On the front cover of David Whyte’s book, Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity (Riverhead Books, Penguin Putnam, New York, 2001), the word “work” is defined as: an opportunity for discovering and shaping; the place where the self meets the world. On pages 132-133 of Crossing the Unknown Sea, Whyte shares a story with us about what he learned about the nature of meaningful work from his close friend Brother David. The story unfolds at dusk, as they are sitting together sharing a bottle of wine and reading a book of poetry by Rilke…
“Tell me about exhaustion,” I said.
Brother David looked at me with an acute, searching, compassionate ferocity for the briefest of moments, as if trying to sum up the entirety of the situation and without missing a beat, as if he had been waiting all along, to say a life-changing thing to me. He said, in the form both of a question and an assertion:
“You know that the anecdote to exhaustion is not necessarily rest?”
“The anecdote to exhaustion is not necessarily rest,” I repeated woodenly, as if I might exhaust myself completely before I reached the end of the sentence.
“What is it, then?”
“The anecdote to exhaustion is wholeheartedness.” He looked at me for a wholehearted moment, as if I should fill in the blanks. But I was a blank to be filled at that moment, and though I knew something pivotal had been said, I had not the wherewithal to say anything in reply. So he carried on:
“You are so tired through and through because a good half of what you do here in this organization has nothing to do with your true powers, or the place you have reached in your life. You are only half here, and half here will kill you after a while. You need something to which you can give your full powers. You know what that is; I don’t have to tell you.”
He didn’t have to tell me. Brother David knew I wanted my work to be poetry.
“Go on,” I said.
“You are like Rilke’s Swan in his awkward waddling across the ground; the swan doesn’t cure his awkwardness by beating himself on the back, by moving faster, or by trying to organize himself better. He does it by moving toward the elemental water, where he belongs. It is the simple contact with the water that gives him grace and presence. You only have to touch the elemental waters in your own life, and it will transform everything. But you have to let yourself down into those waters from the ground on which you stand, and that can be hard. Particularly if you think you might drown…
“You must do something heartfelt, and you must do it soon. Let go of all this effort, and let yourself down, however awkwardly, into the waters of the work you want for yourself.”
This is our challenge: to rediscover our own heartfelt waters, to invest ourselves wholeheartedly in our own lives