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The Three Marriages: Reimagining Work, Self and Relationship

The Three Marriages: Reimagining Work, Self and Relationship by David Whyte

Here are some of my favourite excerpts…

We are collectively exhausted because of our inability to hold competing parts of ourselves together in a more integrated way.

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These are the three marriages, of Work, Self and Other. A word on this word marriage: Despite our use of the word only for a committed relationship between two people, in reality this book looks at the way everyone is committed, consciously or unconsciously, to three marriages. There is that first marriage, the one we usually mean, to another; that second marriage, which can so often seem like a burden, to a work or vocation; and that third and most likely hidden marriage to a core conversation inside ourselves. We can call these three separate commitments marriages because at their core they are usually lifelong commitments and, as I wish to illustrate, they involve vows made either consciously or unconsciously.

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We should stop thinking in terms of work-life balance. Work-life balance is a concept that has us simply lashing ourselves on the back and working too hard in each of the three commitments. In the ensuing exhaustion we ultimately give up on one or more of them to gain an easier life.

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that we should give up the attempt to balance one marriage against another, of, for instance, taking away from work to give more time to a partner, or vice versa, and start thinking of each marriage conversing with, questioning or emboldening the other two.

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Work is a constant conversation. It is the back-and-forth between what I think is me and what I think is not me; it is the edge between what the world needs of me and what I need of the world. Like the person to whom I am committed in a relationship, it is constantly changing and surprising me by its demands and needs but also by where it leads me, how much it teaches me, and especially, by how much tact, patience and maturity it demands of me.

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Happiness in the second marriage of work, like happiness in the first marriage with a person, is possible only through seeing it in a greater context than surviving the everyday. We must have a relationship with our work that is larger than any individual job description we are given. A real work, like a real person, grows and changes and surprises us, asking us constantly for recommitment. In work, we have often made secret vows; sometimes we do not know ourselves what those vows are until we look back with some perspective on the actual nature of the work we have accomplished.

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In the midst of a seemingly endless life, however, we can spend so much time attempting to put bread on the table or holding a relationship together that we often neglect the necessary internal skills which help us pursue, come to know, and then sustain a marriage with the person we find on the inside. Neglecting this internal marriage, we can easily make ourselves a hostage to the externals of work and the demands of relationship. We find ourselves unable to move in these outer marriages because we have no inner foundation from which to step out with a firm persuasion.

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All of our great contemplative traditions advocate the necessity for silence in an individual life: first, for gaining a sense of discernment amid the noise and haste, second, as a basic building block of individual happiness, and third, to let this other all-seeing identity come to life and find its voice inside us. In the Buddhist tradition the ability to be happy is often translated into English as “equanimity,” roughly meaning to be equal to things, to be large enough for the drama in which we find ourselves.

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EVERYTHING IS WAITING FOR YOU Your great mistake is to act the drama as if you were alone. As if life were a progressive and cunning crime with no witness to the tiny hidden transgressions. To feel abandoned is to deny the intimacy of your surroundings. Surely, even you, at times, have felt the grand array; the swelling presence, and the chorus, crowding out your solo voice. You must note the way the soap dish enables you, or the window latch grants you freedom. Alertness is the hidden discipline of familiarity. The stairs are your mentor of things to come, the doors have always been there to frighten you and invite you, and the tiny speaker in the phone is your dream ladder to divinity.   Put down the weight of your aloneness and ease into the conversation . The kettle is singing even as it pours you a drink, the cooking pots have left their arrogant aloofness and seen the good in you at last. All the birds and creatures of the world are unutterably themselves. Everything is waiting for you. from D.W., River Flow: New & Selected Poems 1984-2007

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The article asked her to see difficult circumstances and negativity not as a problem but as a doorway to understanding. The real problem, Trungpa said, was negative negativity, when we react against our perceptions and try to escape. Deirdre continued to nod as she read: “. . . There is nothing wrong with negativity . . . it’s actually creative and very direct and very . . .”

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Finding the key is a very old human motif. Again and again, we have to find a way in through the door, and again and again, the stories say that the key is always right under our noses. It is so much under our noses, in fact, that in the end we are always told we are the key, we each of us, as a foundational dynamic of life, have to find all the ways we fit in the lock. We are the ones who turn in the door and open it.

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As we find out later, getting through the door is never really the hard part, although we may think so at the time. Though we may have expended a lot of effort to get to the entrance itself, to find the key and go through the door, the real difficulty in engaging with the self lies on the other side, waiting in the darkness. All disciplines have crucial testing thresholds, thresholds that ask us if we are serious or ask us if we want to turn back and do something else. If we are equal to the test, it is also a time when we realize the greater import of what we have dedicated ourselves to.

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What J. K. Rowling and the Jaguar XK 150 tell us is that what human beings need around them to do good work is always less than they think.

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J. K. Rowling famously wrote large portions of the first Harry Potter book in the midst of this caked, slow-moving, mud-walking, desperate parent stage. “There was a point where I really felt I had ‘penniless divorcée, lone parent’ tattooed on my head,” she said in one interview. Living alone with her infant daughter, Jessica, in an unheated Edinburgh flat, she would trudge through the streets wheeling Jessica to a local café and snatch moments at her writing between feeding and comforting her child. It’s a help to know that Rowling felt a general hopelessness during much of that time, and a further encouragement to know that she kept on moving through the mud, kept on writing despite her quiet, private despair.

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Perhaps each of us should go back with actual plaques and place them in cafés, on walls or in office cubicles with little notes of private courage for the inspiration of others. “This is where I kept my faith alive during very dark days,” “This is where I found the courage to leave my marriage,” or “This is where I realized that I couldn’t have everything I wanted and so felt the freedom to request what I needed.” Such puzzling, intriguing and inspirational signs everywhere might bring us to an understanding of the constant enacted dramas occurring around us.

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I stop trying to work harder in each of the marriages and start to concentrate on the conversation that holds them together. Instead of asking myself what more I need to do, and killing myself and my creative powers in the process of attempting to carry it out, I ask myself: What is the courageous conversation I am not having? Out of the conversation will come as much action as I want, but the action will be simpler, clearer, more central to what I want than a stressed reaction that exhausts me for the real encounters I desire. What we desire in the three marriages is a sense of profound physical participation with creation, the reconfirmation that we are not alone in the world and the reminder that there is a larger context to existence than the one we have established ourselves.

 

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