Although I have been writing some version of this piece in my head for some time, today is the first time I am venturing to actually write it. This is not a hopeful piece, and in this medium I usually shy away from sharing, in full, the pain that lives in me about people’s lives the world over. I know that many people read this blog and come to study with me because they are longing for vision, for some way to imagine a better life for themselves and for the world. I am glad, most of the time, to be able to offer that vision, which I have in abundance. It’s easy for me to see what’s possible, and I derive great pleasure from weaving stories about what’s possible and from finding companionship for those images. This pleasure, and the care for everyone’s longing, keep me from speaking about the acute and persistent pain I regularly experience about the gap between vision and reality. Why would I want to bring despair rather than empowerment to people? Nonetheless, it is part of my work, part of my integrity, part of my calling, to share truth as it lives in me, even if difficult. So, today, as I am sitting in an apartment in Geneva overlooking a river and the mountains, I am writing a piece about pain, little snippets about the world of work.
#1: About Menial Labor
Before embarking on my trip to Europe, I got some support from a local teenager who packed my impressive collection of supplements into little plastic baggies. This was work for pay, quite decent pay for a 14 year old. It took her four hours, and she delivered it almost flawlessly. She told me afterwards that it was really tedious and annoying. I asked her if she regretted it. She didn’t, she was glad to have the money, she said, though she wouldn’t do it again. Then she added: “I’m not cut out for menial labor.”
The sweetness of this interaction, the trust, the openness of that girl didn’t stop me from also feeling an ache. If she is not cut out for menial labor, is anyone? Why have we created a world in which some people are doing all and only menial labor? What about their dignity, power, love, longing for meaning and contribution? It’s not about working with the hands as compared to professional level jobs. Many people love working with their hands, making things, figuring out how to fix things, building, gardening, manufacturing. Menial labor, the dictionary confirmed, is work that requires no skill and is generally befitting servants. This work tends to be repetitive and endless.
Globally, we have turned billions of people who once lived dignified lives of subsistence farming or hunting and gathering into unskilled laborers struggling to feed their families and looked down on by others. More often than not, they bear children who have no prospect for anything different from what their parents did. For those of us living in the US, most of them, and their grueling lives, are hidden from us, far away in countries we don’t visit, in factories situated out of sight, in zones few even know about. Back home, I can only see a small part of the horror. In some parts of town, some people, usually from Mexico, stand in the corners of certain streets, day in and day out, waiting for someone to offer them labor for the day, for a pittance, on which they feed their families both locally and back home, where poverty is even more grinding. Why is it that only some of us can choose and decide that we are not cut out for such work? Is this really the only way it can be?
#2: Meaning vs. Financial Security
For the past 26 years a man I will call Keith has been struggling over and over again with a recurring choice. In his early 20s he participated in some inspirational social change experiences that changed him forever. He is pained about the destruction of the natural and social infrastructure of our life. He has significant friendships with people who have dedicated their lives to creating a world he has also been dreaming about. He sees a lot, feels a lot, and cares a lot. He has many coveted social talents that leave him well liked by those who know him: he is genuinely interested in people, engages deeply and lightly, seriously and with humor. He can cross many barriers of differences. Whenever I talk with him, which is not often, I feel uplifted, energized, curious.
With all this, he has repeatedly over the years chosen to take on jobs that prioritize financial security. Year after year he continues to make this choice. He hasn’t loved any of these jobs, and yet he persists in reaching for the same jobs in all the junctures of possibility that have come up. The jobs do offer challenge and the satisfaction of excellence, without much more by way of meaning or true contribution to what matters to him most. He is also a relatively high consumer, and I imagine he knows his level of consumption is quite beyond what would be sustainable for the world.
When I asked him why he continues to choose this way, he said it’s simply fear. Or maybe not “simply,” because if it were so simple he would likely choose differently.
Years ago, when I was doing part-time computer consulting work in downtown San Francisco, I remember one day going down the elevator on a Friday. The “Thank God it’s Friday” comment was uttered by someone. Despite the clear taboo on authentic connection while riding an elevator, I said something about the freedom I have because of working only part-time, at my own hours. Someone expressed some envy and asked me for the secret. When I said that this choice relied on choosing a simpler lifestyle, I saw the envy replaced by what I interpreted as discomfort coupled with some anxiety. I no longer remember the words, it was so long ago. The message remained: the daily grind of work that doesn’t feed the soul, for so many hours, is the only option available, because the financial security and the access to the freedom of consumption are the highest priority.
How would we ever turn the tide, stop the collision course with nature and life that we are on, wake up to the immense possibilities of a satisfying life with community, sufficiency, and meaning, if we are, collectively, unable to release our attachment to a lifestyle that’s both unsustainable and doesn’t feed our souls?
#3: Teaching about Workplace Collaboration in Budapest
During my current trip to Europe, I taught in Budapest for several days. One of the workshops was about collaboration in the workplace. I loved what happened, because people asked all the hard questions, which led to deep engagement and exploration of what we can do, now, in this world as it is, not in the world of tomorrow so many of us long to create. How do we foster collaboration in an environment of mistrust? How do we motivate people to engage when they are doing work that lacks dignity, when they have no formal education, in a program that’s supported by the government? How do we speak honestly with people who ask for a raise, whether or not we want to give it to them, and especially when we are not satisfied with their performance?
We tried together. We role played different situations. We looked at the human needs involved. We brainstormed possible approaches. For the government program manager, we proposed that he gather all the workers and ask them, directly, at a meeting dedicated to this, what support they would need in order to make the work meaningful. I thought I could see how torn he was, how much he loved the idea and was drawn to it, and yet how fearful he was, neither trusting his supervisors to support his efforts, nor the workers to respond in a useful way. Will he do it? Will they come through? Will they, together, find some way to change the terms of their unsatisfying relationship and roles?
In the conversation about the raise, I kept inviting people to step beyond the language that denies responsibility, the language that masks choices by saying “It’s not possible” instead of naming who is making that choice and why. So many people were squirming. They were challenged to imagine the level of honesty that would be necessary, I believe, to navigate this kind of interaction to a mutually acceptable outcome. If I like the person’s work and the resources are lacking, or I don’t have the authority to make such a decision, why would I not tell this to the person who is asking for a raise? Because of fear that they would leave, someone volunteered, suggesting, once again, that the only reason people choose this or that work is because of money. And, yet, time and again, when seeing the option, many people (though not all, as the examples above illustrate) do prefer lower-paying jobs that provide more meaning and satisfaction. Why do we keep trying to reward people by money rather than engage them in such meaningful work that they want to stay? Wouldn’t all work be more satisfying, even more productive, if more of us felt connected to our workplace and its mission, trusting that our contribution matters, engaged with what we do on a daily basis?
The even more challenging bit was what to do if we don’t like the person’s work. The people in Budapest didn’t see a way to fully engage with that. There as elsewhere I have been, I see how much people shy away from offering feedback to others about their work. All of us put up with so much from others at work just because we dread the conversations that would invite us to talk about the reality of the situation. We avoid relational discomfort, and choose, instead, to tolerate what is sometimes impossible. Some people even leave a job rather than offer feedback to someone. Meanwhile deep in my heart I know how much more is possible when we overcome this fear, when we gain the skill and commitment to navigate difficult conversations successfully for everyone’s benefit, when we give and receive all the feedback necessary for us to learn how to work together most effectively toward a shared purpose we all know. Even within existing workplace culture, I have such aching confidence that more is possible. What can I do to contribute to that happening?
#4: Fears about Collaboration
I do quite a bit of work within organizations. This work brings me in contact with quite a number of people at all levels of an organization. Through my public workshops and work of coaching leaders, I have contact with many more people who are employees and leaders within such organizations, owners or co-owners of small businesses, and people who work in the non-profit and government sector. What I saw in Budapest is not unique. I see, repeatedly, a pervasive malaise, almost a hidden assumption, that work, even if it’s meaningful in and of itself, is dreadful when it involves working with other people, which is always fraught with difficulty. The kinds of stories I hear are varied and different. The underlying flavor is painfully predictable. Whether it’s the managers who don’t listen, the employees who are not empowered or committed enough, or the co-workers who are pushing their own agendas, the underlying sense of aloneness, protectiveness, and lack of trust are astounding to me at times.
When I work within an organization, especially when I facilitate meetings, I am often in awe of how little it takes for people to feel more hopeful. A little bit of being heard, of being willing to speak the truth despite fear, of being invited into the intention to make things work for everyone, goes so far that it sometimes only adds to my sadness about the daily living of so many people. Even people in positions of significant power within an organization are not “exempt” from this. They often feel lonely, possibly the only one who cares about something, or so fed up with not being seen and trusted for their humanity and intentions. A similar experience arises when I coach leaders individually. My invitation to collaborate is usually only partially embraced, in large part, I believe, because of conventional wisdom which limits the imagination and in part because of fear. The conventional wisdom says “Leaders must make decisions,” and the fear says, perhaps, “I will not be met by others, I’ll be ridiculed, or I’ll lose my ability to be a powerful leader,” any of which can be debilitating and push in the direction of the familiar and common behavior.
I have written some about such attempts before, and I am committed to continuing my efforts. In this moment, when I am not actively trying to support hope, I want to name my discouragement. All of us who work for change need this space to talk about our own despair and doubt. There are days I just don’t know how I will ever get the energy to keep going when I am aware of the magnitude of the challenge and the apparent insignificance of my miniscule efforts and those of people like me around the world. There are truly billions of people on the planet, and so few of them have any sense of vision. How can we ever get anywhere?
Tending to My Pain
After the workshop in Budapest, I wrote to a friend about my experience. Initially, I just said something about “the situation in the world.” She asked me to say more. Here’s what I then said to her:
“Today’s topic was about workplace, and I am super tired. People grappled with very difficult situations, and this brought up a lot of sadness for me, grief and despair about being able to do anything with all the present situation in the world, which is about the multitude of people who go to work every day without meaning or joy or connection or even basic dignity, the large number of managers stuck enforcing all that cruelty without really wanting to and seeing no other choice, etc. … Not to mention the children who go to schools that are crushing their souls, preparing them for the life that comes later.”
Her next email included these words: “Please stop.”
This is a little window into me. It’s so hard to have this intensity that lives in me permanently, and to almost always modulate it so others can tolerate it. I don’t exactly hide it; I “just” modulate the intensity, which is enough to sustain the sense of aloneness. Then, sometimes, especially when invited, I choose to show it all. It is so heartbreaking when it backfires with an unsettling result, as in this case. My friend later told me she truly wants to hear me, she wants to be present with my pain, and it was just in that moment. I believe her. Our friendship is solid. And yet… I don’t always know how to live with this, how to engage with others who don’t have continuous access to this pain. This is also the reason why I don’t follow the news. What’s inside me is already more than enough. For today, for this piece, I want to stay here, to resist the temptation to find an uplifting ending. I simply want to be known, to have room, for today, to be in despair without being encouraged or reminded of how much I have contributed or how much difference I can still make. I do want companionship, so feel free to let me know if anywhere in you something feels touched, or if you want to join me in wailing.
Credit: the image at the top is “Burning Injustice Voiceless” by Nolan Lee, on exhibit here at the Tikkun Daily art gallery.