Discussion Guide: Working for Life

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Working for Life
YES! #17, Spring 2001

One of the most exciting reasons to discuss right livelihood in a group is to witness the explosion of individual variety, creativity, and energy that results. Your group should plan to devote several sessions to the material below, so that each person will have a chance to be truly heard and to respond to the group's discoveries. You may want to ask members to keep a journal of their reactions to the questions and exercises.
To prepare for this discussion, group members will want to read the articles below. Simply download them from our website, www.yesmagazine.org, or call 800-937-4451 to purchase multiple copies of the Spring 2001 issue #17, Working for Life, at our group discount rate.
Parker Palmer, "Now I Become Myself"
Juliet Schor, "Real Vacations for All"
Maryann Gorman, "The White Dog's Tale"
Bob Black, "Why Work?"

Right Livelihood Part I: The Personal
Good work. To open the discussion, go around the group round-robin fashion* and ask members to answer a two-part question:1) Which of your work experiences felt most like right livelihood - that is, what work was a pleasure to do and allowed you to be yourself? Why did it feel right? 2) What work experience was the least like right livelihood? Why?
When everyone has spoken, ask the group what common threads they noticed in the individual stories. What are the characteristics of good work? Bad work? How important is it that your work provide a net benefit to clients, society, the environment - or at least, as the Hippocratic oath says, that you do no harm?

Thinking like a poet. Poets argue that humans think in images, so in this exercise, we're looking for images of right livelihood rather than definitions or analysis. Our goal is to create a group collage from individual portraits of a life well-lived. Again, go around the circle round-robin fashion. This time, have each member describe his or her personal image of right livelihood by answering these questions: What will your life look like when you've achieved your version of right livelihood? What are you doing - more of what, less of what? How do you spend your days? Describe the place where you live - what qualities does it have? Describe yourself working. How do you feel? If some group members say they don't know, ask them to share the pieces of the puzzle that they do know or at least suspect.

Who am I? Parker Palmer suggests that asking the question What shall I do? is the wrong way to start searching for vocation, because vocation is about remembering you are, rediscovering your birthright gifts. The question you should be asking, he says, is Who am I? Ask group members to describe a moment or an event from your youth when you got an indication of who you are. When were you most happy? Is the answer to that question an important clue to your vocation? What are your birthright gifts?
If group members are fairly well acquainted with each other, you might ask them to focus on each individual in turn and describe what gifts they think that person has that are especially strong. This can be a very powerful experience - a chance to see yourself as others see you.

Fear Mongers. Put a bunch of crayons or colored pencils and big sheets of paper in the center of the circle. Then ask the whole group to think for a moment about this question: If you have not yet achieved right livelihood, what is it that keeps you stuck? What are you afraid of? Ask members to answer the question by illustrating their worst fear or fears in the form of monsters. Tell them to indulge themselves, make the monsters as dramatic and nasty-looking as they want to. When everyone's finished, ask them to show their drawings to the group and talk about them briefly. It's important not to let people dismiss or downplay each other's fears or offer solutions. This exercise is not about solutions: it's about listening - to the kinds of fears that limit us all. You might tape the monster portraits on the wall in a sort of Rogues' Gallery.
Did the group notice common themes? Are the fears generally well founded? What is the source of these fears? Who or what keeps us fearful of leaving the fold and doing something different?
Now, imagine what would happen if you did the thing you most feared anyway. How bad might it get?
Ask the group members what they want to do with their monsters.

Right Livelihood, Part II: The Personal Becomes the Political

The right to good work. Is good, satisfying work a human right? What other rights should go along with work? Health care? Time off? Challenge? Growth? A livable wage? An opportunity to make a contribution - to do work that is meaningful and has positive outcomes? Can these rights be honored in a large, corporate setting by an employer with the best of intentions? Have members describe some workplaces they've heard about that achieve this. What sort of work/ social structure would be optimum for honoring employees rights?
Employers often claim, as Judy Wicks did initially, that they'd go out of business if they paid employees a livable wage and gave six weeks of vacation time. How do you respond to this objection? If you have group members who are employers as well as employees, you're lucky: you can benefit from both perspectives.

The right to play. Juliet Schor suggests vacations for all in the European style-6 weeks. Ask for the group's reaction to her article. Why don't Americans have 6 weeks of vacation, too?
We're living in the Golden Age of labor-saving devices, yet we're working more, working faster, for generally lower pay. What ever happened to all the leisure time that was supposed to result from computer technology? Is there a way to turn this trend around? What prevents you from working less? If the answer is "paying the bills," do you have too many bills? Are you trading too much of your time for too much stuff?
Better yet, why work at all? Bob Black asks this seductive question and suggests that of instead of working, we usher in a Golden Age of Play. What is the difference between work and play? Is there something in our work ethic that makes this seem somehow immoral or decadent? Could play also be creative and even a contribution? Can all work - or almost all -become play, as he suggests? If so, what would change in our lives and our world?

Connections. Is this fretting over right livelihood, personal growth in the work place, and long vacations one of those issues that's only relevant if you're relatively privileged? What kinds of questions would you be asking about right livelihood if you were unemployed or homeless? Can you see any way in which both privileged and underprivileged people are actually asking the same questions? If so, what needs to happen to make the connection apparent to both "camps."

Coming full circle. Now go around the circle round-robin fashion as you did in the beginning and again have each member describe his or her personal image of right livelihood. Has your image changed? How have your feelings about right livelihood changed?
If you want to explore further...
If some people decide they'd like the group's help in clarifying their thinking about vocation, you may want to propose that the group convene for what the Quakers call a clearness meeting. In a clearness meeting, one member poses a question to the group -such as, What is my true work? Instead of responding with advice or stories about their own experience, group members can only ask questions of the questioner. It's a wonderful way to help a person clarify his or her own thinking without imposing an outside solution. Also, tell members that if they can offer resources, solutions, connections, or support to someone who's expressed a problem to be sure to connect after the meeting. Networking is POWERFUL resource.

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