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  • Writer's pictureNadine Almer

There is Grace in Being Lost: How To Navigate Work and Purpose

there is an answer there is a way
i have not found it
it may be that it cannot be found
that there is no such thing
better the search than dully to agree with necessity

You are reading a quote from a book that made it into the last 101 items that I own. A book that has inspired me to do things I have never thought I could do, think about things that never occurred to me to think about and change things that seemed unchangeable.

Once more a female writer thought it practical to not openly display that she was a woman. And bless her, I am thankful for it. Otherwise she might have never been published, otherwise the beauty of her descriptions would not have been brought to me decades later.

As you might have guessed this book is about the legend of how a Prince of the material world became the Prince of the spiritual world. Needless to talk about it- and if you do not know this story, it truly is more than worth reading it for yourself. Not only is it written in the most poetic, skilled and enthralling way, it bears a lot of wisdom, obviously. Though the wisdom I refer to does not necessarily depict a strict spiritual perspective on Buddhism, I found it to be inspiring for my relationship towards purpose and work. Inextricably connected.

Why, you ask?
I am glad you do!

First, we need to take a step back and ask: What is work?

Work, or let me call it labour, is an innate part of every being. For the most part it is about survival. Gathering food and finding shelter, mainly. So far, so good.

Anthropologists say that in the Stone Ages the typical hunter and gatherer worked between 4 to 6 hours a day, less if they happened to stumble across good game or plentiful of berries in a bush. More if times were tough. In addition they had a lot of time for repairing tools and weapons, as well as drawing on cave walls - or else, how would we even know, right?!

Later in Egypt the majority of workers are depicted as labouring their life's essence away, day in and day out. Their work was also about survival though it was drifting away from the core of surviving as a pack. They had their earnings to buy food and maintain a shelter, caring less for the pack and more for the dissociated own family cluster. A trend that commenced once we as a species settled down and continues until now. Yet, they (not counting the poor souls of slaves) also had leisure time, which I did not know of before. Apparently they worked 18 days out of every 50, and their weeks consisted of 10 days, spending 8 to work and 2 to rest. Time off was mainly used for religious festivals, burials and making clothing or brewing alcohol.

Imperial Romans were labouring only half of the year because of their huge number of religious festivals, and when they worked their day would end after 6 hours.

In the Dark Ages of Medieval England, a farmer worked more in summer when it was harvesting time and less in winter. They also had a lot of time off because of rites and holy days. The Aztec Empire in the 14th century had 20 days per month, 18 months a year and were said to have laboured 9 hours a day for 274 days. Compared to the French during the reign of their Sun King Louis XIV (le Roi Soleil) this sounds like an easy lot to take, for the French had labour days of 12 hours and hunger still was a constant in their lives. Though out of 365 days only 187 were work days because of their religious holidays, Sundays and rest days.

Why is this sounding like a history lesson, you ask?
Well, because it gets worse and I have a point to make. So please bear with me, it'll be worth your time, I promise it.

The shocker for me came when a study showed that the average, non-skilled worker in the 18th century England worked 11 hours per day for 208 days per year. And that, come the industrial revolution in the 19th century, a factory worker laboured for 16 hours a day for a total of 311 days per year.

Can you imagine? Factory owners simply took the rights for religious holidays away and the only day off was Sunday. Seeing as the majority of workers lived hand to mouth anyway, there was not much they were able to do about it due to no regulations and no unions.

Finally we arrive at the 20th century when unions were formed and the government thought they might as well try some regulations. Back to 8 hours for 243 days per year and a huge thank you to Henry Ford for realising that the productivity was raised once he admitted his factory workers a 5 day and 40 hours week, instead of a 48 hours week.

Arriving at the pinnacle of human evolution: The tech worker of our 21st century puts in around 10 hours per day for 297 days a year, an office worker in the US around 7 hours for 239 days of the year and an office worker in the Netherlands works around 6 hours for 234 days per year. Compared to the Hiwi aka the Guahibo people who live in parts of Venezuela working only around three hours a day for basically all of the 365 days of the year.

Wow, so many numbers- and wait, how is this relevant for the Life of the Buddha book from earlier?

Well, first of all, I needed to show that work over the centuries did not mean the same thing. Yes, the majority of time it consisted of surviving like it did back in the Stone Ages. But as soon as we settled down and a power hierarchy was established, people either got poorer or richer depending on what they were born into. Meaning that for all of these centuries the poorest were labouring for the richest. No other purpose than surviving on the hand in their mouths. That never changed. Basically, settling down and building settlements lead us to giving up our freedom- no more time for drawings on the walls. Self fulfilment was no option, purpose was leading the life of a pious, righteous, religious person. And this could be truth or farce, imperative that no one finds out if you were living the latter.

Somehow we managed to be dragged into more labour intensive times come the industrial revolution when people suddenly only counted as slaves. I would not have survived a day under these conditions with 16 hours of labour and not even enough money to get by. Without contraception, I'd probably be a mother of more than 10 children by now and would be nearing my death bed.

Compared to all that came before, one might argue that the hours and days we put in nowadays are mild and fair. Reasonable. And I agree, only a difference has to be made between people that actually like and enjoy what they do and those whose souls are being crushed every day by the tasks they are obliged to fulfil.

Purpose vs necessity.

And this is where the book comes into play. See, I had menial jobs and I had good jobs and now I am working towards my dream job. And most of the years that I was working a menial job, even a good office job, I was miserable. Admittedly this also has to do with mental health. But it has more to do with the purpose you see in yourself and thus in your life. Making the connection between mental health and purpose is essential.

Yes, there was no way some poor lad in the 17th century would have been able to express his concerns about his living conditions and how he is treated as a person and that he is suffering from invisible issues in the head. I strongly disagree with these kind of comparisons though.

We are living today in our time. It is like pointing out that pears are similar to apples.

They are not- and so are past times and our current conditions. Each is equal in their right to have benefits and advantages, nonetheless they are not comparable to each other.

For me it was like this:

Was I ever told in school the principles of why I have to work in the first place? You may laugh now. I did not know, I never asked, I simply swam with the flow of economics. You work to get money to get things. But that there are alternative ways of living, alternative ways of earning and self-empowering ways of labouring- I could not have fathomed. I never questioned anything. There was no representation of exceptions from the rule.

Now I there are.

And L. Adams Beck's book ''The Life of the Buddha' , though from the early 20th century, she described a story that made it obvious that there is something else out there. That there are exceptions. That there are possibilities and options. That there is a way.

Uncertainty, yes, but still a way other than necessity.

The Prince discovers that outside of the palace doors there are certainties: illness, age and death. Certainties he never consciously experienced before.

So once he realises that, he could never live the same way again. And he ventures out to seek the truth. His truth.

He finds many a places that teach him wisdom, though restless as he is no place can hold him long, always looking for more in the outside world.

Until finally he arrives at the conclusion that the wisdom can be found within. One's own thoughts and actions determine fulfilment.

  • The same certainties we encounter in daily life and the work place. And yet, we never question why we spend the majority of our time in an environment that makes us sick, probably with people that treat us badly. Ageing away until we are free to go once we are allowed to. Do we really have to? Or do we choose to oblige?

  • Sometimes people think about that and then they would want to be set free from it. But without possibility where should one go? We are fed with lies about what we can do and what we cannot do, kept in place to work away our hours, days, weeks, months, years... our life. Ducking down because we fear that our existence is threatened if we do not keep this one, or these two or even three jobs. Forgetting that we ourselves determine what the necessities for our lives are. How big of a living space do I need? How many clothes? How many shoes? How many things? How much money? Isn't money energy? Isn't money an exact material replica of time? Do I favour quality time or money? May I have both?

  • We venture out as well, seeking fulfilment in the material world. Forgetting that our children don't need 30 different books, 40 different cuddly and 50 different play toys. Forgetting the times when we were the happiest or relaxed as a child. Was it not simply by being together with friends or our family. Outside in nature or inside listening to one another. Talking to one another. Was it when we were in service to someone else? Was it when we helped without expecting something back? Wasn't it when we gave or received unconditional kindness?

  • Out there are a lot of seductions to give in to. We are told we can only be happy when we reach some far and distant goal. The next raise? The next step up the hierarchy in the work place? The time you finally get married or become a parent? The next summer holidays. The next winter holidays. The next... what? Everything is happening in the now and by running towards the next we eventually forget the present and ourselves. Stand still and witness your breath, your heart, your blood flowing. Aren't we magnificent? A wonder walking or jumping into cool water? Being alive is living life to the fullest, isn't it? Being alive is diving into a real life adventure or an adventure in a book, isn't it? Being alive is enjoying the first bite of your croissant, smelling coffee, hugging someone that is dear to you. It is crying your heart out to a song that triggers you, it is feeling alone and knowing you are not. Being alive is living life to the fullest, being alive is living in the moment and appreciating that you are here. Right now.

  • And then, once we get to where we wanted to (if we make it there). What then? You'll find that some external possession, one material thing, is worthless if within you things are broken. You've managed to do everything anyone was expecting you to do and some of us end up unhappy, burned out, questioning their whole existence. In the course of a lifetime, all that adds up to who you are, is nothing more than a series of 'that is just how it is supposed to be's'. Or 'there is nothing I can do about it's'. Or 'if only I'd have known's'. It never is about the things you bought or the hours of work you put in to gain more money. What are the top most things people regret when they are old?

The Prince illustrates for me my journey, personally and professionally. I was born into something and did not question it until one day life made me question what I've always known.

From there it was no easy ride, far from it. The longest and hardest part was realising that it is truly up to myself to make a change. No one else ever is at fault. No one else ever is the enemy. I am my own worst enemy in believing that I am powerless. A trinket living life to someone else's expectations.

I am not. I decide.

Every. Littlest. Thing.

I decide how I want my day to be, miserable or relaxed or happy or slow or fast.

I decide how I react to an insult, kindly because I know that this behaviour is born out of lack of love. Or giving back because I feel insufficient to acknowledge that out of pain, pain is born.

I decide how I handle my finances, where I invest my money and whom I give it to. Which enterprises, which small business owner, what I buy and what I refuse to contribute to.

I decide if I smile at some random person on the street, greet them, maybe make their day or let them look at me strangely. It does not matter.

My decision, my consequences.

I decide if I want to continue at a working place where I don't feel appreciated. Quit, one door closes and another opens.

I decide if I want to labour away eight or nine hours for five days a week in a job that eats up my insides. For my rent, my phone, my clothes, my partying, my insurance company.

I decide with what I fill my mind day in and day out. I am aware this content that I feed myself, both physically with food entering my body, liquids hydrating it, as well as with ideas, articles, news, books, games that I feed to my brain and therefore to my perception of the world.

You decide.

Every. Single. Day.

It is a tough call to realise that your life is the making of your own decisions. But it also is a wake up call that guides you toward self empowered thinking. Because if everything is your decision and your consequence, your decisions and your consequences are yours alone to be judged. Everything has consequences. Quitting a job has, traveling has, living day to day brings consequences. But if they become your own consequences, if you decide how they affect you (or not affect you or your well being), that is the power of freedom. Of self empowerment. Of choice.

The Prince taught me that life is about exploring until you find what genuinely brings you contentment. He also taught me that wisdom lies in several situations, people and places along the way.

And he taught me that being on a quest to finding yourself and getting lost on the way has grace too.

Be daring. Be courageous. Be kind.

We came a long way, we humans. And to me the times we are living in right now bring us an abundance of possibilities. Never before thought of options. Everything is opening up to a new era of what it means to be alive, what life itself means to each one of us. These prospects may scare people, change is always the fear of the unknown. But our whole universe is changing all the time. Thus change is a natural part of life. Plus, isn't it empowering to think that you alone get to decide if you want to take the leap or not?

I say live so you never have to ask yourself 'What if?'.

Live so your last breath is bound to become a content smile.

From my heart to yours, beloved souls, all the love in the world!

Thank you for your support and kindness, and your precious, precious time of reading this!


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