“Great work is never reasonable, safe or boring.”
(Please discuss. Agree? Disagree?)
And, right away, the lawyer in me wants a definition of “great work” (which I’ll assume is not, when Mr. Godwin uses it, The Great Work). But even without a nicely-defined term, (and even if he did mean The Great Work) I’m going to disagree. I’ve done a few things in my long life that I’d call great. And all of them involved reasonable and boring, although maybe not too safe (is anything ever safe?).
I was, if I say so myself, a pretty great mom and raising a child is, done well, great work. It has the potential to impact the world for generations and generations. And while much of it was magical, intense, risky, and scary, a lot of it involved ensuring “safety,” being “reasonable,” and doing “boring” things. Almost by definition, when you become a parent, you become the one who champions safety and reasonableness. Is it reasonable to let your child stay up late tonight, eat only chicken nuggets, skip the dentist because it hurts? (Once in a while, the answer actually is “yes,” but most of the time, what’s “reasonable” is, you know, making your child put on a coat when it’s cold, take the bad-tasting medicine, do the math homework.) Is it reasonable for you to stay up too late the night before your child needs to be at an early-morning track meet, spend your whole paycheck on fuchsia high heels instead of rent, run off with your new soul mate? No. Motherhood brought me amazing moments of quiet pride, deep joys, huge feelings of risking everything, and great intellectual challenges. It also brought me more hours than I can count of packing lunches, staying up late to make sure that the track uniform was clean for tomorrow’s meet, and nights when all I wanted was 40 minutes to myself and what I got were 40 minutes of calling off French vocabulary words after a pointless 10-minute argument about why anyone had to study French.
In the end, all of those “responsible” decisions and “boring” chores added up to something I wouldn’t trade for all the gold in the world, for all of the irresponsibility and excitement you could give me. And if I hadn’t been responsible and done the boring work, I’d be far less happy today with the results. (And so, I think, would Son. DiL. G/Son. The world.)
I’ve handled at least one case in my legal career that had large national implications and reversed some serious evil. A few months ago, I was at a dinner party and someone asked, “What’s it like, doing a case like that?” And I answered, “You know, most of the time, it’s boring and mundane and grinding. Most of the time you’re doing what lawyers do: reading lots of cases, crafting briefs, writing parantheticals, getting a paralegal to Bluebook, grinding.” The most brilliant bit of legal writing that I ever did — a riff on an amazingly obscure bit of statute and a risk that even some people on our side called insane — I did late into the night, long after I wanted to go home and get out of my pantyhose, fighting with the computer guys when they wanted to (that night!) update my computer, checking well into the morning that all the Id.s were Id.ed correctly and that the Table of Authorities was correct. So sure, parts of that case were unreasonable, unsafe, exciting. Flying. And winning felt as good as anything’s ever felt. (And for several years before we won, we lost, and lost, and lost. Motion after motion. Appeal after appeal. Petition after petition. And that felt about as bad as anything can feel.) But the exciting part (and, yes, for lawyers, that moment when your reasoning abilities and use of rhetoric allow you to cut through the Gordian knot is, indeed, exciting) wouldn’t have gotten the motion written or filed. And I was only aware of the obscure statutory provision because of the boring work I’d done years before making sure that I knew that statute inside out and upside down. (I’m a geek, but even I won’t call reading a statute cold “exciting.”)
Being a Witch is both great work and The Great Work. And I love almost all of it. But there are days when it means sitting down at my altar when there are a million other things that I’d rather do. There are days when I sit down and am bored, tired, uncomfortable on the rolled-up yoga blanket on the floor. There are days when being a responsible and ethical Witch is hardly what I’d call exciting. And, yet, without that safe, responsible, boring daily practice, the ecstatic magic, the strength and daring to leap into transcendence, take the chance of breaking down the wild arpeggio or faulting the full sentence of the fugue, simply can’t manifest.
I think that, especially in this culture, we’ve convinced ourselves that “great” always means risky and a break from everything else. There are great artists, great leaders, great inventors. But there can be no great artisans, great followers, great workers. Well, again, the lawyer in me wants a definition of “great” and then wants to examine that to see just how great (pun intended) a definition it is, especially in terms of human lives.
Is great work ever reasonable, safe, or, boring? Sure. And that makes it no less great.