Beyond a Job:
Doing The Great Work

An Interview with Matthew Fox
By Mary NurrieStearns


Much of our life is spent in the world of work. Our time, energy, and even identity are wrapped up in what we do and how much money we have. Therefore it is important to explore how work is associated with prosperity. At times, work is a job an exchange of effort for money. But work can also be vocation. When work is vocation, it is where we express our unique talents, find meaning, and contribute to what Matthew Fox calls "the great work," the work of the universe.

To discuss this subject with Matthew Fox was like finding a gold mine. The author of many books, Fox describes in "The Reinvention of Work" a new vision of livelihood. In his envisioned world of work intellect, heart, and health come together to celebrate the whole person. He is a true teacher of what he espouses. He was dismissed by the Dominican order in 1993 over his radical views and has recreated his career. A priest, he is president of the University of Creation Spirituality and co-chair of the Naropa/Oakland MLA program in Oakland.

Personal Transformation: What is your understanding of prosperity?

Matthew Fox: It is not in my vocabulary, to be honest. I do not like the word, as it is used. The way it is often used these days in American culture has more to do with getting rich and acquiring material goods, which I consider inappropriate. A better word than prosperity would be health. We want the Earth to prosper, we want our children to prosper, we want our imaginations and spirits to prosper. We want other generations to prosper. From that point of view, I can be at home with the word. I like the word as a verb. As a verb the word prosper retains a very useful meaning. Too often the words prosperity and spirituality smack of manipulation, abuse, or espousing materialism in the name of spirituality and prayer, and I'm not at home with that.

Transformation: Given that meaning of prosperity, what is the link between prospering and work?

Fox: Work needs to be an occasion for our own and for others' spirits to prosper. There needs to be joy in work; the joy that we experience in it and the joy that others experience from our work, which also increases our joy, because to contribute to other people's joys is part of what makes one happy. Another important dimension of work is healing. Not only is joy a part of the human heart, so is grief and suffering. You could ask, "How does my work bring joy to myself and others?" and "How does my work relieve the suffering of others?" Are you creating something useful that people need that relieves their suffering? Work being the relief of suffering is a part of prospering because we have obstacles to prospering to being healthy and well and alive in spirit and so removing these obstacles is what our work is meant to do.

Transformation: In "The Reinvention of Work," you talk about vocational calling. Describe vocational calling.

Fox: At times in our lives we feel called to work at this more than that, to respond to this need in society and to let go of what we have been working at. I distinguish this between job and work. A job is something we do to get a paycheck and pay our bills. Jobs are legitimate, at times, but work is why we are here in the universe. Work and calling often go together. Work is something we feel called to do, it is that which speaks to our hearts in terms of joy and commitment. Work can evolve, however. We may have one calling twenty years ago and another one more recently. Work also connects us to the universe. If we thought less anthropomorphically, we would realize that our whole universe is at work. There is an ancient affinity between the great work and our daily lives. The great work is the work of the universe, it is the unfolding of creation. Somehow, our work, our daily life, should contribute to that. We should feel that we are connected to the great work of the universe. Without that, we lose meaning in our work and the only meaning is a paycheck. Work is no longer work, it is a job. The same is true of unemployment. If you think less anthropomorphically, you realize that every being in the universe has work. The planets, galaxies and stars have work, as do horses, grasses and fish. Only humans have unemployment. We invent unemployment. If people fit the habits of the universe, the idea that there is work for everybody, that everybody has a calling, and that we are all here for a reason is pretty basic.

Transformation: How do we know if our work is in alignment with the work of the universe, the great work?

Fox: I like Jesus's advice, "by their fruits, you will know them." We can look at our work and see if there is joy. We can look at our work and see if there is relief of pain and suffering. Maybe what you are asking is, in this context, how do we define success or prosperity at work? It is a discernment process. Like so much of spirituality, there is no clear-cut answer. Take people like Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. or Jesus. At many levels they failed. You cannot judge their success in shallow terms. The same must be true of us and our work. How do parents, for example, judge the value of their parenting? It often takes many years, and even then, we do not know. There is mystery in all of this, and there is trust, and I do not think that there are clear signs. Part of the delusion of the modern era was the notion we got from John Calvin, and many capitalists since him, that if you are successful, in the sense of making a lot of money, God is smiling on your work. I do not think it is as simple as that. It is a subtle question that you are asking. We have to keep critiquing the values that we believe in and ask if justice, compassion, joy, and celebration are the results of our work.

Transformation: In the book you say there are mystical dimensions to work. What are the mystical dimensions in work?

Fox: Joy and awe and wonder. Studs Turkel, in his great book on working, says that work must be about meaning and astonishment and wonder as well as daily bread. The Chinese scripture, the Tao Tai Ching, says, "In work, do what you enjoy." Finding the joy in work is part of the mystical path. So is recognizing the grief and the pain in work. There is a passage in "The Reinvention of Work" where Studs Turkel says that work is also a place where we get ulcers and do violence to the soul as well as the body at times. This is the negative side of work, what the mystics call the dark night of the soul. This shows how profound work is. Work brings out both joy and pain. Part of mysticism is going into the pain and darkness, not running from it, covering it up or denying it.

Transformation: You are saying that the dark side of work is inevitable.

Fox: Wendell Barry, the poet farmer, says, "There's drudgery in all work," and he ought to know because he is a farmer. But, he says, there is meaning, too, and meaning raises the drudgery to a new level of giving, sacrifice, and generosity. Yes, there is drudgery in all work. But, if there is only drudgery, then there is a problem. There should also be meaning and there should be joy. We have to ask how we lessen the drudgery and increase the joy, and how we can make work more ennobling and creative.

Transformation: Where does responsibility fit in responsibility for family, responsibility for the Earth?

Fox: Work is where adults most express themselves. At the university I started here in Oakland, there is a doctor of ministry program for anyone who is about bringing spirit to our professions, whatever the profession be. The point is to bring spirituality to our work worlds because we really affect history through our work. In all work, our values are meant to come through environmental values, gender justice, social justice, racial justice and so forth. Most middle class people spend their week working or training for work or recovering from work, while raising kids, hoping they will get good work, then life is over. Work is where much of our energy is spent. Certainly our values are meant to be played out at work. That is the responsibility we have toward the Earth, future generations, and toward one another. The issues of justice and responsibility are played out in our work place. It is the place where we earn our living, so it is where we express our responsibility to our family, who we support financially and otherwise.

Transformation: Many people experience work as something to be endured. What advice do you have for people who are surviving work day by day?

Fox: It is probably not work. They are surviving a job. Work has a quality of joy to it. When I was on a book tour a couple of years ago, in Washington, D.C., a woman told me a story. She said, "I really understand the difference between work and a job, because I had a job for years. I knew it was a job, it did not satisfy my spirit, but I'm a single mom, and I didn't dare quit." Then she said, "I got so angry one day that I quit. It took me two or three months to find another job. This job has become work and I've never been happier in my life. I'm soaring like a bird because I'm doing my work and I'm getting paid for it at the same time." Notice what she had to do. She had to quit her job in order to be available for her work. That hiatus of two or three months was a time of concern and worry, but that demonstrates how profound work is to the human person. It is interesting that it took anger to get her out of a co-dependent relationship with her job so that she was actually available for work. In a way, it may have been low self-esteem on her part to assume that she could not quit the job and find work. She found herself kind of being beaten up at the job.

E.F. Schumacher says that we have insurance if your body is hurt at work but we do not have insurance if your soul is hurt at work. That shows up in our culture in the form of two excesses. One is entertainment and the other is counseling. Both of these derive from the fact that many people get beat up at work soul wise. Like this woman, they take it in a masochistic way, a co-dependent way, and that probably comes from low self-esteem. We are overdosing on entertainment. Every culture has entertainment and appropriately so; people have to refresh themselves. But how many cultures in the history of the human species spend $80 million on a ball player and $60 million on a movie star? What is the meaning of this? We talk about more football teams as if we would never have enough, and more nights of the week watching football. What is this? I think it relates to work. People are so damaged at work, they come home so exhausted, they turn on a machine to watch other people and live vicariously through them. This is a deep soul problem. The same is true of counseling. It is as if we never have enough counselors in our culture. Why is that? I think it is often related to the soul damage that happens at work.

Transformation: If someone says, "I work for a corporation with wonderful benefits. It's a job to me, I don't use my creativity or my heart at work, but it meets the needs of my family. I'm raising four children and I love my family." How would you respond to that?

Fox: Nonsense. The presumption is that our family obligations are strictly materialistic, about money. Anyone who thinks that way is underestimating the love of their family and the richness of true family life. I know a couple who did something like that. He had a good job and they were doing well but everyone in the family agreed that he was not happy in the work. They had a family meeting, kids and all, and they agreed to lessen their style of life if he took a job he would enjoy. So, he did. He took a job that cut his salary in half. They learned to live more simply and had more fun together. That is what family is about. It is not about guaranteeing the perfect college education and the collection of cars in the garage. It is about sharing good times together and most good times are not about money. He had time to take up a musical instrument and to go camping with the kids. This question is an important one, it raises the issue of what is family. Our culture has a set of values that it wants us to adhere to, but we have to critique those values. Sharing joy and time together and celebrating are far more important than being able to buy the latest fashions. The movement toward a more spiritual lifestyle is a simple movement. Anyone who confuses spirituality with the gathering of goodies is missing the point. If we confuse spiritual living with the collection of goods, we need to do more meditation on death. You do not take it with you. What do you take with you if not the experiences of shared beauty? To do that, you need a somewhat emptied heart and you need time. Those are things you cannot buy.

Transformation: You say that our most important work is inner work. What is inner work?

Fox: Out of that process of dealing with joy and with grief emerges creativity, because creativity comes from within. Creativity yearns, as Thomas Klida says, "to be conspicuous," to put itself out there. Inner work is the work of the heart, the work of joy and grief. When we do that we stir up our being and not just our doing, then we can work from that place. The East talks about it as action flowing from non-action. Inner work is kind of non-action. Joy and sorrow is non-action which gives birth to action. Our whole attitude changes. Here is a concrete example. I met a fellow, a car mechanic, at a convention a year ago. He told me he was bored in his work and the only reason he did it was to pay the bills for his family. He became increasingly bored. One day he talked to a fellow, who said, "Every time you turn the ratchet, say Allah." He started to do that. Every time he turned the ratchet, he said "Allah." This became a spiritual practice for him and his whole attitude toward his work changed. He began to love working on cars. He said to me, "If you listen carefully, a car will tell you whether it wants to die or whether it needs repair. Cars are real beings and not just cold machines." His attitude toward his job changed because he did some inner work.

There are interesting experiments going on with meditation in prison. A woman warden in India took over the most violent prison in all of India. It was a terrible place. She said, "We have to do something," and she brought in some teachers of Vipasana meditation, a Buddhist form of meditation. They started with about fifteen inmates. The inmates became so joyful through the meditation that the word got out and others wanted to do it. Soon, the entire prison, including the guards, was doing this meditation. There is a documentary on this called "Doing Time: Meet the Sound of Meditation." It is amazing they turned around this violent prison simply through meditation. The documentary shows the prison before, during, and after the meditation experience. It became a joyful place.

Something similar happened in Los Angeles at the biggest youth prison in America. There were about six hundred 16- to 19-year-olds. It was a hellhole for years. They were so desperate they invited three Buddhist monks to teach the kids meditation. I was told that the prison changed 180 degrees. That is inner work, learning to meditate, learning to deal with your feelings, learning to deal with your anger and joy. The Buddhist monks probably charge about three bowls of rice. To think that you can turn a prison around so simply and cheaply gives one hope. Maybe you can turn education, business, and politics around through meditation.

Transformation: I would like to get your comment on the popular slogan, "Do what you love and the money will follow."

Fox: There is a lot to be said for that. We have to take risks to do what we feel called to do, what really needs doing, and it is not always evident that the pay will be steady in those circumstances. Here, at this alternative university, we are not doing traditional education. Education has to be reinvented in our time but it is much harder financially. The faculty has to believe in us enough to take lower pay and fewer financial guarantees than they would if they were at a regular university. We work greater insofar as we are pioneers and we are taking a risk. Taking a risk is a sacrifice and a gift. It is a part of generosity and part of the energy that makes this place operate. But it is a daily struggle when you start something new like this and there are no guarantees. You have to allow yourself to fail. We talked earlier about success and failure. Is it a failure if an experiment does not last ten years? Not necessarily, it may be spreading seeds that another generation can pick up on. You may be ahead of the crowd and you pay a price for that, that is part of being prophetic. Prophets are never popular.

Transformation: Irrespective of material success, do you feel you are prospering in the sense of being vital and having health of spirit and health of community?

Fox: Yes, and assisting others to prosper more fully.

Transformation: What motivates people to tithe and how does tithing fit into this discussion of work and money?

Fox: People ought to tithe because they belong to a community that they believe in and they want to see prosper. Tithing is a form of voluntary taxation. In our culture, we should spend more time thinking in communitarian terms about taxation. Politicians tell us how awful taxes are. It is interesting to read polls. Some polls say that Americans as a group, 80 percent or so, would pay greater taxes if they were guaranteed it would really save the environment. That shows me that we are community-oriented. Our species is a social species and we do care. I think the negative attitude toward taxing is detrimental to us. Some of our tax money is wasted, but not all of it. There are community purposes for which we do tithe. We do give some of our work money away for the greater good. It is an expression of interdependence. I am not a parent but my taxes go to schools. I do not resent that. People paid for my school when I was nine years old, and they did not know me, so I should pay for another generation even though I may not know the kids. It is about a sense of community. One of the mistakes in the modern era is to over-individualize our existences, as if we are all rugged, individual atoms. The new physics says there are no individual atoms. Atoms link up and join to make molecules and cells and organisms and societies. Tithing is a healthy tradition if it's done healthfully and is not about a power trip or control.

I do want to make this point, on another subject. To reinvent work and make work healthy again we have to reinvent education, because education is the training ground for our work, the funnel through which we pass our workers. Universities have become not so much funnels as strainers, where we strain the soul out of people. It is difficult to find a sense of spirit and soulfulness in our educational institutions. That is why I started this university. We have to criticize education, in the positive sense, and find other models. We are not going to change our professions until we change the matrix in which we train people for our professions. I do not have faith in academia as we know it, in terms of its ability to excite values and to teach people their place in the universe and how their work relates to the work of the universe.

Transformation: This leads to my last question. You talk about the importance of asking what life is calling forth from you. Expand on that.

Fox: Why are you here? It has taken fifteen billion years to get you here. That is scientific fact. We are not just the products of our parents. Sixty percent of our body is hydrogen atoms. The hydrogen atoms in us go back to the fireball fourteen billion years ago. We have been around a long time, and it has been a great birthing process to bring us forward. So you have to presume there is some reason for being here, other than going shopping. We have to probe that reason. What are our talents? What is the pain in the world that speaks to us that we want to respond to? What gifts do we have, whether material goods or power to influence? What gifts do we have to make a difference? We are all living under this sword of the collapse of the ecosystem and what are we doing about it? Are we planting trees, are we working in the media to awaken consciousness, are we working to preserve the species that are disappearing or the soil or the forests? Are we cutting back on our addiction to meat, changing our eating habits, using less land, water and grain for our eating habits? Are we being responsible, and how does it come through in our work and in our job?

I met this fellow who worked in a large corporation. He sent memos within the organization for some time saying, "We could do a better job of packaging our goods, using fewer throw-away materials." They ignored him. It was a drug corporation and their main clients were doctors. So he sent a letter to the doctors saying that this company could do a better job. He asked the doctors to write and tell them that. The doctors flooded the company with letters. This guy was then made vice president of ecological packaging. He is a prophet. Prophets work by imagination. He stayed within the company. He did not leave, he got the company to change by going to their clients. He used his imagination, he used his strong points. He took a risk, he was willing to be fired.

A question everybody has to ask at work is what is the bottom line? What am I willing to be fired for? What am I willing to die for? I can speak of that not just from theory. In the midst of writing "The Reinvention of Work," I received a pink slip from the Vatican. Every one of us has to have a conscience. Because work is so influential in the world and affects morality at so many levels, every one of us has to be willing to lose our job over something we believe in.