Monday, September 5, 2011

Thoughts for Labor Day, 2011

When we're kids, either at play or in school, we are encouraged to ponder, "What do I want to be?"

Fast forward a few decades, and wherever we go, one of the first questions posed is, "So, what do you do?"

At what point, in so many of our lives, does being and doing become separated?

It could start when, after the glossiness of being in that new (often first) job wears off, due, perhaps to fatigue, confusion, or the embarrassment of having made your first "mistake." It's one that usually doesn't result in termination, but it's one that gets burned in your brain FOREVER. It's then that, sadly and often, an older, jaded colleague will take you aside and say, "Hey, kid, it's just a job!"

Ouch. For this you went through years of school, richly envisioned a career path, sent out resumes, ran the interview gauntlet, idealistically hoping that you would stand out, be noticed, and make a difference? How many kids do you hear say, in their playtime fantasies of the future, "Awww, I just wanna job..."? No, they dare to dream, and it usually involves doing something--humble or grand--that somehow leaves a legacy.

At church yesterday, our interim pastor, Rev. Mike Young, led a service that was rich in material to mine for this post. In the opening words, we read in unison, "May we be reminded here of our highest aspirations,/and inspired to bring our gifts of/love and service to the altar of/humanity./May we know once again/ that we/are not isolated beings/but connected, in mystery and/miracle, to the universe,/to this community and to each/other."

Mike then told a sweet story to the children, "The Stone in the Road," about a miserly, rich old man in Persia, who became more abundant in spirit once he shared his treasure, buried under the boulder in the middle of the road, over which everyone tripped. A little beggar boy happened upon the old man's stash as he pried up the rock, simply because he was tired of falling over it. One of the messages Mike underscored to the young listeners was that the "issues" we "trip over" in life can be used to our advantage if we stop simply complaining about them and look for the solution. (More on that in posts to come!). As I heard Mike tell this story, I also thought of Jesus' story of keeping one's candle under a bushel, and how our lighting up people's lives means being bold, and putting our energy out there for everyone to see and use. Being "the light of the world" is generous and loving, but it can be risky on many levels, and that's why so much--in our personal and work lives--remains undone, and unacknowledged. How many times do we not reach out to our loved ones because we assume they "just won't understand?" Or, at work, we sit silent in staff meetings because we're afraid of saying something that would be "stupid," and we think it might reflect badly on the image our peers have of us? Little by little, our "light" gets extinguished, and no one would know the power it might have had on the moment...

It would be easy to belabor (pardon the use of this word) the topic of unemployment stats, stock market, the GDP, the IMF, etc., etc. When the children left the sanctuary, Mike discussed, for the grown-up ears, just how illusory the whole concept of money ("pieces of paper") really is. He also reminded us of something I've said on the web about collective fear being the primary driving force of the economy these days, as opposed to actual scarcity of funds, or seeing community work projects that need doing. The amount of "stuff" is still there; it's a matter of how it's being distributed that is problematic. It's very easy for our society to become like that old man in Mike's story, when competing priorities scream at us from the headlines. Sharing resources with our communities under these circumstances is not always easy, but, as Mike stated, it serves "enlightened self-interest." With each of us doing our small share, we each benefit. Is it any accident that there are now coaches/therapists coming forward in increasing numbers, offering services to help people with their "relationship with money?" In the same vein, there are employment coaches, and therapists who intervene when workplace bullying causes employees to feel threatened and disempowered, trapped in situations that are psychologically unsafe.

Perhaps we also need to look at work as something we are, not simply what we do (re-read the first two lines of this post). I'd be horribly remiss if I neglected to acknowledge unpaid laborers--including volunteers, family caregivers, house-spouses, stay-at-home parents--as part of the force. This can help rekindle some of the initial joy of our jobs, and help take pride in how we serve others on a daily basis. In other words, from a relationship perspective, we can revive the passion we once had, and combat the burnout that can so suddenly overtake us. And for those who have been laid off and are "resorting" to taking a job that is "not what I'm really looking for," I would suggest that there is dignity in all work, and it's mentally as well as financially healing to look for that worth. The pain of this current economy is in large part about feeling displaced, and no longer feeling useful. It's sort of like getting dumped in a relationship, but eventually, other passionate connections can be made. It's a matter of rolling away the boulder, and fiercely, courageously looking at unconsidered possibilities.

At the end of the service, we read Marge Percy's, "To Be of Use:"

I want to be with people who submerge in the task,
Who go into the fields to harvest and work in a row and pass the bags along.
Who stand in the line and haul in their places,
Who are not parlor generals and field deserters but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.
The work of the world is common as mud. Botched, it smears the hands,
crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil, Hopi vases that held corn, are put in
museums but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry and a person for work that is real.



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