Work and the Soul

Dear Friends,

Last Friday, I spoke to faculty members at the Faculty Recognition Reception, and I shared the first edition of a new publication, Scholarship at Simmons. This publication chronicles the research and creative work of faculty during calendar year 2013. I told the faculty then that all my conversations throughout this first year at Simmons have me thinking a lot about work, and about the particular nature of our work in colleges and universities.

When she was a senior in college, one of our daughters took a course from a scholar of Islam called “Work and the Soul.” As someone who has always found that my happiness is tied up with work, I was intrigued by the idea, and I managed to get my hands on many of the readings for the course. When my husband and I were on sabbatical—yes, in Paris!—and I was preparing to come to Simmons, I read most of those texts, which included the Qur’an and the Hadith, as well as philosopher poets like Lao Tzu, psychologists like James Hillman, anthropologists such as Lewis Hyde, essayists (think: Thoreau), theologians, and popularizers of the ideas of others.

I fell back into musing on the meaning of work a few weeks ago when—on the occasion of a farewell party—I read a poem I’ve loved for many years. Marge Piercy’s “To Be of Use” seems to capture the longing we all have for meaningful work: for work that’s done alone, and work shared with other people, in “a common rhythm.” Here it is:

To Be of Use

The people I love the best 
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half submerged balls.

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.

I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who stand in the line and haul in their places,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.

The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.

I see this kind of work in the Simmons community: people jumping “in head first,” becoming “natives of the element,” “moving things forward,” finding “a common rhythm.” There’s work in Piercy’s poem, but I believe there’s also poetry in work, when it is “work that is real.”


These reflections on work connected to some ideas I’ve been mulling over and even writing on for many years. You see, I don’t struggle much about harnessing myself to work. Frankly, I struggle more with leisure. Years ago, I read a wonderful book, A. Bartlett Giamatti’s Take Time for Paradise, and I always pull it off the shelf at this time of year, when the Red Sox are back in season. I find myself thinking, on the occasions when we get to a game, that there’s no better place to forget the rest of the world than Fenway Park. Bartlett’s book is a reminder that we need to slow down and recognize the need for unstructured time, for retirements and holidays and games—for leisure.

And yet I mostly don’t see the world carved up into work spaces and leisure spaces—one place drudgery, the other pure fun. Indeed, I truly believe that with authentic community we can enjoy all the hard work we do. And I think we should recognize, and remind ourselves, that we have good work—work that, unlike so much of the world’s work, is about more than just survival. Perhaps one could say we have work that is good for the soul.

And that’s where Giamatti’s book becomes relevant. Giamatti was a renowned scholar of Renaissance Literature who served as President of Yale University from 1977-86. He left academia to become President of the National League and eventually, the 7th Commissioner of Baseball. He served as Commissioner for less than a year—until a heart attack claimed his life. But he obviously spent a great part of his life reflecting on baseball as leisure—as a perfect geometric space, a search for home, a metaphor for America.

Some of his thoughts on what he calls “America and her games” are actually reflections on the importance of ritual, of the sacred, of freedom—and they may help us to sort out the priorities to which we give our time and energy. He recalls that the Greek word for leisure is scholē, the root of school, and argues that for the Greeks (and the Romans, and the educated Renaissance-era person) leisure and education had the same essential purpose. The humanities and the liberal arts “were to be pursued because in the pursuit the muscle that is the mind was disciplined and toughened and thereby made more free, to pursue new knowledge, and just as that freedom in the mind became a freedom for the mind, which freedom is the guardian of political and social freedom . . . so was the pursuit of these studies undertaken in, and meant to perpetuate, a condition of leisure.”

This isn’t to suggest that our work is play—or that we can forego other forms of leisure because we get our scholē on the job! But it is to remind us, as we move towards a summer mode and then return to our common cause, that it’s pretty good work to have, and that we should be happy in it. If we can all work (and play!) together, I believe we have a very bright future.

As Giamatti says about sports—and even about those who participate only as fans—“when people win together, the joy is more intense than when any of us wins alone, because part of any true pleasure is sharing that pleasure.” Giamatti characterizes a “win” as “the actual realization of what is essentially an imaginative surge.” He says, “The spectator, seeing something he had only imagined, or, more astonishingly, had not yet or would never have imagined possible . . . is privy to the realized act of imagination and assents, is mastered, and in that instant, bettered. ‘Winning’ for player or spectator is not simply outscoring; it is a way of talking about betterment, about making oneself, one’s fellows, one’s city, one’s adherents, more noble because of a temporary engagement on a higher human plane of existence.”

As we approach the end of this academic year, I want to thank all of you—faculty, staff, and students—for that imaginative surge, for the betterments you have been engaged in, and for those that are yet to come. I think this is the kind of engagement where work and the soul (whatever a soul is) really do come together—and everyone wins.

All the best,
Katie Conboy