It's not just that David Whyte thinks work should be taken seriously. He thinks work should be taken personally. Intimately. Profoundly.
But he knows most people barely tolerate their jobs to pay bills, feed the family, buy a house. He knows the typical employee drags himself begrudgingly to the job on Monday mornings, and that too few see work as he does: one of life's greatest and most often missed opportunities to discover and explore the depths of their being, in that Walden Pond sense.
"We spend years shaping our work, and finally humiliating ourselves in it," says Whyte. "People crave an identity larger than their job descriptions."
Leave it to a poet like Whyte to find the poetry in the world of work. Whyte is also author of "Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity" (Riverhead Books, $24.95), about reengaging self-identity with work identity.
"The consummation of work," he says, "lies not in what we have done, but who we have become while accomplishing the task."
The British-born Whyte has become something of an enigma over the past 20 years since coming to the United States. A critically acclaimed poet who has published four collections, he's also a highly sought-after corporate consultant who introduces poetry as the language of change to Fortune 500 companies such as American Express, AT&T and Procter & Gamble. He's also had a 1994 bestseller, "The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America."
Whyte follows in the footsteps of William Blake, the 19th-century English poet who toiled "bloody hard" in his engraving shop by day and wrote reams of poetry by night, often about "work conditions of young chimney sweeps and kids chained to their machine in the factory."
Blake saw work as something sacred rather than something sacrilegious. "Blake used a lot of images around angels," says Whyte. "And, to paraphrase him, work is where the angel's feet touch the ground, where these two worlds meet."
But not in 21st-century America. Whyte says one of his initial observations of imbalance in the American workplace was that retired men so often looked completely lost to him. So much of our identities in the United States, he explains, "is predicated on our work identity. And quite often we don't know who we are."
Quoting medical findings as unpoetic proof, Whyte points out that American men are most likely to have a heart attack at 9 a.m. on a Monday morning and in the first month after they retire. "One is the inability to carry the burden any more," he explains, "and the other is the inability to live without the burden because your identity has become totally subsumed in your work."
Unhappiness at work has even become one of medicine's diagnostic factors, along with smoking and a high-fat diet: "Are you happy at work?" he asks. "If you answer no, you are as susceptible to heart disease as if you were a heavy smoker."
Whyte also mentions the psychological phenomenon known as the Impostor Syndrome, in which successful people think of themselves as impostors. "This phenomenon of impersonation is subtle because you are actually impersonating yourself at work," he says. "Eventually you build a life around this illegitimate impersonation. And that is so hard to stop, because if you question it you don't know who you are."
How to start being all that you can be on the job? How to not wish you were elsewhere when at work? Whyte's prescription turns more abstract, picking up the lyrical rhythm of poetry instead of a corporate report.
"It starts with a conversation with the unknown future of the individual," he says, suggesting workplace woes aren't so much an attitude as a perception problem. "We need a more robust conversation that is not narrowed by the harried language of the workplace. We are tired of the language that we are using at work. We are so tied up to the Nasdaq and the Dow Jones of things that we've narrowed the dimensionality of how we define ourselves."
Whyte wants to make that conversation more real, to bring sophistication and poetry, the language of intimacy, to this conversation: "When we are alone in that cubicle, we are actually at the frontier of a huge conversation that has been going on forever.
"All of these conversations are predicated with the conversation you are having with yourself," says Whyte. "The great question is how do you keep the conversation alive. We've got to keep it an equal and robust conversation. Don't let your work be the voice that tells you who you are. Bring your own voice to your work. Make it an equal shaping. Otherwise, your work will shape you away to nothing."
Whyte admits it's not easy. To begin that conversation is to question everything, he says, "and that can seem too enormous."
He quotes from Dante's "Divine Comedy" to make the point: "In the middle of the road of my life I walk in the dark wood." He translates: "Dante is saying, 'One day I just stopped living out this, and I was actually on my own ground and I could take a step.' People starting that conversation are taking a step. But the older you get, that conversation can become much scarier. If you have children, a mortgage ... it is almost impossible to keep it alive if you are committed financially up to the neck and running on the hamster wheel."
"This isn't gazing at your navel, this is who you think you are in conversation with the world," Whyte says. "It will give you a language that will straighten you up and let you look yourself in the mirror in the morning -- and look your boss in the face again."
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.