Work is life’s other great thread—with school, the great inculcator of discipline. It’s also the enabler of family, providing the wherewithal to achieve a measure of independence, to marry, and to support a household. A topic in itself, work deserves mention if only to note the social costs of economic stagnation and exploitation. One achievement of the postwar era was to quell for a time in selected countries the terrors of unemployment and put family life on sounder footing for the working and middle classes. As that achievement has been undermined here and elsewhere, family life has suffered.

The employers of my father’s initial career were altruistic, reflecting the sacrifices the next generation had made on their behalf. The immediate postwar era, 1945 to 1960, was a period of rebuilding that drove economic growth and made work inherently and self-evidently valuable. In the 1960s, this fell apart. At the same time, the shadow side of the postwar era—its apparent emptiness—triggered a reaction in the next generation, which its elders had foolishly committed to pointless “tactical” wars. Unburdened by its elders’ gratefulness for having survived the war and prospered, and taking prosperity for granted, the 1960s generation (and its older camp-followers) turned society inside out. Billed as a revolution, it was more of an interregnum that paralleled the real one—for civil rights—that started earlier and persisted longer. This larger struggle played out across life: love, work, and family.

Work lost its altruism in the 1960s. The social paradise narrowed and was criticized. Friedrich Hayek, who admired tradition, was wrongly paired with Ayn Rand to justify dog eat dog. High finance supplanted manufacturing in developed nations. Western families began their long accommodation. Yet even today, some enterprises are altruistic. Like a family, they understand that altruism is part of a social compact that creates a bond stronger than money alone. These organizations stand out today as the exceptions. Along with the economy, a lot of the would-be prime movers have been broken. Their destruction is attributed to strategic errors, market failures, and bad luck, but more often it looks like the people at the top took leave of their senses, walling off the play of opinion—the intimate tension—that is just as crucial to companies as it is to marriages and families.


Everyday time is ordinary time. It has dimension, but its boundaries are both contained and amorphous. It has its plans and deadlines. It’s also where work happens, where we practice. We don’t always or often practice with any larger sense of time in mind. When we’re young, others do this for us, urging us forward in the name of where we might end up. This is closer to evolutionary time, which plays out in cycles. Hence being’s chain, a linked series of events that repeat a sequence in roughly the same way. We’re born into both types of time. The everyday gives us glimpses of evolution’s cycle.

“Just sit” is Dogen’s famous summary of Zen. You place yourself within all of time’s dimensions: ordinary time that you can measure and count; and evolutionary, geological, and cosmological time, which move steadily beyond our lived experience. We see and slowly grasp these latter dimensions of time by their traces and artifacts, but intuitively we experience them as a cycle or chain, a learned sequence, a set of theories, a mystery. Our persistent belief in a parallel world of spirits, of reincarnation or the hereafter, reflects the oddity of being set adrift in a world in which time works deceptively and relentlessly. “Just sit” acknowledges that as life unfolds, we unfold with it. We’re part of life, not separate from it. Marriage, family, and friendship alike are part of life, too, unfolding with it.

Living in time as we do, we are haunted by our ephemeral nature. “Work as if immortal” was a maxim of E.M. Forster that Christopher Isherwood embraced. I interpret it to mean, “Suspend time as a factor in order to taste something of its expansiveness and let it fill your sails.” The immediacy of ordinary time can leave us blinkered if we’re not careful. This is as applicable to the way we live as to the way we work. Forster and Isherwood could equally have said, “Live as if immortal,” although this flies in the face of what George Gurdjieff called “the terror of existence,” the inevitability of death, which he, the Stoics, and Steve Jobs, among others, pointed to as the ultimate prod of our taking charge of our lives. Isherwood’s maxim is not a call to squander life, but rather to look beyond everyday constraints in contemplating everything that engages us. That includes marriage, family, and friendships.

Without a proper sense of time, we can get on life’s treadmill and lose ourselves entirely in the everyday. The way men with consuming careers act in retirement, racing to pick up lost threads, attempting to continue as they were, or simply falling apart as they finally realize their predicament, points to the dangers. We don’t teach people how to live with time or how to live with death.

Death is “out there” unless we understand along the way that time will eventually drown us. “I had a good ride,” many men say as they slip under. That part at least is granted them. But drown is not quite right. “Just sit” invites us to contemplate how we fit in. It also invites us to wonder at the sheer expanse of life, to take every aspect of it seriously. More than just sitting, Zen practice is living consciously in ordinary time. It’s a vow to be aware of how everything connects and that we’re just passing through, time travelers all. Compassion and responsibility start there.


Photo of an elaborately painted mantle-piece with photos and mementos.


Family is detaching itself from marriage or extending beyond it. It’s worth noting this. It means that marriage in the context of this essay should be understood as any pairing that, formally or informally, acknowledges and seeks recognition as such, from each other and from others. I want to distinguish this from what Roger Fry described as a “little marriage”—his brief, intense relationship with Vanessa Bell, an innately domestic person, although iconoclastic. We might call this an affair, but Fry aptly captured the fact that it was more. And he suffered more because of it, being attached not only to her but also to domesticity itself. It pulled him psychologically into the orbit of her family, where in a sense he remained, but further from its emotional center than he desired. This brings us to the borders of friendship, a separate topic, but I mention it to say that the boundaries of marriage are broad—not only formal–informal, but brief–long, too.

Another trend, still being fought by the forces of reaction, is the pairing of men, of women, and of older women with younger men. Paralleling this is the decision of single women to have children, often with a gay donor who participates in raising them, sometimes with his partner. Such families are more and more common now. They are families and a new tradition of family needs to include them.

Social transformation happens at the edges. Vanessa Bell did what she wanted thanks to a legacy and a devoted, tolerant husband. She exemplifies the motive power of family, which she held together despite its unorthodox arrangements. She also exemplifies the fluid boundary between love, marriage, and friendship. Artists and writers stake out this territory, as do the poor and dispossessed. Sometimes they resemble each other, but the latter, as they rise, often crave a conventional life.

A new tradition of family would expand its boundaries and enable the members of the expanded family to identify themselves as such. It would recognize that this expanded family, too, has ties that are indelible. The old tradition of family maps to other concerns, like inheritance, in its aristocratic and bourgeois manifestations. This became rights and responsibilities in the era of the no-fault divorce. A new tradition would apply them across this larger collectivity, the expanded family.

Because this discussion overlaps the legal apparatus that’s grown up around the family, I run the risk of seeming idealistic and unrealistic. When I look at my own limited experience with family situations that challenged convention, I would say that what was crucial to a good outcome was the shared desire for it. This led the individuals involved to set aside their theoretical prerogatives and consider the outcome. And because of this—because of the familial love that each person felt toward the one most at risk—that one now has an expanded family to draw on and identifies with all of it. There were formal agreements behind this, but they never really figured. Would it have been any different if there hadn’t been? I’m not sure, but I don’t think so.

Not every married couple has offspring, yet dependencies arise. For example, a partner gets seriously ill or lapses into senescence. These situations will tax the resources of most individuals. A new tradition of family would both recognize the idea of collective responsibility and tie it to a social safety net that comes into play with certain triggering events. For an advanced country, we are shockingly stupid in the way we provide supports, rarely doing so or providing enough when they’re actually needed. This is perverse. Alone of the developed nations, we’re still adding population and our ratio of young to old isn’t disastrously out of whack. We need to maintain this, not make it harder.

A new tradition of family should cut the family loose from every organization that’s ever tried to exploit it for political or religious reasons (which are often the same thing). It needs to reassert the underlying realities of human life and gear public support accordingly, sharing responsibility across a larger community of which the family is part. The key phrase here is “sharing responsibility”—not taking on full responsibility, but acknowledging that our individual resources are not always enough. That’s when families fall apart, with huge social costs.


The word path suggests moving through time and the different territories we inhabit. It suggests the threads or strands of our individual lives, which seem separate but are often linked in certain ways— overlapping people and places that can cause our individual paths to converge or diverge. We are born into territories, like that of our family, but we take up our paths individually. Paths may be or may appear unavoidable, but there still seems to be an element of volition to them. In their positive sense, paths are voluntarily taken up. They may involve vows of marriage, of friendship, or of “voluntary suffering” (in Gurdjieff’s phrase).

Like a path through unexplored terrain, the paths we take up in life may not take us where we expect. It is tempting to label “false,” a “dead end,” a path which leaves us “nowhere,” but life proves the contrary often enough that I resist this terminology. Paths aren’t linear. They’re more like streams that sometimes disappear, only to resurface later in a different form. Other paths are like rivers, always in view even if their nature changes. All of them are part of our life’s terrain.

Paths can intersect as life unfolds. This process seems accidental, but it may not be. When I look back at my own life, how it unfolded makes sense in retrospective. This may be what Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls the “narrative fallacy,” our human trait to reconstruct our life so it adds up. And yet, pace Taleb, this narrative reflects what we see. There’s an aspect of destiny visible to me when I look back at my own life. Sometimes I think of destiny as being like cycle of plays in which the parts are divvied up among the same company. The actors seem familiar, but the roles they play differ. Perhaps karma relates to this and the part we’re assigned reflects and answers the previous play (or plays), even as we play it out in real time, a different story. Except in the very broadest sense, destiny lacks predictive power. “Broadest sense” means whatever we’re prepared to stake our lives on. Very few things qualify.

Paths may or may not be predestined, but we find them and take them up with some sense of being properly on them, recognizing or intuiting their rightness. This is an inexact science, to say the least. Life doesn’t come with an instruction book. We read the signs as best we can. We do our best to be on a path we’ve taken up, although our best may fall woefully short of what a path demands of us.

When a path involves a vow, that vow is to persevere. This is equally true in marriage and in friendship. To persevere means to continue on the path regardless, not to insist on its features or the other’s constant presence on it. The paths of marriage and friendship are individual paths. We sometimes find ourselves on it together is how I look at it.


Over lunch in May, a friend told me that, despite years of separation and a current relationship of long standing, he and his wife were still married. This is reminiscent of Vanessa and Clive Bell, discussed previously, who stayed married while they went their mostly separate ways. Formally, there’s marriage and there’s divorce. More recently, there are also domestic partnerships, a halfway house toward marriage. Meant to extend some of marriage’s rights to those excluded from it, the category could disappear if marriage grows more inclusive. Its existence sets up the possibility that a married person, living separately with a different partner, might embrace it in order to afford the new relationship more rights and standing.

I mention this because marriage and divorce are usually seen as a binary pairing, a black-and-white rendition of a landscape that we know full well is resplendently colorful, textured, messy, and in flux. When you look back in history, especially across cultures, you see a lot of variation. Looking across a table sometimes, you see former partners breaking bread. I realize that time is a factor here, but when you consider both the tumult and the reconciliation, life can prove bigger than the partners imagined. Certain ties still bind them.

We speak of no-fault divorce, but it may also be useful to speak of no-fault marriage and friendship. This is to recognize that much of what affects a marriage reflects our human dilemmas. Moreover, if a marriage is a partnership of two individuals, then we have to accept everything this implies. In particular, we have to accept the essential good will of the other, even when the situation seems impossible. This is not an argument for any particular outcome, but for modus vivendi—the ability to take a larger view of things and use one’s imagination.

Empathy, if one has it, makes a mockery of any insistence that there’s only one course to follow. This is the basic fallacy of a black-and-white view of life. We are, each of us, a boiling pot of desires, fears, limitations, and smarts. We slowly acquire wisdom as we age, but slowly is the operative word. Our wisdom, though hard-won, can be gone in a flash. Volatile, subject to our natures, we make our way, and marriage and friendship alike have to deal with the carnage. There are times when we’ve had enough, but then we remember that we’re like that ourselves.

Part of the idea of no-fault is to accept that along with the individuals involved, the nature of a marriage or a friendship (and their variants) changes over time. The form it takes matters infinitely less than the attitude of the individuals toward this. “An end that endures” is the I Ching‘s phrase for this “seeing the woods for the trees.” Paths are about this, too.

John Parman is a writer and editor, based in Berkeley, California.

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