Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Re-imagining work - part 3

Cross posted
Part 1
Part 2

My mother spent many years teaching in a Montessori pre-school, and then running it, first as a teaching principal, and then later, when the school was big enough, as a non-teaching principal. I was fascinated by the Montessori method, and my own children went to Montessori pre-schools (although, alas, for reasons - work related ones, of course - we eventually sent our younger daughters to a pre-school in our suburb that offered much better hours for working parents).

Children in Montessori schools complete "works." A work is a task, an exercise, an activity, carefully structured in the Montessori way, so that the child learns the overt lesson, and the implicit lesson, and achieves something that is worth doing. Not worth doing in some trivial way, but worth doing because of its substance.

For many years, my mother concentrated on the children in her classroom, and on becoming a better and better Montessori teacher. The works she achieved were perhaps teaspoons, teaspoons of great merit and worth. In later years, as principal, Mum started to build the school, growing it from two to four classrooms, establishing a primary school classroom, and nurturing a cohort of excellent teachers. All this in a small city in New Zealand, in a province where education is not always all that highly regarded.

My father achieved much the same level of things in his career, leaving the land after he had married and had three children, and training in accountancy. By the end of his career, he had helped to build a highly successful accountancy firm, and had become an expert in his particular area. Other accountants from throughout the country consult him, contact him with issues they can't sort out, and he helps them, freely. That is, most of the time, he doesn't even charge them. He regards it as a service to his profession, and to his colleagues. He also happily talks through the issues with the public servants who develop the policy and laws in his area of expertise, 'tho he has been known to have full and frank exchanges of views with one or two of them from time to time. Again, he regards this as part of what he should do, because it is important to get it right. And by that, he doesn't mean that he gets the policy or the law that suits his clients, but that the policy and the law is right. Then he helps his clients to comply with it.

These are people of substance and achievement. To me, their working lives are part of what creates eudaimonia. I've written about eudaimonia before, and it's something that continues to exercise my thinking.

Eudaimonia can be translated as "happiness" but that's a bit vacuous, and it can be translated as "flourishing" but that doesn't quite capture the sense of joy that goes with it. When in doubt, I go with "flourishing." A eudaimonic life is one lived to the full, with friends and family and connection with people. It's a life which expresses the virtues, of courage and generosity and friendship and justice and so on. It's one where a person develops and exercises her capacities, and becomes a well-rounded and flourishing person.

(The ancients - Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Zeno, Epicurus, et al, write about eudaimonia. Famously, however, some of them thought that the best life was the life of philosophical contemplation. I have issues with that, like who does the dishes?)

Here's the thing. We construct our work current practices in such a way that some people are cut off from meaningful work, work in which they can develop and exercise their faculties, and flourish. Of course, there's more to life than work, and more to flourishing than work, but work occupies a huge proportion of the preoccupations of the society we live in, and working matters to us. We define ourselves by our work, and those of us who call ourselves housewives feel that we have to do so ironically, or defensively. "That's Dr Housewife to you!"

Ideally, we would be able to do both - care for children and partners and family, and engage in meaningful work that allows us to flourish. Yet if we nurture our children and partners and family and friends, then necessarily, we can't devote as much time to work. We end up in part time work, where it can be hard to access the meaningful work of substance that enables a person to flourish. Yes, rearing children and nurturing family are important, and of substance, and worth doing, but you wouldn't know that, would you, given the subsistence wages paid to those who do it, and the complete lack of recognition of the value of the work.

Before he got all bible based and fundamentalist and homophobic, Orson Scott Card wrote some fascinating and beautiful books. Of his works, the most lyrical one that I have read is Songmaster. It's a complicated story, but at the end of his life, the lead character, Ansset, comes back to the Songhouse where he grew up. The masters and mistresses of the Songhouse have a room that each has used in turn, the High Room, and at the end of their lives, they may choose the time of their death by exposing themselves to the elements in the High Room. They have done the great Work of leading and guiding the Songhouse, and so they have this honour and privilege. Ansset has never been master of the Songhouse, but at the end of his life, he asks the mistress of the house, "Have I done a Work?" Meaning, am I worthy of dying in this High Room?

As I go through my life, I want, like my parents, and like so many of the people I admire, to be able to say of myself, that I have done a Work. Something of substance and meaning, that is worth doing, that counts, that contributes, that enables me to flourish.

So that's the challenge. How can we structure work alongside and with family and friends and community so that work is a Work?

More to come, one day soon... and yes, I do have some concrete suggestions!

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