Sacredness and Work
Does Joseph Campbell’s advice to “follow your bliss” apply in a capitalistic world? That phrase arose from Campbell’s study of the ancient mythologies of the world. As he dove deep into the religions and folktales of our species, he discovered a core focus on self-betterment and internal growth, as well as a sense of direction and focus, in life, that came from seeing ourselves as part of a story.
There are many stories at work today; it’s easy to become immersed in “content” in a wide variety of genres, just as it’s easy to reinvent yourself within the confines of a preexisting stereotype, fad, or cultural resurgence. Out from the U.S. social paradigm has spread a vision of self-directed identity and the proliferation of self-generated meaning: we can all be the very best in our own unique ways, says the paradigm, we can all be unique individuals… if only we buy into the latest trend.
In the old myths, we found ourselves by wandering into dark caves, searching for the sacred within the realms of the vast unknown; within nature herself. But nature’s borders have been stripped of their mystery, we have cultivated the enigmatic zones and monetized them; we’ve turned the search for fulfillment and the sacred into a legal contract with whatever media entity we’re currently using to absorb bytes of information. Despite our striving for uniqueness and identity, it seems that we’ve caved to a zeitgeist of mediocrity.
In his book, Deep Work, the computer scientist and philosopher Cal Newport discusses the importance of finding fulfillment in the work we do — the work in front of us — rather than seeking only that work which fuels our passion. His point is simple: most of us are not going to have jobs that we’re passionate about, so, instead, let us cultivate a fulfilling relationship with them in whatever ways we can.
The point is at once valid and profound, and yet also chills me. Is the goal of human life now so codified, so denude of meaning, that the place where we spend over half our daily life (the working sphere) is the only one where we stand a chance of finding fulfillment; must we give up the hope for meaning in exchange for the craftman’s work ethic (an ethic fueled by necessity, rather than joy?). Yet, the advice is sound, in its way: we must learn to find fulfillment in the mere fact of being alive, and cultivating a deeper relationship to what we do — whatever that thing is — be it washing dishes or selling insurance — is surely vital for our internal well-being. Even in utopia, there would be tasks we’d rather were left undone.
With Descartes, with the shifting importance of an individual’s self-direction in life, we began to lose touch with something deeper that had lain rooted in the heart of human experience since time immemorial. I don’t speak of any religion, though in a way I speak for all of them; all our imagined gods arose from the same primordial soup as us, growing around us with the trees and the mountains; feeding us with their sacrifices and forcing us to change based on the shifting of the seasons. Our greatest deity has always been nature, even as we bent and broke our poorly-shaped backs to the task of ploughing the fields that would produce our grain.
All the impetus for growth, for happiness, for fulfillment, has been placed upon the shoulders of the every-man; the individual is expected to seek and find the answers to all life’s questions on their own: and all while adrift in a flood of sensory overload, of deeply delightful renderings of reality slighted to the bone of all the complexities of existence.
Don’t mistake me: this is not a tirade against the machine; I’m not vying for a seat back to agrarian idylls that never were, where the greatest discovery was the potato. Technology itself is not the enemy: but the dark side of our interconnection does exist, and a large portion of that is how shallow it makes our lives despite that it connects us.
Have we lost the sacred? I’m again not speaking to any religion: we have more than enough of those, and their promises are ashen to my palate. No, I speak of the “numinous” as Carl Sagan described it: a sense of wonder, joy, and awe that is experienced when confronted by the world around us. I believe not. The numinous exists in all things, be they tree branches or circuit highways on a motherboard; the numinous is in the flight of birds and the soaring ghost of a glittering plane. It’s not that the world of sense provides us no longer with numinous experiences, it’s that our societies drive us to distraction from those experiences.
To really experience the sacred in life, we must be able to take the time away from doing to simply be. We must allow ourselves to be bored, to be restless; to be frustrated by the pace of a disconnected life. We are sensory-beasts, homo sapiens, creatures that observe and interpret what we observe. Yet the information-age has given us prescribed pathways through which exploration of that information is achieved.
How many websites do you visit? How many books do you read? Where does your attention lay, and for how long? The dangers are deeper even than that: how does one quantify the value of a book? The smell, the relationship between tactile experience, the smell of the pages, and the plodding pace of the information expressed within. The older technology still serves us in more ways than we even know, while the new affects us in ways are likewise still beyond our ken. We cannot take for granted that we know when we don’t know enough to know what it is we don’t know.
I believe that the value of the sacred in life is more important than ever, that the numinous cannot be overlooked if we wish to make for ourselves a life worth living. But I also believe that pursuit of the numinous is a prescription for our society’s ills, its obsession with consumption of “content” in a wide variety of corporate-approved colors and flavors. Should we find our way back to an appreciation of the sacred as a natural matter of course, I believe the Anthropocene might take on a very different flavor indeed.