A close friend of mine, a man about my age, recently discovered that he has a tumor measuring 2 inches (5 cm) growing on his brain. He will learn what his treatment options are soon and will likely have surgery in about a week.
I’m about that age–40 to be exact–when illness and death start to creep in on me. Growing up in the US in the twentieth century, I didn’t witness the deaths of babies, toddlers, or teenagers. I trust that is likely true for you. For if you’re anything like me, then death has been a fact of the human condition yet not one, while you grew up, that you were intimately acquainted with. At the edge of your consciousness, perhaps, you heard of distant grandparents or once-seen uncles who fell ill and then faded away, yet death has seemed to you and to me as an aberration, a deviation from the life script. Life is where it’s at and death but a rumor that never became a meme.
But then death sneaks up on you as you approach middle age. Slowly, inexorably you start to hear of people around your age, people dear to you who are badly injured, are especially ill, or perhaps are dying. My eldest sister, who’d never been sick before, was about my age when she found out that she had late-stage cancer; she would have but 12 more painful weeks to live.
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How does it happen that something with which we ought to be so tactilely familiar is precisely what remains a mere, almost absent abstraction for us? I know one reason and although it is not the only one, it is a huge one. It is Total Work.
You see if you wake up every morning with first, second, and third thoughts of To Do Lists to be populated, tasks to be performed, schedules to be adhered to, meetings to be attended, calls to hop on, fires to put out, deadlines approaching, and targets that must be hit, then you can’t but deny that you, ontologically speaking, are a human agent and that agency is expressing itself in the modes of work–in that of working on yourself (life design, life hacking, bio-hacking, etc.) and in that of working on the world. Succinctly put, your daily consciousness reveals to you that you are a Worker–or, in any case, such is what you believe to be the case. The modern world presupposes, even while it promotes in myriad ways, the Worker.
Yet putting human agency ontologically and epistemically first is dangerous because it must, as such, remain blind to whatever is not willed by the agent, to whatever simply arises, happens, and comes upon one. Divine grace is one such possibility; kensho (or waking up in Zen) is another; death most surely a third.
To the extent that we remain in the throes of Total Work, we shall persistently neglect, overlook, and forget one of the most existentially significant events: our own deaths. Blind to our own deaths, we shall remain blind to the contemplative dimension of human life that is precisely what redeems human life in the face of its own stubborn mortality. Blind to our own deaths, we fail to take up with the utmost urgency and earnestness the pressing, almost maddening nature of dukkha, the unsatisfactory, hardly bearable condition that the Buddha pointed us to. Translating dukkha as “suffering” hardly does it justice. Dukkha is the feeling, if only we attune our entire beings to it, of life being not quite as we’d like, of their being an uncannily, weirdly, painfully off. Dukkha is the great taint or stain that feels, once we see it, unremovable.
You see now why it’s utterly incumbent upon you to cease–today–being a Total Worker; why putting work in its proper, modest, humble place–today–can’t be put off; why waking up to what, at a fundamental level, you’ve taken for granted must begin today. It is foolish to wait for tomorrow–after you’ve finished this memo.
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Comments, Suggestions, Articles on Total Work?
Feel free to send comments, suggestions, thoughts, and articles about total work to me at Andrew Taggart <email@example.com>.
If You’d Like to Become a Patron…
Thank you to my growing list of patrons! If you feel called to support my philosophical life, you can do so here <https://www.patreon.com/ajt>.
Looking for some clarity about the nature and history of total work? Start by reading my brief overview of total work on my Patreon account <https://www.patreon.com/ajt>, Next, take a look at the first issue of this newsletter <https://www.getrevue.co/profile/andrewjtaggart/issues/total-work-newsletter-1-working-ourselves-into-a-frenzy-89819.> Next, check out my Quartz at Work pieces (December 2017- present), which are available here <https://work.qz.com/author/andrew-taggart>.