Our life’s work is a phrase commonly used to describe the essential character, direction, and nature of our most valued work in life. Lifework is the effort undertaken to create a way of interacting with the world that is of great personal meaning, purpose, and significance. We can never be too old to practice our life’s work; lifework offers no possibility of retirement. More than a traditional job or career, our life’s work forms the underlying ground of our identity, purpose, and belonging. In the end, it is our life’s work that becomes our legacy, that subtle echo of our absence that continues to reverberate in the spirits of those we are required to leave behind.
“Exploration of the full range of potentialities is not something we can safely leave to the chances of life. It is something to be pursued systematically, or at least avidly, to the end of our days. We should look forward to an endless and unpredictable dialogue between our potentialities and the claims of life… And by potentialities I mean… the full range of our capacities for sensing, wondering, learning, understanding, loving, and aspiring.” (John Gardner, Self-Renewal)
Aging means that our sense of work changes and expands over time. It is a mistake to assume that our work in life ends with retirement. Our most essential work in life originates in deeply held interests, intentions, and passions in life from which there is no retreat. It may be that retirement is best viewed as a form of merciful release from types of work that no longer serve. As we become older and move through the second half of life, the nature of our life’s work becomes increasingly more important, broad, and expansive.
It is also a mistake to assume that our work in life becomes less important or meaningful with age. The pursuit of our life’s work does not decline or deteriorate over time. The term “elderhood” describes an individual moving through the second half of life who has fully embraced their life’s work. More than a contribution to economic progress, the work of our elders provides an essential contribution to the cultivation of humanity.
However, what common images and associations emerge when we think about today’s world of work? The idea of working has become so closely aligned with the economic struggle for survival that we scarcely think about more creative possibilities for our work. In a coldly practical sense, we are required to work in order to earn a living; we must labour for money. The financial reward associated with our employment determines the type of material lifestyle we can afford. We also spend a large proportion of our life working so that we can retire, which implies that the cultural realm of work is largely a struggle to endure that offers a vague promise of release. This orientation to work is mechanical, constrained, and unsustainable.
In contrast, deeper and more expansive forms of work emerge from the energy of vitality, creativity, and belonging. In an important way, to embrace our life’s work is to cultivate our capacities for sensing, wondering, learning, understanding, loving, and aspiring with the firm intention of making a valuable contribution to humanity and to properly care for the earth. We might also include the cultivation of capacities such as gratitude, beauty, humility, vulnerability, belonging, and impermanence. In other words, the primary diagnostic of lifework is the clarification of purpose, meaning, authenticity, participation, and significance of our efforts across an entire lifetime.
Work can broaden and expand the feeling of being alive; work can confine us in the dread of meaningless routine. We can engage in work that is enlightening, transformative, inspiring, fulfilling, and vital; we can become mired in forms of work that are bleak, confining, naive, obsessive, and materialistic. Work can open us to the revelations of joy, gratitude, and beauty and it can exhaust our inner resources and confine us in a state of resignation, frustration, and depression. Through our work, we can strive to live authentically, or we can be forced to wear masks and act out monotonous roles.
The combination of life plus work is intended to help release the idea of work from the confines of the everyday routine. The lack of hyphenation imbues the combination of words with a stronger sense of integrity and unity. Lifework originates in a deep, authentic form of participation that is centered on the unpredictable dialogue between our potentialities and the claims of life. To engage in our life’s work is to embark on a creative and imaginative adventure into the deeper questions of identity, meaning, purpose, significance, and belonging. In a certain sense, lifework embraces a conscious intention to bring a deep sense of imagination, creativity, and artistry to the nature and experience of work.
During our youth, we are prepared for participation in society with a special emphasis on preparation for the workforce. When it is time for us to join the workforce, our youthful hopes, dreams, and imagination for life come into direct contact with the harsh realities of the modern workplace. In recent years, it has become a cultural tradition to wound students with unreasonable levels of educational debt well before they enter the workforce. It is hard to imagine the shock and disappointment that today’s youth must experience in facing the frantic, arid, and unstable world of modern work that emerges before them.
Insanity has become synonymous with economic progress. A routine understanding of work in modern society is closely aligned with the pursuit of material acquisition and financial survival. The spirit of real work has been weakened by the virulence of consumption commodification, materialism, and consumerism. The character of work in modern society has become outrageously imbalanced, unstable, and destructive. This stunted vision of work can no longer serve as a platform for human development or the care of the earth.
Lifework is a means to rescue the essential spirit and character of work as a means to reclaim “the full range of our capacities for sensing, wondering, learning, understanding, loving, and aspiring.” Our life’s work is a way of being, a firm intention, and a courageous expression of participation in the fierce confluence of existence. This vision of work may be condemned as unrealistic, uncooperative, and unprofitable by corporate automatons. However, in the realm of work, there is no greater profit or progress in life than that which emerges from the pursuit of our vocation.
The word vocation originates in the Latin vocationem meaning to be called or summoned. The art of our vocation is the inner drive to pursue work that is central to our identity and serves to cultivate a natural sense of flow, meaning, and purpose in life. Even if we embrace a deeper form of work that is difficult and challenging, we constantly feel as though we are immersed in an essential form of participation and collaboration with the world around us. Inside our vocation is a feeling of a greater work that inspires a strong sense of belonging to the greater confluence of existence.
A common characteristic of the midlife passage is a shift in our consciousness of work. The feeling of time changes in midlife and for the first time we experience the shock of a future that has become irrevocably smaller than our past; we physically, psychologically, and spiritually sense that our time in life is quite literally running out. When we feel the approach of impermanence and the absolute promise of death, we may become less willing to offer our time to forms of work that no longer serve a deeper purpose. Work is not the problem; the problem originates in the innate need for the nature of our work to embrace a sense of vocation.
The word employ comes from the Latin implicare meaning involve, entangle, to be connected with, or to be involved in a particular purpose. The most important forms of employment are those that offer involvement, entanglement, and connection to those capacities and potentialities that inspire meaning and purpose in our life. This broader perspective of employment also reveals that retirement is not the end of work, but a potential opening into a more vital realm of employment that becomes a primary source of inner vitality, inspiration, and motivation.
Lifework is intimately connected with the idea of exploring our potential for working with the essential dynamics of our humanity, which would include “our capacities for sensing, wondering, learning, understanding, and aspiring.” We might also include additional capacities such as gratitude, beauty, humility, vulnerability, belonging, and impermanence. Our life’s work is imbued with the qualities and dynamics that elevate our experience of being alive and expand our relationship with and participation in the world around us.
If retirement from our work is a possibility, then that form of work is not our life’s work. The idea of retiring or withdrawing from work that is of great significance is nonsensical. In this sense, retirement may be perhaps viewed as a form of merciful release from work that has become too small, predictable, and confining for us to inhabit. From this perspective, retirement is a closure of work that no longer serves us, and simultaneously a potential threshold into “an endless and unpredictable dialogue between our potentialities and the claims of life.”
A great deal of our cultural dialogue about work and retirement remains mired the stagnant waters of economic productivity. It is our responsibility, of course, to prepare for and engage in forms of work that provide for our financial security, in spite of the fact that the connection between honest work and financial stability continues to steadily erode in modern society. However, when our basic understanding of work is biased by economic utility we sell ourselves short. If our work in life is little more than a vague contribution to a gross national product, then retirement becomes equated with profoundly ageist notions of the elderly as an economic burden.
We are all destined to become a memory. The spirit of our life’s work becomes the essence of our legacy after our death. A true legacy has no connection to the vanities, remnants, and neon superficialities of material wealth. The people in our lives will, as the saying goes, remember how you made them feel, provided a sense of comfort, and encouraged them through the vagaries of everyday life far more than the objects and artifacts we must all abandon. In the end, the essence of our life’s work continues to survive in the hearts, minds, and spirits of those we are required to leave behind.