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III. 3. Meaningful Work and Life-Purpose

Life-affirming death-awareness leads us to seek meaningful work.

Much of our societal journey involves the many hours we spend at work. Facing death can profoundly transform our work-life, influencing our choice of employment, how we work at it, how we balance work and leisure, and what we do with the fruits of our labor.

Denial of death has a negative impact on our work lives. It contributes to an unhealthy workaholism, as (1) our attempt to ward off painful feelings leads us turn our work into an addiction; and/or (2) we are consumed by the desire to amass wealth less to enjoy or use it constructively than as an "immortality project" that gives us unconscious hope that we can escape death here or in the hereafter. It can lead us to remain in dead-end jobs, or employment that we do not find meaningful or enjoy, because we can pretend that we have endless life and need not confront how much of our short, precious life we are wasting.

When we dare face our painful feelings about the short time we have left on earth, however, it can transform our work lives at every level:

-- It can motivate us to find meaningful work which we feel contributes to society or others, what the Buddhist call "Right Livelihood." Or we can adopt the approach advocated by Joseph Campbell, to "follow your bliss," in choosing work, i.e. to find work which we find stimulates our creativity, absorbs us, and becomes an expression of who we are.

Realizing how brief is the time we have left on this earth often leads people to seek employment which helps rather than hurts others, contributes to humanity, or otherwise invests their lives with meaning. As Steve Jobs has put it, "for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: `If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?' And whenever the answer has been `No' for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something."

-- It can increase our willingness to take risks by quitting a dead-end or meaningless job and plunge into something that matters to us. As Jobs so powerfully put it, "Remembering that I'll be dead soon is the most important tool I've ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything - all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure - these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart."

-- It can help change the way we work, helping us avoid either workaholism or sloth. It can also transform our relationships with co-workers, as we focus on what we have in common rather than what separates us, and feel more for ourselves and for them.

-- It can dramatically change what we do with the fruits of our labor. Even a job which has no intrinsic meaning in and of itself can have great meaning if we use our earnings from it in ways that help ourselves and others develop themselves.

And facing our death can have a transformative effect on one other key work-related issue: the balance we find between our work and creative leisure. The world is filled with workaholics who work 24/7 to maintain lifestyles that require all their earnings but which they have little time to enjoy.

Daring to surface and fully feel our pain about our death, realizing how short and precious our time is, can transform our attitude toward this question. We can come to value experiences over material possessions, e.g. choosing to work less hours and make less income in return for more time to spend in nature, with friends, or in creative pursuits. As the "voluntary simplicity movement" has demonstrated, we may even find ourselves selling our larger house, driving an older car, or wearing secondhand clothing, in return for more creative leisure.