In this excerpt from Miki’s forthcoming book Reweaving Our Human Future, she presents a vision of empathic support leading to self-awareness in a world where everyone’s work is chosen and meaningful. This is one of the book’s twelve “Wisdom Tales from the Future.”

What Can I Do?

Dmitri didn’t even have to open the email that had just arrived to guess the content. Why would it be any different from all the others? Every single one of his friends was already plugged in, doing something they liked that contributed to the whole. He was still stuck with only community service or temporary jobs. They were OK, he turned down the ones he really didn’t want. It’s just that they weren’t what he really wanted.

He forced himself to look at the email. Sure enough, almost word for word what the others had said. There wasn’t any room in their factory for one more process flow engineer.[1] They would contact him if something opened up. Dmitri wasn’t surprised. It was a desperate measure to contact factories proactively. Standard procedure was to post his availability and let the system sort things out and do the initial matching. Why did this process work for everyone else and not for him? Leon and Griselda, his buddies from the fabulous apprenticeship program they had all attended, found a placement within weeks of posting, and had been happily placed ever since, each in a very cool place. He envied them. He’d been waiting for nine months already since his last placement fell through. What was the problem?

The day was stretching ahead of him, empty. He was tired of reading and watching movies. The day before he was so fed up with it all that he showed up at a food distribution center, just to work the shift, even though they hadn’t posted an opening on the community service bulletin. It was a bad move to begin with, and got worse as soon as he started commenting on improvements they could make with sorting and storing produce. This always happened. He couldn’t help himself, he always saw the savings in energy. That was his training, from childhood. His mother, Anya, was one of the early pioneers of redefining process flow to include environmental and community implications.[2] What a mixed blessing to be her son. He suspected that had something to do with his difficulties in finding a placement, though he was never sure exactly how that worked.

It wasn’t about survival. Thank God no one had to worry about that any more. He read history books, he knew what it was like in the olden days. Most people were working just to get a paycheck. What an archaic notion. He felt for them. During the massive changes that happened at transition time someone calculated just how many meaningless, or repetitive, and certainly energy-consuming jobs existed. The study concluded that, however well intentioned the people holding these jobs were, more often than not their work served to ensure that only some people could have access to resources. This included people monitoring bureaucratic regulations, security guards of all kinds, health insurance staff deciding what services were available to whom, and the entire financial sector. All of that was now over. That human energy and the many resources consumed in their futile efforts were then channeled into the massive project of recovering from the severe conditions caused by climate change while learning to live again within the means of only one planet, consuming and discarding only what could be regenerated.[3]

A new email arrived. This time it was from the support center. When it wasn’t his life, he really appreciated the automatic reminders to people who were not fully plugged in, not participating in the community, like him, that they could always come and talk to someone. Not now. “Don’t rub it in,” he thought to himself.

He jumped up abruptly and opened the fridge. Nothing appealed to him. He wasn’t really hungry, just restless. His room felt so stuffy. He opened the window which allowed a little breeze to come in. Outside people were walking and biking, a bus went by, just the usual bustle of daily living. None of them had any knowledge of his plight. He wanted to scream.

The phone rang, and Janika’s smiling face showed up on his screen. He looked at the mirror before picking up, unhappy with what he saw. It couldn’t be fixed fast enough. The smile left Janika’s face soon after he accepted the call. “You look terrible, Dmitri.” Her forehead wrinkled in concern and he wanted to hang up. “I’m OK, I just didn’t shave today,” he lied. “Don’t even try,” she said, trying to smile again. An awkward silence followed. What was there to say? “Listen,” she continued. “I’m not going to sit still while you’re in such agony. Talk to me.” Shit, he thought, why can’t she leave me alone? He came out with “there’s nothing to say” instead. “It’s just a phase, it will sort itself out.” No, it won’t, he thought grimly. How could he possibly tell her that? He tried to change the subject. “So, how’s your mom?” He said. Part of him hoped she wouldn’t fall for his trick. Another part was relieved that she did. “She’s all right, it was really just a little virus, nothing serious.” He tuned her out, he wasn’t really interested in her mom. “I gotta go,” he blurted, finally. “Are you up for going to the movies tomorrow?” She was, they made plans, he told her he loved her knowing he didn’t mean it any more. He still couldn’t bear to lose her.

The conversation ended, his stomach was finally growling. He opened the fridge again. Nothing appealed to him, still. He didn’t feel like cooking. He couldn’t stomach the dining hall, to feel everyone’s eyes on him, and, besides, he hadn’t told them he would come today. It was only the 12th, and he was, once again, close to using up his monthly allowance for restaurants, and didn’t feel up to asking for more based on special circumstances. His mother’s place was out of the question. She would know better than to ask him anything, and she didn’t need to, he could recite her questions by heart. No good options. Some aging broccoli with scrambled eggs was where he landed, surprised by how tasty they were once made.

Out. It’s time to go out. He didn’t know where, just that it was time to go. He let his feet take him, lost in feeling sorry for himself. He was so good at what he did, why didn’t anyone want him?

Almost as an afterthought he turned right into a small street, and bingo. There he was standing in front of the support center. Nothing to lose, he thought as he walked in and asked to see someone for empathy. He had done community service there before, and so he knew the ropes. Sometimes the permanents were less sharp than those who were there for the day from time to time. Maybe they had too much pain to witness. Maybe they needed more support for themselves.

The walls in the waiting room were decorated with dozens and dozens of pictures of different people. Some of them had little thank you notes under them. Dmitri plunked himself on one of the chairs and plugged his netter[4] in to connect with the larger screen. His fingers moved deftly on the little keyboard as he typed various searches. From time to time he liked to look up the happenings in some distant place, the little news stories, those provided by the local people. It made the world come alive for a moment when he saw that in Barranquilla, far across the ocean, a group of teenagers helped out elderly people whose homes had been destroyed in a flash flood.[5]

“Dmitri Shostakovsky?” Always a little startled to hear his name in a public place, he followed the teenage girl. She introduced herself as Dorota, and escorted him to a room. She didn’t make the obligatory joke about the composer,[6] so he didn’t have to tell her it was not quite the same name. A super comfortable couch and several chairs were waiting for him. “Where shall I sit?” He said. Dorota made a gesture to imply total freedom. He picked the couch, a little self-conscious, and sat down. Could he trust Dorota? He suddenly wanted to go home.

“I think no one will ever want me for work,” he jumped straight to what he couldn’t tell Janika, determined to use the oppotunity. “I feel cursed by being my mother’s son.” He cleared his throat, which suddenly felt narrow and dry. “She taught me most of what I know, and she’s also cast a long shadow.” Dorota’s eyes looked kind, soft, peaceful. “I’ve been looking, even actively looking, for nine months. It’s not happening.”

He knew the training she must have been through to be with him on her own. She must be really good, he thought, to be given an intake without a co-listener. As if she was reading his mind, she said: “Are you trying to relax into trusting me? I get a sense that you are really tired of this situation and could really use some breakthrough.” He smiled in appreciation. He liked her presence, but didn’t say it. Dorota broke the silence again.

“I can really imagine how much you would want to be given free rein to be yourself, and evaluated as yourself, without reference to your mother.” Yes, she was, indeed, sharp. His eyes smarted, and he looked down, maybe he could make the tears go away. How annoying. He couldn’t bear to speak, knowing his voice would betray him. She waited, with more grace than he would have predicted, just breathing silently with him. His shoulders relaxed, and he rearranged himself on the couch, slouching a little less.

The wave of sadness passed, and he could look at her again. Her gaze, even though he hadn’t been looking at her, was unwavering. Her eyes were so clear, and very blue. He lowered his eyes again, the intimacy of the silence embarrassing for him.

“Is there more you want to tell me, or do you want to take more time to find your equilibrium?” The tears came back, different this time, surprisingly welcome. There was such relief in letting them flow. He really didn’t need to protect himself with Dorota. His eyes caught hers. This time he was ready to speak, whatever his voice was going to do.

“Yes, you got the essence of it. It’s so annoying. But that’s not all there is. You know, I did have two previous posts that fell apart. I think I got in the door just because of my mother. That sucks. I almost didn’t want to go.” Dorota remained attentive. He was grateful to her. “Maybe I shouldn’t have taken that position,” he added, almost as an afterthought. “But I did, and they didn’t like me in the end. I don’t know why, and I’m too scared to ask. And now no one wants me. I feel so lost.” Now he was crying and crying, months’ worth of crying, letting down all his protectiveness.

“I’m so glad you finally get to cry,” she said. How on earth did she know, he wondered, and didn’t let that thought stop him. “You’ve been holding this in for a long, long time, haven’t you?” He nodded, then reached for the pile of handkerchiefs to wipe off his dripping nose, laughing awkwardly. After another while she spoke again: “Is not getting the “why” the hardest part?” Nope, he thought, almost satisfied that she got it wrong, for once. Out loud he said: “You’re good, Dorota, but not this time. The worst of it is that I’ve been down on myself. I know better,” he hastened to add, not liking the thought of her educating him about this, tired of knowing so much about her work. “I don’t know why I let it slide so long. I wish I came sooner.”

“Down on yourself for …?” Such a light touch, just to match his rawness. “Not sure. I’ve been spinning… It’s not making sense… Like it’s my fault, somehow, that I’m my mother’s son and I’m not better placed.” How could he possibly make it clear? If she could only see him and his mother together for a minute she would know, he wouldn’t need so many words. “Tell me something,” she said, still so gentle. “Do you ever talk with your mom about this?” He snorted. “Are you kidding? I can’t talk with her about anything. I don’t need to, either, because it’s all on her face. She’s disappointed, and she feels guilty, and that just makes it worse.”

Dorota’s eyes darted for a moment, and when she came back she was clearly in a different space. “I need some guidance from you,” she said, a little more serious, maybe she was even nervous. “Do you want to get support with your relationship with your mom, or with finding a placement for you that can work?” No judgment on her part, he was impressed. And he appreciated the focus, the clarity, it was supportive for him.

“Let’s focus on work,” he said, sitting up some more. “That’s what I came here for, and I got enough support to know there’s no way around having her and me talk.” Dorota smiled, she looked relieved. “I’m glad for that. You may be surprised. She may be waiting for you to bring it up… there may be much that she wants to say to you, too. You will do this, right?”

“Yes,” he said. “I will, I promise. I see that I’ve never given her a chance. Now, can we talk about work? What are my options?” She didn’t follow. “Wait a minute,” she said. “There’s one more thing before. Don’t you want to understand why this is happening?” He shrugged his shoulders and insisted that he really didn’t know what was going on. She persisted, and he relented. Slowly, bit by bit, they uncovered what was going on. It was, after all, about his mother, or, more accurately, about how he responded to having her as his mother. He could never trust that anyone would see him for what he was bringing, separate from her. And so he was tense, and intent on proving himself and showing everyone that he knew a lot and had good ideas, like her. Empathy did its magic. For the first time, perhaps ever, he was able to feel some compassion for himself, for what it was like to be in his mother’s shadow.

Now he could also understand the people who didn’t want to work with him. Being as unsure of himself as he was, he was bombarding everyone with new ideas almost incessantly, certainly faster than they could integrate them, and defensively. It all made sense.

Dorota was right there with him all the way, and they’d reached some inner destination, a place of real peace inside him. But that wasn’t quite like finding a placement. The problem was still there. “OK, I know why you didn’t let me go to options before. But now I’m so ready I don’t even want to hear one more empathy guess. Ever.” He was being a little playful and over-dramatic, and they both laughed.

She composed herself, and reviewed the possible directions. He could just keep trying, and come for more support if he got down again. He shook his head vigorously. “I’m done with that, too depressing.” Or he could shift gears and learn something different that he could do, be productive in a different way. “I don’t know that I can do that,” he was hesitant, “but I wouldn’t rule it out. Not entirely. Just that all my life, since as far back as I can remember, I was on this path. It’s like walking for 30 miles on a road and then you reach a dead end no one told you about when the road started. I’m too far on this path. You know what I mean?” She nodded. “I totally get it,” she said, because words carried more clarity than smiles. “You’ve invested so much, and that’s how you recognize yourself as you, right?” Yes, that was it. And so then there was the third option, which would be to seek full feedback from everyone along his path, and do the hard work of integrating it sufficiently that he could look for work again, freshly, and differently. “Shit,” he said, “I don’t like that one either. Now what? How can I find a path now?” He was in anguish again, nothing looked possible.

“Dmitri,” Dorota started, “can you tell if process flow engineering is a true passion for you? Or is it really just an identity? I can’t answer for you. This is something you have to know for yourself.” He didn’t answer right away, just let the memories flood him, of going with his mother to different places and being fascinated to see what she did, from early on. “I want to think about it more. It’s not so simple, I don’t know quite yet how to separate out the two.” He was facing something big, and didn’t quite have the words for it. “Maybe it will be easier after I talk with my mother,” he added softly. “For now, I want to know what’s possible in other directions, and then I’ll think about it. I just don’t know if I am strong enough to face the feedback… but maybe it’s worth it.” He looked up at Dorota, who was smiling confidently, like she’d been doing this for centuries. “Before I go, though, I want to know what’s possible if I do change paths.” They pored over some screens together, and came up with a few leads, people he could interview, study with, learn from about what would most serve him and be needed. Now it was time to go. “Thank you, Dorota,” he said as he got up to leave. “Whatever I end up choosing, I got a lot from talking with you. I have a bunch of things to sort out, and I will.”

He walked out to the street, which looked different already. He felt lighter, hopeful, curious to know what would come next. He could even imagine calling Janika and telling her, she would be happy. Neither he nor Dorota were alive before the transition. For them this kind of exchange was just the way things were now done. The new normal.

[1] When the term process flow engineering came to me, I thought I had invented it. To be sure, I did some research and discovered that it is an actual discipline that exists today, and which I didn’t know about. The context of this story expands the usual parameters of that work that are in place today.

[2] This is not currently part of process flow engineering.

[3] At present we are globally consuming each year resources that would require the planet a year and 5 months to regenerate. We are consuming future generations’ resources.

[4] An invented name for a solar-powered handheld device that extends beyond our current 4G technology and is assumed to be universally available and non-toxic in production and operation. By and large, the main focus of these stories is on social systems and human interactions, not on technology.

[5] Barranquilla is a port city in Colombia and is, indeed, a place where flash floods happen regularly.

[6] Dmitri Shostakovich is a 20th century Russian composer.