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The Three Marriages: Reimagining Work, Self and Relationship Paperback – January 5, 2010
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About the Author
Poet David Whyte grew up among the hills and valleys of Yorkshire, England. The author of four books of poetry, he is one of the few poets to take his perspectives on creativity into the field of organizational development, where he works with many American and international companies. He holds a degree in Marine Zoology, and has traveled extensively, including working as a naturalist guide and leading anthropological and natural history expeditions. He brings this wealth of experiences to his poetry, lectures and workshops.
In organizational settings, using poetry and thoughtful commentary, he illustrates how we can foster qualities of courage and engagement; qualities needed if we are to respond to today’s call for increased creativity and adaptability in the workplace. He brings a unique and important contribution to our understanding of the nature of individual and organizational change.
In addition to his four volumes of poetry, David Whyte is the author of The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America, published by Doubleday/Currency, an audio cassette lecture series, and an album of poetry and music. His new book of prose, "Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as Pilgrimage of Identity" was published in hardcover by Riverhead Books in March, 2001, and is coming out in paperback in April, 2002. He lives with his family in the Pacific Northwest.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
OUT OF NOWHERE
No one could find me in this strange hiding place. I moved the chair ever so quietly back toward the wall and drew back my feet so that those searching for me would not see those two polished shoes peeping out on the white, immaculate kitchen floor. I tried hard not to imagine the concern and wonderment at my recent unexplained disappearance as I sipped at the glass of red wine and looked down again with renewed effort at my notes.
My refuge was a chair placed between two massive gleaming refrigerators in the equally massive kitchen that stood next to the room in which I was about to speak; all this on the very top floor of a sprawling bank building in Johannesburg. Though it was light and warm inside the building, it was dark and very cold outside on the high central plateau of South Africa and the night full of frigid, glittering stars. It was a night to think of origins and the specific place of humanity amongst it all, but the lit interior of the building gave out that international projected sense of abstract corporate power that could have placed it anywhere in the world from Singapore to Seattle.
I was hiding because, humanity or not, I was in a very difficult place at that moment. I needed precious time to myself to come up with a theme very quickly for a talk I was about to give in thirty minutes. I wanted to be a thousand miles away from this audience, many thousands of miles away, to be precise. It was all made worse by the fact that I had given a very good week of seminars, not only within the bank but to the wider artistic community in Johannesburg, and they were all therefore expecting more good stuff and had all told those who had not heard me to come along and hear this poet fellow who could address things in a way they might not have heard before. I would have preferred expectations to be very, very low for this evening. Not only that, but this particular talk was to be to executives and spouses, and had to be relevant to both. The creative center of all this attention, however—the speaker, that is—was completely exhausted and as dry of inspiration as they were full of anticipation. I could hear the buzz of excitement next door, and it made me realize how empty I felt right down to the pit of my stomach, as if someone, somewhere had pulled a plug and the last dregs of energy and enthusiasm had drained away at last. I thought of slipping out like some artistic rock star and really disappearing, leaving only the memory of my past triumphs. I was done, dried out, running on empty and ready for a bottle of wine, never mind a glass, drunk not between two refrigerators in a South African bank building but at home by the fire, with family, with friends, with those especially who did not look to me for inspiration.
In fact, I would have given a lot to be sitting somewhere else drinking that wine; actually, I would have given a great deal to be anywhere else in my life. In fact I suddenly saw myself back in the rose-colored past, as a kid in Yorkshire, in short grey flannel pants, adjusting the big safety pin that seemed to hold them up for a good stretch of my childhood, and which I hid on the inside of the waist. For a moment I found myself looking down at the scuffed knees below the line of those remembered pants: knees that carried me through the local fields and the very local fights of a very rambunctious childhood. That kid could never have imagined sitting here in this humming, oblong metal canyon, about to go on in front of a sophisticated crowd in a faraway, future city; he could never imagine the worries and frets and necessities of the adult mind. I thought about him and what he had wanted to do when he grew up. I thought about my son, my daughter, my wife. I thought about myself suddenly, almost as a stranger, sitting here at this threshold in my life, a stranger at least in the eyes of that rascal kid with his pocket full of holes and pebbles, looking up at me between the refrigerators, in childish puzzlement at my worry.
I waved him off, back into his happy past, and looked at my watch in the all-too-unhappy present. I had been sitting here for ten minutes, and it was now twenty minutes to eight. Twenty minutes until I was on, and I still had not even a glimmer as to what I would say. I heard a stray voice in the kitchen doorway asking another if he had seen me anywhere. I looked down, pulled in the one stray toe that had now wandered beyond the sight line of the refrigerators, exposing me to discovery and stared at my notes.
A big part of the trouble I was now in, had come, as it often does, in the form of a wonderful compliment. The head of the bank, who had invited me and hosted me in South Africa, had been incredibly hospitable to my wife and me, and had also insisted on attending every one of my talks. I had then taken it almost as a point of honor to keep him surprised and interested the whole week and not repeat myself, as speakers are wont to do. The effort had gone very well until this evening, when the cumulative effect of finding something new or at least saying the old in a new way over a dozen long talks during the week had brought me to my knees as far as new material and new insight were concerned.
Part of the way I have always worked is through memorized poems, my own and others’, of which I have a few hundred and which I bring to bear on a given subject. It had all happened naturally that way because I had always loved committing poems to memory and I somehow managed to build my work around it. But sometimes you could easily forget what you remembered, and so I had the first lines of all these memorized poems laid down in a multipage list. I would add to this list only as each poem passed the invisible test of being solidly in my memory. It was this that I looked at so earnestly as the minutes ticked away. I was often unnaturally proud of this list, but it was doing me absolutely no good at the moment. It was now a quarter to eight.
In my case, looking at notes is always a sign of desperation. I never prepare for talks this way. I rely on a general day-to-day inquiry that comes to fruition by talking out loud in front of an audience. I always feel the invitation made by attentive, listening ears makes the talk as much as any individual giving the speech. My exhaustion, therefore, had given me a temporary loss of faith in the way I usually hold the conversation. I turned the pages over and realized that I wasn’t even seeing anything on the blessed pages, never mind synthesizing anything from the lines. I lifted my wrist again; it was ten minutes to eight, still nothing, and the buzz was getting louder, the questions as to my whereabouts a little more animated through the kitchen door.
There was other trouble waiting for me in that crowd this evening: the face of my wife. That face at the end of a week when I had been working nonstop, hogging all the limelight and barely able to have a real conversation with her, and I was supposed to give a speech, brazen as you like, on bringing work together with all those other human imponderables of family and self. I could just imagine her at the table, giving me that beautiful but wry smile, putting her hands together so politely at the end with her new South African friends, and saying to herself, Well done, very well said. Mr. Gold-Plated B.S.
I looked down at the blue hands of my wristwatch: five minutes to eight. The interesting thing about wristwatches as objects of desire is that when advertised for sale, they are always worn in situations of extreme timelessness—climbing a rock face, flying a plane, sitting with your son—as if by their purchase we will be absolved of time and no longer besieged by its swift, uncaring passage.
Time was moving very swiftly indeed as far as coming up with a decent theme. Work, life, balance. I dismissed the last word from my mind and from the talk. Poets have never used the word balance, for good reason. First of all, it is too obvious and therefore untrustworthy; it is also a deadly boring concept and seems to speak as much to being stuck and immovable, as much as to harmony. There is also the sense of unbalancing that must take place in order to push a person into a new and larger set of circumstances. Gazing blankly at my notes, I suddenly remembered, as in a dream, another talk that I had given, at the other end of the earth, as a guest lecturer at the University of Anchorage on a very, very cold snowy day in Alaska. Emerging from a veritable blizzard into a lecture hall with an unknown crowd of students, I realized that my adventure in getting there had completely pushed from my mind the subject of this particular class. I asked them to tell me what their usual subject was for this afternoon. One fellow at the front put up his hand and said, “English composition.” The title floored me a little, because no serious writer ever thinks about English composition, and if he did it would mean he had temporarily lost his mind or his way as a writer. English composition is for those looking from the outside in. English composition is to real writing as Sunday school is to Moses before the burning bush. I started hesitantly, knowing I had to find a different ground on which to walk as I spoke, and finally found the way in when I overheard myself say, “English decomposition.” Suddenly the students were interested. I found myself talking about all the ways in which you have to break down and discompose your ordinary speech in order to say something real and worthwhile. . . .
“There you are,” said the voice of the sound technician, holding up the lapel mike for me with one hand and holding the battery case in the other. He stood in the space framed by the two refrigerators, looked off to the side and said in a loud, excited voice, “I’ve found him, hiding in the kitchen.” Thank you, I thought. I looked at my watch again. Eight o’clock, nothing, absolutely nothing, except that clue about being discomposed and the image of Moses before the burning bush.
My banker friend made the wonderful introduction I didn’t want and didn’t deserve and didn’t want him to give. I thought of how much time human beings spend in circumstances they would never willingly choose for themselves. I thought of why this might be so. I would have been much happier with “He’s done great all week, now let’s all let him have a really off night and still love him at the end.” The room went quiet. I looked out at the assembled executives and their partners and the singles without partners, and I looked at my own wife sitting with her new friends. As much as my spouse loved me, she would be as fierce a judge of what I had to say on work and relationship as anyone in the room. I had to find words that spoke to all the different listening ears, especially to my wife’s ears. I had to speak to something in the work we seek, to something in the partner we have sought and won or even sought and lost, and even, I thought, to something that little kid in the short flannel pants is still looking for, looking for in me and still, in a sense, waiting to grow up. I took a deep breath and then said, out of nowhere and to my everlasting surprise, “I would like to speak about . . . the three marriages.”
The current understanding of work-life balance is too simplistic. People find it hard to balance work with family, family with self, because it might not be a question of balance. Some other dynamic is in play, something to do with a very human attempt at happiness that does not quantify different parts of life and then set them against one another. We are collectively exhausted because of our inability to hold competing parts of ourselves together in a more integrated way. These hidden human dynamics of integration are more of a conversation, more of a synthesis and more of an almost religious and sometimes almost delirious quest for meaning than a simple attempt at daily ease and contentment.
Human beings are creatures of belonging, though they may come to that sense of belonging only through long periods of exile and loneliness. Interestingly, we belong to life as much through our sense that it is all impossible, as we do through the sense that we will accomplish everything we have set out to do. This sense of belonging and not belonging is lived out by most people through three principal dynamics: first, through relationship to other people and other living things (particularly and very personally, to one other living, breathing person in relationship or marriage); second, through work; and third, through an understanding of what it means to be themselves, discrete individuals alive and seemingly separate from everyone and everything else.
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.
Why put them together? To neglect any one of the three marriages is to impoverish them all, because they are not actually separate commitments but different expressions of the way each individual belongs to the world.
This book looks at the dynamics common to all three marriages: first the recognition of what an individual wants, then a pursuit, then the hope to circumvent the difficult but necessary disappointments, and ultimately, in the face of that disappointment, the full recommitment to the vows we have made in each of the three areas, spoken or unspoken.
The Three Marriages looks at the way each marriage involves a separate form of courtship and commitment, each almost a world unto itself that then must be rejoined together. The end goal: In these pages I am looking for a marriage of marriages.
The main premise of the book becomes also its final conclusion: 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.
I especially want to look at the way that each of these marriages is, at its heart, nonnegotiable; 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. As we discover, through the lives and the biographies I follow in this book, how each one of the three marriages is nonnegotiable at its core, we can start to realign our understanding and our efforts away from trading and bartering parts of ourselves as if they were salable commodities and more toward finding a central conversation that can hold all of these three marriages together.
The Three Marriages looks at the triumphs and tragedies of human belonging in three crucial areas that most individuals simply can’t avoid: in relationship, in work and in all those strange and inexplicable inner ways we belong to ourselves. It seeks to understand the often accident-prone, the sometimes triumphant, the very often comic and the too often tragic and disastrous, human attempt to belong to something or someone other than our very well-known but very often very, very boring, established selves. It looks at what happens along the way when we become more interesting: when we get out of the dynamics of self-entrapment and fall in love—with a person, a future, a work, or with a new sense of self.
At the same time, The Three Marriages looks at that other equally strange human need, to be left completely and utterly alone, trawling the deep riches of an inner peace and quiet, where the self can actually seem lithe, movable, limitless and inviolate, invulnerable to those invisible wounds delivered by partners and spouses, unharassed by commitments, inured to the clamor of children and untouched by the endless nature of our meetings, all of which come as a result of a deep-seated, not-to-be-suppressed, inherited human need to belong—indeed, that constant, basic need we cannot ignore—to be part of a bigger conversation than the one we are having now.
The Three Marriages, then, attempts to reframe our language and our thinking to move away from a phrase that is deeply misleading, a phrase that often becomes a lash with which we punish ourselves, a short sentence that can lie like a weight on our shoulders and seem irremovable: Work-life balance.
The understanding of this book is that in the deeper, unspoken realms of the human psyche, work and life are not separate things and therefore cannot be balanced against each other except to create further trouble. The book most especially tries to dispel the myth that we are predominantly thinking creatures, who can, if we put our feet in all the right places, develop strategies that will make us the paragons of perfection we want to be, and instead, looks to a deeper, almost poetic perspective, a moving, more untouchable identity, a slightly more dangerous but more satisfying sense of self than one defined by ideas of balance.
The Three Marriages looks at the way we actually seem to function—as a kind of movable conversational frontier, an edge between what we think is us and what we think is not us. Following the lives of Robert Louis Stevenson, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and others, it tries to illustrate the way we can still make a real life even when crowded by other identities, or even when unbalanced and intoxicated with desire, or even when we are disappointed in work or love, and perhaps the way, at the center of all this deep love of belonging and this deep exhaustion of belonging, we may have waiting for us, at the end of the tunnel, a marriage of marriages, a life worth living, and one we can call, despite all the difficulties and imperfections, our very own.
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The CD set (also available), which has transformed my vehicle into a conference-on-wheels, is my absolute favorite!