where we forge the silent internal nature of our outer character. It is a code or cipher for the human heart, saying that we will manifest in public an original, very particular, very private and very passionate commitment, and abide by it through any dark loveless nights of difficulty ahead.
Work: The Second Marriage
We may be able to evade emotional commitments to others in marriage or relationship through a steady, stubborn refusal, by rehearsed, detailed explanations to mother or simply by telling the whole world to go away, but work in all its forms may be even harder to ignore, simply because it is tied so much to actual daily survival. By definition, all of us living at this time are descended from a long line of survivors who lived through the difficulties of history and prehistory; most of whom had to do a great deal of work to keep the wolf, the cold and the neighboring tribe from the door.
Work was necessity; work meant food, shelter, survival and a sense of power over circumstances. Work was and still is, endless. Work, even with inordinate riches and imperial power, never goes away. Money is no defense. Money means obligation, but also the need for that money to work for itself, which causes more work for the one who gained all the money in the first place.
Power and money together mean only that we are then surrounded by supplicants looking for jobs and money, all of whom have to be addressed, told to go away or organized.
There is no shelter from the calls of work. Find a corner to stretch out in, away from other eyes and lecturing voices and eventually our own conscience, built on millions of years of evolutionary survival, comes looking for us; tells us to get up and do something useful, for God’s sake. The refusal to contribute, to find a work, a mŽtier, a marriage of self and necessity, is seen as a deeply ingrained taboo by almost all societies; tapping into that same common root of survival we sense in society’s need for us to find and commit to a mate.
As in the first marriage, the great questions that touch on personal happiness in work have to do with an ability to hold our own conversation amid the constant ba ckground of shouted needs, hectoring advice and received wisdom. In work we have to find high ground safe from the arriving tsunami of expectation concerning what I am going to do. Work, like marriage, is a place you can lose yourself more easily perhaps than find yourself. It is a place full of powerful undercurrents, a place to find our selves, but also, a place to drown, losing all sense of our own voice, our own contribution and conversation.
In many ways, work must be a marriage; otherwise, why would we put up with so much over the years? We must have made hidden vows somewhere to follow something larger than the difficulties of the everyday.
But work is not only necessity; good work like a good marriage needs a dedication to something larger than our own detailed, everyday needs; good work asks for promises to something intuited or imagined that is larger than our present understanding of it. We may not have an arranged ceremony at the altar to ritualize our dedication to work, but many of us can remember a specific moment when we realized we were made for a certain work, a certain career or a certain future: a moment when we held our hand in a fist and made unspoken vows to what we had just glimpsed. For some it may come very, very quickly.
Work is a constant conversation. It is the back-and-forth between what I think is me and what I think is not me; it is the edge between what the world needs of me and what I need of the world. Like the person to whom I am committed in a relationship, it is constantly changing and surprising me by its demands and needs but also by where it leads me, how much it teaches me, and especially, by how much tact, patience and maturity it demands of me.
Like marriage and relationship, work is a constant invisible question, sometimes nagging, sometimes cajoling, sometimes emboldening me; at its best beckoning me to follow a particular star to which I belong. If children move into their late teens with no inkling of their future vocation, not even a glimpse of the star, it is time for the adult world around them to become rightly and increasingly worried. At this point a seemingly wrongheaded but determined direction is far better than none at all. It may be, in fact, that most of the great work done by individuals through history has often been accomplished through long years of wrongheadedness. Wrong direction or no, human societies have always intuited the powerful necessity of a gravitational pull youth must follow to find their way.
One of the most powerful thresholds children cross into adulthood comes through the sexual revolution that occurs in the very fibers of their being, turning them initially upside down, but eventually toward the ultimate necessities of committed relationships. It is interesting to think of an equivalent line in work that children must cross where their comprehension of the world is revolutionized as they slowly come to realize there is labor in the world; that the food on their table and the roof over their head may not have been won lightly and that their work in the world will be as much about providing for others as about providing for themselves. It can be a stone-cold sobering arrival or it can be a careful apprenticeship. For some children this is well understood at seven years old according to the manner of their upbringing, the income of their family and their early introduction to actually doing something for others. Other more gilded youths I have known, with $60,000 a year in tuition plus living expenses at Stanford paid without a blush, may take it all for granted until their twenty-seventh year.
Work waits. Reality waits. The conversation cannot be averted without our becoming a shining example of immaturity to those we know. Like our parents’ marriage to each other, their sense of dedication to work, in or out of the home, is one we inherit, take on and ultimately test against our own experience. No real long-term satisfaction is possible in work without treating it as something much larger than a series of jobs. I must find, pursue and commit to my vocation as I would to another person in marriage or relationship.
Self: The Third Marriage
Perhaps the most difficult marriage of all—the third marriage beneath the two visible, all-too-public marriages of work and relationship—is the internal and often secret marriage to that tricky movable frontier called ourselves: the marriage to the one who keeps changing at the center of all the other relationships while making promises it hopes to God it can keep. What is heartbreaking and difficult about this inner self that flirted, enticed, spent time with and eventually committed to a person or a career is that it is not a stationary entity, an immovable foundation; it moves and changes and surprises us as much as anything in the outer world to which it wants to commit.
Love in the words of Shakespeare may be an ever fixed mark, but the person, the self who loves, is not. Nor is the person who works a work, navigates a career. They are both a long, turning wave form moving through experience with a kind of changing, revelatory seasonality, carrying all before them like a tide, surprising everyone with their twists and turns and contradictory flows. We are each a river with a particular abiding character, but we show radically different aspects of our self according to the territory through which we travel. As Seamus Heaney said in one poem, You are neither here nor there / A hurry through which strange and known things pass. Now a swift-moving stream, now a slow traverse, at midlife perhaps nothing but a dried-up stretch of seemingly lifeless gravel, becoming a lake again, then by strange summary on the hospital bed, an estuary, a giving out, a transition into the next existence.
In the midst of seemingly endless life, however, we can spend so much time attempting to put bread on the table or holding a relationship together that we often neglect the necessary internal skills which help us pursue, come to know, and then sustain a marriage with the person we find on the inside. Neglecting this internal marriage, we can easily make ourselves a hostage to the externals of work and the demands of relationship. We find ourselves unable to move in these outer marriages because we have no inner foundation from which to step out with a firm persuasion. It is as if, absent a loving relationship with this inner representation of our self, we fling ourselves in all directions in our outer lives, looking for love in all the wrong places. The other timeless metaphor for this internal configuration has been a source or a well, a place to drink from, as if somewhere, there is a constant invisible outflow, a flow from which we might be refusing to drink.
Often our inability to draw on that inner well can become more and more painful the farther we get from the water. If we are involved in the other world in ways that betray our conscience or deeply held beliefs, then even simple internal questions can become very difficult to ask. As if we intuit that drinking from the well will clear our eyesight and help us see what is real in the other world and that once we have built that outer solid wall, brick by brick over long years through equally long effort, the gift of seeing that reality is the last gift in the world that we want.
Not only can we become afraid of these internal questions, but also we can become terrified of the spaces or silences in which these questions might arise. The act of stopping can be the act of facing something we have kept hidden from ourselves for a very long time. The third marriage, then, especially in today’s world, where we have created societies and commercial environments that claw at us from morning until night, can be the most difficult marriage of all. To the outward striver—that is, most of us—it can seem as if this internal marriage is asking for renunciation of the two outer marriages. Feeling this can come as almost a relief, a way out, for in the name of our many responsibilities and duties, we can use it as the perfect excuse not to look inside at all, feeling as if our outer world will fall apart if we spend any time looking for the person who exists at the intersection of all these outer commitments.
The Need for Silence
All of our great contemplative traditions advocate the necessity for silence in an individual life: first, for gaining a sense of discernment amid the noise and haste, second, as a basic building block of individual happiness, and third, to let this other all-seeing identity come to life and find its voice inside us. In the Buddhist tradition the ability to be happy is often translated into English as “equanimity,” roughly meaning to be equal to things, to be large enough for the drama in which we find ourselves.
Almost all of our traditions of instruction in prayer, meditation or silence, be they Catholic, Buddhist or Muslim advocate seclusion or withdrawal as a first step in creating this equanimity. Small wonder we feel it goes against everything we need to do on the outside to keep our other commitments together. Intimate relationships seem to demand endless talking and passing remarks; work calls for endless meetings, phone calls and exhortations. In the two outer marriages it seems as if everything real comes from initiating something new. In the inner world we intuit something different and more difficult. It can be disconcerting or even distressing to find that this third marriage, this internal marriage, calls for a kind of cessation, a topping, a fierce form of attention that attempts to look at where all this doing arises from. For the busy mind, for instance, it is almost impossible, or even painful, to stop and read the following:
In the beginning of heaven and earth
There were no words,
Words came out of the womb of matter
And whether a man dispassionately
Sees to the core of life
Or passionately sees the surface
The core and the surface
Are essentially the same,
Words making them seem different
Only to express appearance.
If name be needed, wonder names
From wonder into wonder
Tao Te Ching
(translation by Witter Bynner)
Existence opens. “Thank you,” we say, “but I don’t have time. Please give it to me in three bullet points that I can look at later, when I get a moment, when I retire, when I’m on my deathbed or even when I’m actually dead, surely, then there’ll be time enough to spare.” Trying to be equal to Lao Tzu’s opening remarks in the Tao Te Ching when we have no practice with silence and the revelations that arise from the spacious sense of reality can be like a novice violinist trying to play the opening notes of a Bach concerto. We can be so overwhelmed by the grandeur of the piece that we give up on our beginning scales.
The third marriage to the internal self seems to be to someone or something that in many ways seems even less open to coercion or sheer willpower than an actual marriage or a real job. Not only does this internal marriage seem to operate under rules different from those of the other two outer contracts but it also seems to be connected to the big, we might even say unbearable, questions of existence that scare us half to death and for which we have no easy answer. Like a skittish single unable to commit to the consequences of a full relationship, we turn away from questions that flower from solitude and quiet.
From the book The Three Marriages: Reimagining Work, Self and Relationship by David Whyte. Copyright © 2009 by David Whyte. Published courtesy of Riverhead Books, a division of Penguin Books (USA). All rights reserved.
David Whyte, Hons, poet, author, and internationally acclaimed speaker, is the author of eight books of poetry and four books of prose, including Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment & Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words.