Courage and Conversation
Setting Out with a Firm Persuasion
William Blake, that unstoppable creator, as both poet and engraver seemed to have a direct and conversational relationship with the wellsprings of work. Over a lifetime he exhibited a continual inspiration, a profound vision and an indomitable ability, despite his poverty, to follow through with the tiniest details of his art. Blake called his sense of dedication a firm persuasion. To have a firm persuasion in our work—to feel that what we do is right for ourselves and good for the world at exactly the same time—is one of the great triumphs of human existence. We do feel, when we have work that is challenging and enlarging and that seems to be doing something for others, as if, in Blake’s words, we could move mountains, as if we could call the world home; and for a while, in our imaginations, no matter the small size of our apartment, we dwell in a spacious house with endless horizons.
“My fingers Emit sparks of fire with Expectation of my future labours,” said the passionate Blake, in a letter promising plenty of hard work to his patron, Hayley. He was speaking from a felt sense of fulfillment and from the very last part of the eighteenth century, an age when our Western ideas of work were going through enormous change, an age when the factory was born, and production in and for itself was first conceived as an imaginative good. But Blake stood firm amid it all in his approach to work and in his writings, saying essentially nothing had changed. Factory or farm, individuals needed a sense of belonging in their work, a conversation with something larger than themselves, a felt participation, and a touch of spiritual fulfillment and the mysterious generative nature of that fulfillment. Blake might have said that they needed a conversation with the angels. Earning and providing were all very well, but once the basics were met, human beings naturally turned their inward and outward eyes to greater horizons.
Whether fulfillment lasts for a month or for a lifetime, most of us would not complain of its appearance in our lives however long or short its stay. If we cannot have Blake’s lifelong experience of wonder and inspiration through our labors, we will take just the merest touch now and again. Some have experienced fulfillment for only a few brief hours early on in their work lives and then measured everything, secretly, against it since. Some have felt eager and engaged by their work for years and then walked into their office one fine morning to find their enthusiasms gone, their energies spent, their imaginations engaged in secret ways, elsewhere.
To have a firm persuasion; to set out boldly in our work, is to make a pilgrimage of our labors, to understand that the consummation of work lies not only in what we have done, but who we have become while accomplishing the task. To see life and work as a pilgrimage is not a strategy for increased production (though by understanding the wellsprings of human creativity, there is every chance it might happen); it does not mean that we can lay out our careers in precise stages, clearly and concisely, as to when, where and how everything should happen. All of our great artistic and religious traditions take equally great pains to inform us that we must never mistake a good career for good work. Life is a creative, intimate and unpredictable conversation if it is nothing else, spoken or unspoken, and our life and our work are both the result of the particular way we hold that passionate conversation. In Blake’s sense, a firm persuasion, was a form of self-knowledge; it was understood as a result, an outcome, a bounty that came from paying close attention to an astonishing world and the way each of us is made differently and uniquely for that world.
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