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Whyte, David. The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America. New York: Doubleday, 1994. 1-30.

 

1 The Path Begins: Inviting the Soul to Work

In the middle of the road of life I awoke in a dark wood where the true way was wholly lost

—Dante, Commedia

 

[3] The Heart Aroused attempts to keep what is tried and true, good and efficient, at the center of our present work life, while opening ourselves to a mature appreciation of the hidden and often dangerous inner seas where our passions and our creativity lie waiting.

Much of this book deals with the hidden and neglected side of corporate life, where a woman’s or a man’s soul has been forced to reside, like Tolkien’s character Gollum, in dark and subterranean caves. Modern business life arises from a love of the upper world, of material products, of order and organization; it celebrates the material, light-filled portion of existence. It is the world as we see it (or as we would like to see it) and as it most makes sense to us. It has been the basis of our Western affluence, and by the life it has provided many of us in the West, it has much to recommend it. But as many of us suspect, sensing the shock waves now traveling through our corporations and institutions, it is only half the story.

If this book has a tremor-like quality, it may stem from its geological investigation of the shifting ground upon which we now stand every day at work. [4] The Heart Aroused is written for those who have chosen to live out their lives as managers and employees of a postmodern Corporate America, and who struggle to keep their humanity in the process. The book stands or fails upon its ability to work with what Wordsworth called

. . . a dark invisible workmanship that reconciles discordant elements and makes them move in one society

Not because what is dark and invisible is necessarily better, but because it is not now joined to what is light and visible to us every day in the corporate world. It has been pushed away and ignored. This split between our work life and that part of our soul life forced underground seems to be at the root of much of our current unhappiness. This book attempts to look at the stress this split causes in the human psyche and the way the soul attempts to heal and preserve its life amid the pressures of schedule and ambition.

But this healing is not a simple recipe for a happy work life. There are energies and powers in the world that are greater than any human endeavor, even the mighty corporate world that we hold in so much esteem. Despite everything our inheritance may tell us, work is not and never has been the very center of the human universe; and the universe, with marvelous compassion, seems willing to take endless pains to remind us of that fact. Once basic necessities are [5] taken care of, there are other more immediate urgencies central to human experience, and it is these urgencies that are continually breaking through our fondest hopes for an ordered work life. The split between what is nourishing at work and what is agonizing is the very chasm from which our personal destiny emerges. Accepting the presence of this chasm we can begin to deal, one step at a time, with the continually hidden, underground forces that shape our lives, often against our will.

The field of human creativity has long been a constant battleground between the upper world we inhabit every day and the deeper untrammeled energies alive in every element of life. Camille Paglia has written brilliantly on this tumultuous relationship between the two worlds, one seen everyday, the other half-hidden, in her recent book Sexual Personae. Tracing a line from ancient Egypt to contemporary popular society, she investigates the way artists and poets have long seen the deeper uncharted territory in the human psyche as a subterranean landscape they wish to describe, map, and bring to light. The world of commerce has, until now, run a mile from this hidden world; organizations have more often seen these underground and seemingly eccentric desires as a source of continual interruption into their production and purpose. This is now changing. Continually calling on its managers and line workers for more creativity, dedication, and adaptability, the American corporate world is tiptoeing for the first [6] time in its very short history into the very place from whence that dedication, creativity, and adaptability must come: the turbulent place where the soul of an individual is formed and finds expression.

These first tentative corporate steps toward understanding personal artistry and individual creativity are bringing to life a swirling natural boundary where human beings have always lived uneasily; one foot planted solidly in the light-filled world, the other desperately looking for purchase in the dark unknown. Whether we spend our days as an artist painting in a studio-garret in Greenwich Village or as a manager in the streamlined lineaments of the modern office, we are subject to the roiling interplay between these worlds. Despite our best hopes for ourselves and for humanity, this other, hidden energy is constantly welling up from the very ground of existence. The ancient Aegean civilizations called this hidden, ever-present dynamic the Dionysian.

In pre-classical Greek thought, the light-filled part of existence was represented by Apollo. If we want to imagine the Apollonic in our lives it might be to think of ourselves, one August day, whistling happily as we work, painting a white picket fence in Dade County, Florida, proud of our home and our plans and happy that God is in his heaven. The Dionysian is Hurricane Andrew the very next day, blowing your fence, your house, and your kids’ future, without qualm or conscience, off God’s green earth.

It is the part of life that carries passion, sound, and [7] fury, or frightening emptiness, and often no immediate meaning outside of the cruel. It is the part of life at which we might gladly shake our fist. It is job lamenting at the perfidy of God’s justice. It is everything we were afraid could be true about existence, and astonishingly, and despite everything we would wish to the contrary, it seems to be an energy without which we cannot appreciate the gift of the light-filled, ordered world; remove it, and our soul life becomes puzzlingly empty and impoverished.

Yet the sound and the fury of an individual’s creative life are the elemental waters missing from the dehydrated workday. The frightening emptiness of existence also contains a place of nourishment and repose, a blessed opportunity for calm at the center of the corporate whirlwind. From the organizational side, if the corporations ignore the darker underbelly of their employees’ lives for a well-meaning approach, emphasizing only the positive, they will be forced to rely on expensive management pyramids to manipulate their workers at the price of commitment. Adaptability and native creativity on the part of the workforce come through the door only with their passions. Their passions come only with their souls. Their souls love the hidden springs boiling and welling at the center of existence more than they love the company.

Taking a step toward soul life during the full light of the workday, we begin a journey toward a subterranean world that until now we have only explored [8] after-hours, during the drive home, or in the silence of the small hours. Like any journey into neglected places, this journey has a natural drama to it. The cost of failure, as I point out in the stories and poetry that follow, is very high, but the prize is an experience of work that can benefit the spirit as much as the pocket, a nourishing approach to work that may make the moment equally as fulfilling as the years of patient sacrifice.

THE POET AND THE
CORPORATION

As a poet, I did not foresee myself working in corporate America, a world I was taught to view with suspicion by a solid, almost nineteenth-century upbringing in the north of England. Still, when asked, I could not resist the first invitation to bring poetry to bear on certain aspects of change and creativity now being confronted in the workplace. I expected to be at least a little corrupted by my immersion, but in the process discovered as much about my own arrogance as that of the American corporation. Over the last years of working with companies of all sizes and descriptions, I have tried to illuminate specific steps along the path of change, and the forces that work for and against an individual who asks for more commitment and passion in his work. Rather than talking about change, I use  hundreds of memorized poems [9] to try to bring to life the experience of change itself. Doing this, I have had seven humbling years in which I have been forced to drop, one by one, many of the prejudices against the corporate world my personal history had generously provided me. I found my image of contemporary business as outdated and clichéd as the business world’s image of my own world of poetry and poets.

The poet was led to believe that they, the business people, were a faceless conformist hierarchy busily destroying the world while doomed to a life of ineffable blandness. We poets, so business people told themselves, were all either starving in garrets or living comfortably in academic ivory towers, dreaming away our lives, contributing nothing to the practical matters of the world.

There are bland, faceless, and exploitative corporations, and there are starving, curmudgeonly, or academic poets unwilling to come to terms with the greater realities of existence, but both are the vestigial remains of a world that I for one would be glad to see disappear. The poet needs the practicalities of making a living to test and temper the lyricism of insight and observation. The corporation needs the poet’s insight and powers of attention in order to weave the inner world of soul and creativity with the outer world of form and matter. The meeting of those two worlds forms the very heart of this book.

The poet has always suspected that we live in an unfathomable, shape-shifting world that must be [10] lived and experienced rather than controlled or solved, but the poet has often relinquished personal power because of deep worries about the misuses of patriarchal power. Poets have often chosen the seemingly safer path of refusing to act at all and in the very process disenfranchised themselves from a messy world which, unfairly, still calls for clear-cut decisions.

The corporations, for their part, have been engaged in a willful battle against the very grain of existence. Like the good Dutch boy with his finger in the dike, they have spent enormous amounts of energy putting in place systems that attempt to hold back the shifting oceanic qualities of existence. The complexity of the world could be accounted for, they fervently hoped, by a simple increase in the thickness of the company manual.

The Heart Aroused is written to bring the insights of the poetic imagination out of the garret and into the boardrooms and factory floors of America. Corporate America desperately needs the powers historically associated with the poetic imagination not only to see their way through the present whirligig of change, but also, because poetry asks for accountability to a human community, for rootedness and responsibility even as it changes.

The twenty-first century will be anything but business as usual. Institutions must now balance the need to make a living with a natural ability to change. They must also honor the souls of the individuals [11] who work for them and the great soul of the natural world from which they take their resources.

But finding the soul in American corporate life is blessedly fraught with difficulties. The seething, snapping, boisterously self-referential American way of business is like American life itself, at once a gift and a tempting poison. Facing the invitation to write this book, I grew fainthearted at the prospect of melding the fluid language of the soul with the dehydrated jargon of the modern workplace. A large part of me simply wanted to wave the challenge good-bye and do what I do best—stay in my own world, writing and performing poetry. Yet as one of few contemporary poets working in the corporate world, I felt a responsibility to at least attempt it. Two events finally convinced me to take it on.

First came a beautifully written, front-page article in the Atlantic Monthly by the poet Dana Gioia, calling on contemporary poets to rise out of their self-referential world and bring their talents back into the mainstream of American society. Gioia’s essay had a profound impact on many poets; it forced them to see themselves in a far wider context, a context that asked for more participation than the poet’s tradition as outsider usually allowed.

But the more telling moment of decision came on a visit to my local bank to get a construction loan for, of all things, a new writing studio. I knew the manager well from previous business, and he knew something of my work. He had always struck me as a [12] cheerful and very vital man, but that morning he looked exhausted. His desk was filled from one corner to another with memos, notes, blinking telephones, and piles of forms and loan applications. Greeting me, he looked as if he carried the weight of the world on his shoulders.

Seemingly tired of this existence he waved his arm vaguely over the array of pressing details and began to ask me questions about my work as a poet. After a brief tour of my travels, he asked me if I was presently working on a book. “Well,” I said, “I haven’t written a word, but someone, for heaven’s sake, wants me to write about the life of the soul in corporate America.” There was a moment’s pause, then he leaned across the desk, placed his hand on mine for the briefest of instants, and with the weariest and most soulful look I could imagine said, “Tell me about it.” I looked at him, nodded back wearily and said nothing. Inside I felt something rise up; almost against my will, I heard myself saying, “Ask me like that, and I will tell you about it.”

The Heart Aroused is dedicated to that weary questioner and all others like him, myself included, struggling with the increasing complexity of the modern workplace. Work is struggle. It mostly has been struggle, it mostly will be struggle. If we are to talk about soul life and work life, we are not speaking of some Elysian field where we can lie down and rest. There is in work, in the ancient sense, a dustless place, a place to find rest and repose, but the soul’s attempts [13] to find home and rest in work can be done only by accounting for and living through the chaotic battleground of everyday existence. As Wallace Stevens said in his “Reply to Papini”:

The way through the world Is more difficult to find than the way beyond it.

Any man or woman working in the pressure of a modern corporation is making their way through the world, but it may be a world that seems, as the years roll by, to have less and less room for soul.

SOUL

But what is soul, and what is meant by the preservation of the soul? By definition, soul evades the cage of definition. It is the indefinable essence of a person’s spirit and being. It can never be touched and yet the merest hint of its absence causes immediate distress. In a work situation, its lack can be sensed intuitively, though a person may, at the same moment, be powerless to know what has caused the loss. It may be the transfer of a well-loved colleague to another department, a change of rooms to a less appealing office, or, more seriously, the inner intuitions of a path not taken. Though the Oxford English Dictionary’s lofty attempt at soul is the principle of life in man or ani- [14] mals, depth-psychologist James Hillman describes it in far more eloquent terms in his provocative book of selected writings, A Blue Fire:

To understand soul we cannot turn to science for a description. Its meaning is best given by its context . . . words long associated with the soul amplify it further: mind, spirit, heart, life, warmth, humanness, personality, individuality, intentionality, essence, innermost purpose, emotion, quality, virtue, morality, sin, wisdom, death, God. A soul is said to be “troubled,” “old,” “disembodied,” “immortal,” “lost,” “innocent,” “inspired.” Eyes are said to be “soulless” by showing no mercy. The soul has been imaged as . . . given by God and thus divine, as conscience, as a multiplicity and as a unity in diversity, as a harmony, as a fluid, as fire, as dynamic energy, and so on . . . the search for the soul leads always into the “depths.”

Entering the “depths” and entering a corporate workplace are rarely seen in the same light. Looking over the vast amount of management literature, very few authors are willing to take the soul seriously in the workplace. The soul’s needs in the workplace have long been ignored, partly because the path the soul takes to fulfill its destiny seems troublesomely unique to each person and refuses to be quantified in a way that satisfies our need to plan everything in advance.

The Heart Aroused will look at the link between soul and creativity, success and failure, efficiency and malaise at work, but it sets as its benchmark not [15] the fiscal success of the work or the corporation (though this certainly can be good for the soul), but the journey and experience of the human spirit and its repressed but unflagging desire to find a home in the world. It is written not only to meet the ancient human longing for meaning in work, but also in celebration of the natural human irreverence for work’s authoritarian, all-encompassing dominance of our present existence.

Preservation of the soul means the preservation at work of humanity and sanity (with all the well-loved insanities that human sanity requires). Preservation of the soul means the palpable presence of some sacred otherness in our labors, whatever language we may use for that otherness: God, the universe, destiny, life, or love. Preservation of the soul means allowing for fiery initiations that our surface personalities, calculating for a brilliant career, would rather do without.

Yevgeny Yevtushenko says:

Sorrow happens, hardship happens, the hell with it, who never knew the price of happiness, will not be happy

Trans. Peter Levi

Preservation of the soul means giving up our wish, in the scheduled workplace, for immunity from the unscheduled meeting with sorrow and hardship. It [16] means learning the price of happiness. Preservation of the soul means refusing to relinquish the body and its sensual appreciation of texture, color, multiplicity, pain, and joy. Above all, preserving the soul means preserving a desire to live a life a man or woman can truly call their own.

For consultants and management gurus, the soul is a slippery customer. On the one hand it may be dismissed completely. Many trainers and consultants maintain that the soul belongs at home or in church. But with little understanding of the essential link between the soul life and the creative gifts of their employees, hardheaded businesses listening so carefully to their hardheaded consultants may go the way of the incredibly hardheaded dinosaurs. For all their emphasis on the bottom line, they are adrift from the very engine at the center of a person’s creative application to work, they cultivate a workforce unable to respond with personal artistry to the confusion of global market change.

On the other hand, many progressive management gurus ask that the person’s soul life be included fully in their work but imagine that the vast, hidden Dionysian underworld of the soul erupting into everyday work life can only be positive. The darker side of human energy is very often sanitized and explained away as the product of bad work environments. Change the environment, they say, and all good things will fall into place, but this displays an untested middle class faith in the innate goodness of [17] humanity that is only partially true, one doomed to fail when faced with the terrifying necessity of the soul to break, if necessary, every taboo, and wend its vital way onward, irrespective of family, corporation, deadline, or career.

This book does not offer easy answers as to the way that home life and work life, career and creativity, soul life and seniority, can be brought together. What it does do is chart a veritable San Andreas Fault in the modern American psyche: the personality’s wish to have power over experience, to control all events and consequences, and the soul’s wish to have power through experience, no matter what that may be. It offers the poet’s perspective on the way men and women throughout history have lived triumphantly or tragically through both their daily work and their life’s work. For the personality, bankruptcy or failure may be a disaster, for the soul it may be grist for its strangely joyful mill and a condition it has been secretly engineering for years.

I use poetry to chart this difficult fault line in the human psyche not because the fault line is vague and woolly, but because, like human nature, it is dramatic and multidimensional, yet strangely precise. No language matches good poetry in its precision about the human drama. “My heart rouses,” says William Carlos Williams (generously giving me, by way of Dana Gioia’s article, the title of this book) “thinking to bring you news of something that concerns you and concerns many men.”

[18]         My heart rouses

thinking to bring you news

of something

that concerns you

and concerns many men. Look at

what passes for the new.

You will not find it there but in

despised poems.

It is difficult

to get the news from poems

yet men die miserably every day

for lack

of what is found there.

 

“Look at what passes for the new. You will not find it there . . .” None of the thought processes that have been brought to bear on the individual working in a modern organization have the rigor of poetry in dealing with the cussed, not-to-be-believed, patterned chaos of the human soul going through the average workday or a life’s career. “Yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.”

THE DIFFICULTY AND DRAMA
OF WORK

Work is drama, and our inability to live vitally upon its stage has as much to do with the modern loss of dramatic sensibility, the lost sense that we play out [19] our lives as part of a greater story, as it does with the acknowledged alienation of the twentieth-century work environment. To quote a Shakespearean cliché, repeated to death because it is so stubbornly true: All the world’s a stage. Work is theater, the place where life unfolds to our tragic or comic satisfaction.

Through drama we find that poetry and myth, the operative tools of this book, grant meaning even to failure. Drama is vital, quirky, humorous, tragic, and by its playing out of the stuff of life, lends magnificence to the commonplace. Myth is the greater story of which we are a part, without which the commonplace becomes a burden.

Work is the commonplace and feeds the enormous decd in humans for getting things done; but also for money, respect, community, conflict, meaning, and spectacle. Spectacle? Witness Oliver Stone’s loving camera panning the frenzied brokers and their vital, exhausting work environments in Wall Street; or recall It’s a Wonderful Life, the old forties movie, with James Stewart picturesquely jammed into a small-town office. Look up, next tune you arc downtown, at the highest floors and see the towering, cinematically splendid, almost Egyptian seclusion of upper corporate officers. Across the Atlantic, I vividly remember an astonishing wall of London commuters, recently released from a jammed train, advancing across Tower Bridge like an angry tsunami.

In drama, as at work, the stakes are always high. We take a chance every day, whether it be the intense [20] and elaborate engineering of a collective laugh, or the gut-wrenching presentation of financial loss. Our nervous laughter at the prospect of being fired encompasses both. Our mouth turns dry at the very thought.

In work, the stakes are dramatically high. You can be fired today, this very moment. Your company can go under. Even if it seems as invulnerable as the Titanic, you may be busily and efficiently rearranging the deck chairs even as it disappears beneath the waves. Loutish and brutal takeover specialists may break in through the back door, take over the company, break it up, and sell it off for breathtaking personal gain. Your husband may hate your job and ask you to give it up, your wife may leave you because of your unstoppable, Faustian worship of career. Like drama, everything is at stake and everything can happen, and real human souls are living at the center of it all.

If work is all about doing, then the soul is all about being: the indiscriminate enjoyer of everything that comes our way. If work is the world, then the soul is our home. This book explores the possibility of being at home in the world, melding soul life with work life, the inner ocean of longing and belonging with the outer ground of strategy and organizational control. Its aim is to reconcile the left-hand ledger sheet of the soul with the right-hand ledger sheet of the corporate world, a kind of double-entry bookkeeping that can bring together two opposing sides of ourselves normally split by the pressures of work.

[21] The time seems right for this cross-fertilization. It seems that all the overripe hierarchies of the world, from corporations to nation states, are in trouble and are calling, however reluctantly, on their people for more creativity, commitment, and innovation. If these corporate bodies can demand those creative qualities which by long tradition belong so directly to our being, to our soul, they must naturally make room for their disturbing presence within their buildings and their borders. But the human ability to innovate and follow an individual vision depends also on a sure foundation of continuity and community. The corporation must make room for an equally strong need for stability and tradition, reverence and respect, continuity and contemplation. Above all, the corporation demanding creativity from its own employees has as much changing to do as their workforce. Like water flowing from an underground spring, human creativity is the wellspring greening the desert of toil and effort, and much of what stifles us in the workplace is the immense unconscious effort on the part of individuals and organizations alike to dam its flow.

WORK AND THE SOUL

Work has to do with cornering and controlling conscious life. It attempts concrete goals. It loves the linear and the defined. But the soul finds its existence [22] through a loss of control to those powers greater than human experience.

Work helps us to feel safe. The soul is safe already. Safe in its own experience of the world. Work is bounded by time. The soul of a person lies outside of time and belongs to the unknown, it is the sacred otherness of existence. Work belongs to the personality, but the soul is owned by no one, not even by the personality formed around it. The personality will, we are continually amazed, kiss any required part of the anatomy to rise in the world; the soul refuses to kiss anything but life itself, and then, as Blake says, only as it flies.

Work is slowly mastered. The soul life of a person is always larger and greater the more we come to know it. We go to work. But it is our soul we put into it. Work is a series of events. The soul, as James Hillman says, turns those workaday events into experience.

Our lack of soul is our refusal to open to a full experience of the world. Work, paradoxically, does not ask enough of us, yet exhausts the narrow parts of us we do bring to its door. Old notions of the virtue of work for its own sake are coming into question; in some ways the world is dying from our willingness to work at all and at any cost. Presented every day with the degradation of earth, sea and atmosphere through our virtuous effort, we have enough evidence to suppose now that work itself may mean a further tearing at the fabric of life. The soul must often live and work [23] in places we have made more and more inimical to its desires.

The core of difficulty at the heart of modern work life is its abstraction from many of the ancient cycles of life that allow the silence and time in which true appreciation and experience can take place. The hurried child becomes the pressured student, and finally the harassed manager. The process is begun very young, and can be so in our bones, depending on the pressure of our upbringing, that the inability to pay real attention to our world may be difficult to recognize.

TURNING OFF THE PATH

For many of us, it is hard to begin the soul’s journey because the journey begins in a place in which we have been taught to have very little faith—the black, contemplative splendors of self-doubt, something else they don’t teach at Harvard Business School and something we would rather do without. But wanting soul life without the dark, warming intelligence of personal doubt is like expecting an egg without the brooding heat of the mother hen.

Self-doubt is that part of the soul that is able to taste the bitter in life as well as the sweet. It is open to a side of life that a sunny disposition must ignore in order to carry on smiling. It is less interested in [24] pretence and more aware of the suffering entailed in daily living. It is realistic about the balance of suffering and happiness, but because of this realism is willing to be thankful for whatever genuine happiness is possible. It celebrates the melancholy nature of aloneness, but because of its refusal to shirk aloneness knows the worth of a real relationship.

The whole of western cultural tradition is based on a primary interior struggle: the essential aloneness of the individual, coupled with a wish to be part of some larger corporate body—literally a corpus, a corporation—to achieve things that would be impossible alone. Bridging two impossible worlds, personal destiny and impersonal organization, we find ourselves standing in a half-dark, twilight land between them both.

As we begin to think about our aloneness, where we fit in the world, why we are working where we are, the state of our soul and the direction we are headed, we join a long lineage of men and women who gave themselves over to the imagery of the poetic imagination to find out the selfsame thing. We begin to give those images life by speaking them aloud, however hesitantly. Questioning in a real way, we start, by all the lights of the poetic tradition, to awaken. We are come to consciousness, albeit in a dark wood. But as we awaken, we take the first steps into the hall of grief and loss. Looking over the centuries of human struggle commemorated in poetry, a man or woman often seems to begin the journey to [25] soul recovery in this very lonely place of self-assessment. The uninitiated might call it depression.

When all the things we want beyond our reach move slowly within our reach, it is easy to feel good about life. But if our sense of well-being becomes dependent on the constant delivery of goods to our door, we experience a sense of loss when the supply suddenly dries up, or we no longer perceive it has the same value. At this point we are thrown back on ourselves and must live on what we find there. In a way we are finally forced to rely on the one thing already within the compass of our grasp—our soul’s natural entanglement in the world. This entanglement is often perceived for the first time through a sense of loss. It is as if we first stumble into our belonging by realizing how desperately out of place we feel. This sense of loss has a natural way of drawing us inside ourself. We might at first label the body’s simple need to focus inward depression. But as we practice going inward, we come to realize that much of it is not depression in the least; it is a cry for something else, often the physical body’s simple need for rest, for contemplation, and for a kind of forgotten courage, one difficult to hear, demanding not a raise, but another life.

It seems that to find the real path we have to go off the path we are on now, even for an instant, and earn the privilege of losing our way. As the path fades, we are forced to take a good look at the life in which we actually find ourselves. For many professionals in the [26] corporate world, going off the path may simply mean approaching work in a more contemplative way, that is, to meditate on work’s problems as much with the heart as with the mind. This is not to give up our responsibilities and the need to get a job done on time, but to see things from a radical perspective. Imaginative decision-making means being able to step out of the process at hand and see it with fresh, leisurely eyes. Equally so for the life of the imagination.

All goals, mission statements, positive thinking, bonus mileage plans, and future career moves safely to the rear, we can look around and find ourselves, slightly chilled, in a small, unfamiliar clearing in a dark wood, facing that stubborn, unremitting, not-to-be-accepted life we have made and must call our own. One day, Nel mezzo, in the middle of everything, we awake and see our life as we have made it.

Seven centuries ago, Dante Alighieri began his magisterial epic on existence, the Commedia, with these words.

In the middle of the road of my life I awoke in a dark wood where the true way was wholly lost.

In the wild and emphatic vowel sounds of medieval Italian, Dante’s first line carries the impact of a speeding jetliner, after long flight, jolting to earth on a foreign runway. Nel mezzo . . . del cammin . . . de [27] nostra vita . . . mi retrovai . . . per un oscure selva. “In the middle . . . of the road . . . of my life . . . I awoke . . . in a dark wood.”

Once landed and down the jetway, we find the terminal strangely empty and in complete darkness. Not only that, but as in a dream we realize that we were the sole passenger on the plane. For Dante it was the midpoint of his life, around thirty-five. For many of us it can be a particular year or a particular moment. The twentieth-century manager suddenly looks up through her Manhattan window and watches the canyons of vertical concrete through long forgotten eyes, seeing suddenly, as Dante saw, the dark trunks of an unknown forest.

In three brief lines Dante says that the journey begins right here. In the middle of the road. Right beneath your feet. This is the place. There is no other place and no other time. Even if you are successful and follow the road you have set yourself, you can never leave here. Despite everything you have achieved, life refuses to grant you, and always will refuse to grant you, immunity from its difficulties.

Becoming aware of this after a lifetime of accepting success as the ultimate healing balm, as something that will give you protection, is, declares Dante, like waking in a dark wood. He begins by admitting that the human mind never sees success as “here,” but always ahead, down the road. He says that the day when you have your desk finally cleared will [28] not arrive. That the level of safety you are aiming for on the corporate ladder is an illusion. He says the child you have at home, for whom you are making many sacrifices, will be grown and gone by the time you struggle back through the traffic. He says you must look hard at the road you are taking now as much as the hoped-for destination. You must admit what you see on that road and grieve long for what you do not. Then you have a possibility of waking.

When you do wake, you are rousing a different part of you, a barely experienced life that lies at your core. Having forgotten this central soul experience, you do not recognize where you are. To the part of you that loved your sleep, it feels as if it is waking in the dark. It appears to be lost.

I awoke in a dark wood where the true way was wholly lost.

Little wonder that invoking the soul at work may lead us to feel we are inviting in a dark interior energy over which we have little control. The image may be of a shadowy wood, it may equally feel like a return to the waters of the womb. We feel a panicky sense of being smothered by the mothering energy of the world, as if we might drown if we attempted to enter.

The mythopoetic tradition, the tradition of story and myth telling through poetry, has always said yes, this is a frightening interior energy that has far fewer boundaries than we are used to, but you must never- [29] theless enter the waters and be reborn, or die of paralysis on the banks of the pool. William Blake always maintained that the true man was the twice-born man. That is, the mature person was one who had entered the oceanic qualities of the soul and survived that baptism without regressing to a spontaneous but fearful second childhood.

We are all aware how work both emboldens us and strangles our soul life in the very same instant. It reveals how much we can do as part of a larger body, literally a corpus, a corporation, and how much the wellsprings of our creativity are stopped at the source by the pressures of that same smothering organization.

These inner wellsprings form deep pools of soul energy within us. For many of us, it has been difficult to allow ourselves to drink from them. We know intuitively that the first sip of intoxicating revelation is bought at very great cost. As if in preparation, the strategic part of our mind has already done a thorough cost-benefit analysis and is advising us not to go through with the bargain.

We experience a form of internal sticker-shock, that the price of our vitality is the sum of all our fears, that the price of our passion and commitment involves the shattering of deep personal illusions of immunity and safety. We stand to gain a marvelous involvement in our labors, but must relinquish a belief that the world owes us a place on a divinely ordained career ladder. We learn that we do have a [30] place in the world, but that it is constantly shape-shifting, like the weather and the seasons, into something at once new and beautiful, tantalizing and terrible.

Confronted with the difficulty and drama of work, we look into our lives as we look into deep water. We kneel, as if by the side of a pool, seeing in one moment not only the fleeting and gossamer reflection of our own face, clouded and disturbed by every passing breath and the lives of all the innumerable creatures that live in its waters, but the hidden depths below, beyond our sight, sustaining and holding everything we comprehend.