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July 14, 2020 • Brooke Siem

Awakening to the work of a human being.

Summer months in Vancouver mean endless hours of daylight. At its peak, light emerges around 4 am and does not wane until well past 10 pm. Earplugs, sleep masks, and blackout shades are the only defense against a bungled circadian rhythm, and some mornings—like this morning—it’s particularly hard to get moving.

I stumbled out of bed before 7am, a sliver of sunlight streaming through our northern facing apartment. I sat in silence for 11 minutes, my usual meditation, and found myself on the edge of dozing off. The gong signaling the end of my mediation sounded, and I wrapped myself in a blanket and took a morning snooze on the couch.

When I mustered the will to peel myself off the cushions, fuel myself with tea, and transform the bedroom from my sleeping place to my coronavirus office space, I opened up The Daily Stoic to read the day’s entry:

“On those mornings you struggle with getting up, keep this thought in mind—I am awakening to the work of a human being. Why then am I annoyed that I am going to do what I’m made for, the very things for which I was put into this world? Or was I made for this, to snuggle under the covers and keep warm? It’s so pleasurable. Where you then made for pleasure? In short, to be coddled or to exert yourself?”

-Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 5.1

I am awakening to the work of a human being. Aurelius seemed to interpret this awakening literally. He was a Roman emperor, and the demands of the job required the occasional morning pump up. I imagine that woven silk sheets of the imperial palace were significantly more pleasurable than managing 1st century Rome, but as Aurelius said, he was put on Earth to run Roman empire, not whittle the day away in bed. What choice did he have?

But in July of 2020, I am awakening to the work of a human being takes on a whole new meaning. To simply be human is the work. It is all there is and all there ever will be. Six months ago our work was our career, our success, our routine. But when it was all taken away, the real human work remained. The job, the schedule, the life—it’s nothing but a thin coat of paint.

What is the real human work that you were born to do? If you have trouble answering, look issues that have roared their ugly head over the past few months. What makes you angry? What are your patterns? What challenges has the pandemic revealed? And what gifts has it given you? What changes will you take with you?

Get clear on the work ahead, and know that it will not be easy. Deep work never is. But you will be doing the work you were made to for, the very thing for which you were put into this world. Are going to remain coddled? Or wake up, face the day, and get going?

If You Want to Change the World, Start Off by Making Your Bed - William McRaven, US Navy Admiral
If You Want to Change the World, Start Off by Making Your Bed – William McRaven, US Navy

I first watched this speech around 2010, after nearly 25 years of refusing to make a bed that I figured I was destined to mess up that night. Since I first watched it, not a day has passed where I haven’t made the bed. Why? Little things matter. And starting the day with one completed task, sets you up to complete the rest.

BBC - Travel - The unexpected philosophy Icelanders live by
BBC – Travel – The unexpected philosophy Icelanders live

Icelandic people know they are not in control; their world is made up of volcanos, bitter cold, and endless nights. Living with the force of nature dwarfs wee human life, leading to the Icelandic phrase,‘þetta reddast’, which roughly translates to the idea that everything will work out all right in the end.

The Biggest Psychological Experiment in History Is Running Now - Scientific American
The Biggest Psychological Experiment in History Is Running Now – Scientific

DISCLAIMER: If you’re exhausted from covid content and/or someone who is easily riled up from covid content, skip this article. But if you’ve got the capacity, glaze over the usual covid terribleness and read this piece through the lens of ‘real human work.’ One line that stands out: “People who believe they can cope do, in fact, tend to cope better.”

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