September 01, 2005

A Question of Profession.

"And since your expression is decidedly downcast, it seems as if these quotations about the nature of professional life have brought you to some melancholy conclusion. What can it be? Simply, you reply, that we, daughters of educated men, are between the devil and the deep sea. Behind us lies the patriarchal system; the private house, with its nullity, its immorality, its hypocrisy, its servility. Before us lies the public world, the professional system, with its possessiveness, its jealousy, its pugnacity, its greed. The one shuts us up like slaves in a harem; the other forces us to circle, like caterpillars head to tail, round and round the mulberry tree, the sacred tree, of property. It is a choice of evils. Each is bad. Had we not better plunge off the bridge into the river; give up the game; declare that the whole of human life is a mistake and so end it? [...] For reasons given above we are agreed that we must earn money in the professions. For reasons given above those professions seem to us highly undesirable. The questions we put to you, lives of the dead, is how can we enter the professions and yet remain civilized human beings; human beings, that is, who wish to prevent war?" - Virginia Woolf, from "Three Guineas"

I find myself asking this very question as of late. On the phone with my mother yesterday, discussing how attending grad school three days a week absolutely requires me to work 40 hours the other four days of the week to earn enough for rent, bills and tuition, and that between the two I have very little time for rest, let alone contemplation (though, luckily, grad school itself demands a certain amount of thoughtfulness, thank God!).

"Welcome to the working life!" my mother exclaimed, full of what I can imagine was a strange misery-loves-company kind of glee... Or, on the other hand, perhaps it was only the hysteria of a woman who has spent most of her life in such a workaholic state that, now unemployed due to a poor economy, has no idea how to spend her time (and wastes much of it in front of the television, which is just as good a distraction from real thought as fatigue can be).

How can we enter the working world and remain civilized human beings? How can we earn a living in a system which we may almost entirely reject? How do we bring our spiritual lives to bear on what we so often want to claim is "just a job"? I am struggling with these questions. Woolf provides her own answers, though they are (and have grown even more so, since she wrote this essay) so very difficult.


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