Monday, January 17, 2005

review by William S. Kowinski
'>Just Work
by Russell Muirhead. Harvard University Press, 204 pages, $24.95.

For all the time and energy we devote to work, there are surprisingly few books dealing with it. Work is often much less important in the lives of characters in novels and movies than in our own. Perhaps that's part of their appeal.

But for most people, work is a central fact and daily preoccupation. Though parents may have counseled us to "just do it," and the responsibilities of earning a live are paramount, some latitude of choice (or at least the illusion of it) has combined with the sense that self-fulfillment in work is a goal if not a right, and that our responsibilities in the work we do go beyond self and family to society and the planet.

It's not an easy time to be dealing with these issues. While New Age success mystics preach that self-fulfillment is within our grasp, more people are working harder under greater pressures for less income, as the gap between rich and poor grows to an abyss. People feel stuck in alienating or dishonest jobs that require them to not only act inauthentically but seem to demand their hearts and souls as well as their minds and bodies. They spend too much time on the job, where they are required to lie to each other and to themselves, while pretending they don't know they are being lied to.

The title of '>Russell Muirhead's book is an obvious pun that speaks to this situation. It's just work, after all, it says, the most mundane part of our lives, yet so important than we deny it, especially in the throes of shame for not having fulfilled our dreams, or outside expectations. But is it also asks if justice is served: is it just work, fair to us and to the world around us? And where do we get the idea that work should be or can be just?

An Associate Professor of Government at Harvard, Muirhead examines some of these knotty common issues ("Can we each get our due while at the same time contributing to the common good?" ) as problems in political theory. This book examines philosophical approaches to the issues of work, the individual and society, from Plato and Aristotle, through John Stuart Mill and Betty Friedan. This is basically a scholarly work, well-organized and quite readable in style. It is a solid contribution, a thorough background that raises the pertinent issues, though few readers are likely to find it the last word on their own concerns.

I especially enjoyed the treatment of Mill, who seems to get short shrift these days, but I remember being intensely interested in him as I was about to enter college, and forming my ideas about my place in the larger world. It's also interesting to see the Protestant work ethic, more often referred to than explained, more fully described in a larger historical context. In an economy that is enlarging the proportion, numbers and categories of "service" occupations, a history of service (or servants) in America is very enlightening. The servant class existed before the working class, and apparently has returned in force, though changed.

Other books on the subject of work offer complementary approaches and perspectives. Among those emphasizing the personal experience of work are'> Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity by David Whyte, a poet who works with corporations. In recounting his own journey, Whyte offers perspectives on career and its place in a well-lived life, where personal and societal meaning are important considerations. It's appropriately the most literary of the books mentioned, with the best storytelling, and so brings that power and complexity to its effects.

Lewis Richmond's '>Work as a Spiritual Practice is pretty much explained by its subtitle: A Practical Buddhist Approach to Inner Growth and Satisfaction on the Job (Broadway Books, $13). These stories, observations and suggestions apply to almost any job, though the relationship of personal values and societal values are always a concern, especially considering the Buddhist concept of Right Livelihood. Like a lot of writing from the Buddhist perspective, the content is worth considering for non-practitioners as well as those who follow that path.

As an example and perhaps an exemplar of books that attempt the difficult dance of examining personal values and experiences within a larger societal context is '>The Reinvention of Work: A New Vision of Livelihood for Our Time by Matthew Fox. Though Fox is an advocate for meaningful work and societal change that might make that more possible, to the benefit of individuals and society as well, he is also broadly informative on present conditions (into the late 90s anyway)---in some ways, more informative than the strictly scholarly presentation of Muirhead.

Though not in book form, author '>Thomas Moore has issued an audio work called '>On Meaningful Work (Sounds True) that should appeal to readers of the above named books.

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