Human life is short.
It’s a fatal mistake to believe – or, more exactly, to preserve the childish belief – that life is long. if we were constantly aware of the brevity of our lives, everything would be very different.
Life certainly appears long from the perspective of childhood considered from its end, it seems incredibly brief. Which is its actual duration? It depends how early and how often you’ve considered your life brief.
(A life is not measured by the clock, but by what it contained.)
For our actions to be worthwhile, we must undertake them fully conscious of life’s brevity.
If we lose this awareness, we may appear active but will live in a perpetual state of expectation (in most cases, external forces compel us to engage in apparent busyness and leave us no escape). However, if you maintain complete consciousness of life’s ephemerality, your primary desire will be to do something immediately ( – and with a very different kind of seriousness than the one with which you do things when governed by external forces). Yet it is only doing of this sort – activity you engage in out of inner compulsion and not because of external pressures – that gives life, that can save.
Precisely this kind of action is what I call work.
This person refuses to work. We can offer him this or that object, use every means of influence in our power –: work is the only realm in which no one can help another.
We can help each other with sowing and mowing, with copying, with moving one’s limbs or one’s tongue, with all such actions, but not with work.
What does human worth consist in then, in this world of perpetual flux?
Still, this difficulty in determining human worth is only an apparent difficulty; this ostensibly serious question is an illusory one. It is a question asked by those who are not in place; of what interest is it to them? A swindle! Those who are in place see it more clearly. Human worth consists in the desire for worth.
Yet we must immediately caution against two misconceptions – unclear thinking that leads to confusion:
First, wanting worth is not the same as wanting to amass worth, to fatten up, to gain power.
(In primitive times, these two may well have been the same, just as they still are among animals. The constant, fundamental underlying urge is surely to live more, to live a larger life. Nonetheless, human consciousness has been developing for thousands of years and man has been aware for millennia now that it is impossible to acquire a greater quantity of life by increasing his weight, mass, or physical strength. Those who want worth cannot desire it disingenuously, in other words, they can never act in disregard of levels of consciousness already achieved.)
– Wanting worth is not the same as saying one wants worth: but it is the same as working.
And yet, how would I be understood, today, in our era of dervishes, if I were to say: “Human worth consists in working”:
Tourne, tourne, le derviche!
Que la force centrifuge
Cravache aux quatres
Ses bras, ses yeaux, sa raison!
Spin, spin, dervish!
May centrifugal force
Spur his arms, his eyes, his
To the four directions of the
– in our era, when turning in a circle for ten hours at a stretch or treading the floor until it wears away is considered work?
It’s important to emphasize the fact that most people don’t flee work into laziness – not into apparent laziness – but take refuge in completely moribund busyness rather than simple immobility. True laziness these days consists in dead movement.
In some cases, apparent utter immobility would surely be preferable, because legitimate movement can break out of it, can find a new beginning in it.
‘”Activity, movement”: is work, then, not the same as movement (and movement, therefore, also the same as work)?
Work is movement…, but it is our movement. We have the fatal ability to mimic others, a water wheel, for example.
A real water wheel works as it turns: because turning is its own particular motion, its complete possibility. Even a cat works as it moves, is completely present in its movements, progresses through its movements. As do children above all. He who does not completely grasp the elevated praise of children in the New Testament – one of the most peculiar and perhaps most modern passages in this fascinating scripture that has been more powerful than any other book for almost two thousand years –, he who fails to understand this immediate, unmediated, intensive praise of children but feels compelled to struggle for an explanation – such toilsome explication being roughly the opposite of complete comprehension –, he, too, has failed to understand what work is.
We build. And yet we have no idea where the general contractor is. Fulfill only your particular task, which you can surely find.
— Ludwig Hohl, The Notes (tr. Lewis)