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What Does “Doing the Work” Really Mean?  

Martin LeFevre:  For uncounted millennia, humans have been externally oriented. During indigenous times and in previous ages, being externally motivated was necessary for survival. Now our survival as a species depends on enough people doing the inner spadework.

Even after the Industrial Revolution, when more and more people had the leisure for reflection, self-examination was avoided and neglected. That allowed unexamined darkness to grow in human consciousness to the saturation levels it has reached today. The “mental health crisis” among young people, and especially girls in the West, has its roots in generations of willful inner neglect.

In modern times, Americans have embodied the antithesis of Socrates’ core precept:  “An unexamined life is not worth living.” It’s as if this culture set out over a century ago to prove the opposite: An examined life must be avoided at all costs.

Young people haven’t bought into that monumental falsehood, and many now speak of “doing the work” that their parents and grandparents refused to do, and their forebears could not do. Yet mainstream commentators deride them, with some even admitting, “I confess a visceral aversion to ‘doing the work.’”

The tyranny of the materialistic, self-centered way of life has been enshrined. “I simply decline to do more work. My life is already filled with many kinds of labor. I work full time; I cook dinner every night; I shuttle my children to and fro.” Putting aside the strong whiff of self-pity in such a statement, that attitude misses the point completely.

Some say, “Doing the work is just the latest manifestation of the kind of self-improvement culture that has long permeated American society and that is closely linked to America’s obsessively individualistic bent.” That’s probably true for many people, younger or older, who use the phrase, but there is a deeper meaning that those averse to self-examination will never understand.

Look deeper, and “doing the work” isn’t about self-improvement or “self-care” at all. It’s about taking total responsibility for what is within you, and realizing that in doing so, you are taking responsibility for the whole, the way the whole is enfolded within a hologram.

“Does tending to my mind and soul have to be framed as yet another job, another box to check, another task to optimize and conquer?” No, and the phrase “doing the work” is unfortunate. It certainly isn’t “another task to optimize and conquer.” But the aversion of self-examination has much deeper roots than how it’s framed.

My World War II generation parents used to rail against psychotherapy. When I was young, I didn’t understand why, since no one in the family had seen a therapist or knew anything about psychotherapy. By the time I came of age I realized that like most Americans, they had “a visceral aversion” to looking at themselves.

Now, conservatives have been taken over by extremists who project their darkness and hatred on “pedophiliac, baby-blood-sucking liberals.” Why would anyone believe such a monstrous lie, much less the millions of Americans that do and form Trump’s base?

Because they sense, without seeing, an evil around them that they cannot name, and a darkness within them they are too cowardly to face.

On the other hand, progressive activists believe the outer determines the inner. To the extent that they deny the existence of evil, and continue to think and act as if the crisis of culture and consciousness is externally sourced and externally remedied, they make themselves targets of vile and vicious extremists, and contribute to the willful neglect of darkness at the core of human consciousness.

Since the inner has always been the source of the outer (even in America, it wasn’t uncommon in the past to hear the truism, “as a person thinks in their heart, so they are”), why such aversion to self-examination?

The toxicity of the culture, the breakdown of trust between people and in our institutions, the psychic toll of mass murders (which are effects that become causes of further distrust, alienation and violence) stem from a failure of enough people to do their own spadework. Instead, conservatives project their darkness, and progressives try to fix society’s ills through activism. Both are externalizing reactions that fail to question the sources of the chaos and injustices of society, which lie within.

Three factors have combined and grown far more than the sum of the parts. First, the ‘me generation’ of boomers, which started out with anti-war and countercultural passions, too often became even more self-centered and materialistic than their parents. Second, the children of the boomers started out cynically in reaction to their parents, and decided early that they would play the game and get rich or “have experiences.”  

Third, the cumulative effect of materialism and militarism reached a tipping point, and facing the inner reality became intolerable. People began coping by “numbing out.” The pandemic of depression began and a self-projected interest in zombies took hold, which continues to this day (witness the number of ads for anti-depressants, and the interminable spinoffs from “The Walking Dead”).

The terminal sickness of American culture, having reached the logical end of its rampant individualism and militarism, now camouflaged by crushing superficiality and sentimentality, is the product of the willful refusal by the vast majority of people to question themselves and have an inner life.

Though many aren’t serious, and “doing the work” is a fad on the net, a minority of people, younger and older, seems to be doing their own spadework at last.

Doing one’s spadework isn’t about self-improvement however; in fact, it isn’t about the self at all. It’s about taking total responsibility for the territory of darkness within one, which is inseparable from the darkness of society. It means facing, questioning and remaining with anger, hatred, greed, fear and self-pity when they arise, which yields learning and growth in unlearning and negation. 

To be an ‘individual’ literally means to be ‘not divided.’ Individualism is actually a deeply conditioned, emotionally held mindset of dividualism – the idea that we all have ‘agency’ based on a separate self.

“Doing the work” can come off as patronizing, “implying that our big issues in life are simple and clear-cut, that everyone agrees on what they are and that the only reason a problem hasn’t been solved is because somebody isn’t working hard enough.”

However saying: “Oh, yeah, it’s the same thing, it’s just a new word for the same thing…younger people think, ‘Oh, this is so revolutionary…God bless them and their TikToks” – is what is truly patronizing and annoying.

Beyond “doing one’s own spadework,” which is simply a predisposition for taking responsibility for what is within one (sufficient to not act out of it), what is “the work?”

The work of transformation and psychological revolution has nothing to do with self-improvement. It involves the transmutation of the individual as it pertains to the revolution in consciousness essential to change the disastrous course of man.

The gods cannot save us. The work of the great teachers has to be taken into the hands of ordinary human beings if we are to save the Earth, and ourselves.


The singer Ed Ames died last week. His ballad, “Who Will Answer?” affected my emotional and philosophical development when I was in my early teens. It’s more relevant today than ever.


Martin LeFevre is a contemplative, and non-academic religious and political philosopher. He welcomes dialogue.

Published with permission of the author. All copyright remains with the author.