Untapped Potential and the Power of Rejection

Allow me to tell you the story of something that happened to me as a child and that has haunted me ever since. I was about eight years old and living in a neighborhood in Corpus Christi, Texas, in which all the streets were named after characters in the “Robin Hood” story. My parents and I lived on Robin Hood Street. I was an only child and amused myself by building forts and tree houses in the backyard, riding my bicycle with its banana seat, and collecting the “Wacky Packages” cards I bought for a dime at the corner Jitney Jr. store.

I played some with various neighborhood kids. My best friend, Sue, and I spent hours tormenting Barbie dolls and listening to the 45 record of Paul Revere and the Raiders’ “Cherokee Nation.” I rode my bike up and down the sidewalk with Frank and remember making mud pies in his backyard.

Patti lived across and down the street and had at least one brother that I recall. One hot summer day, I was playing in my front yard, when a group of kids in front of Patti’s house called out to me to come over to go swimming. They had just bought a good-sized, above-ground swimming pool that had been installed in their backyard. I said yes, let me go ask my mom. I excitedly changed into my swimsuit and ran out to meet the others.

We all walked around to the side of the house, down the driveway, and through the gate to the backyard. I naively failed to notice the kids’ smirks and barely contained laughter, which exploded when we came around the corner of the house to an empty pool. They delighted in watching my excitement at being invited turn to dismay as I realized they were playing a cruel trick on me. I turned and ran home, their derision still echoing in my ears. My cheeks were hot with shame.

I wonder if only children are easier targets for neighborhood pranks because we have no protective, older brother or sister to stand up for us.

What that experience taught me, whether true or not, was that I didn’t belong. I was an outsider. When, in tears, I told my dad about what happened, he tried reassuring me that it’s OK to be different. It’s OK to march to the beat of a different drummer.

This feeling of never quite belonging has never left me. Childhood provided other reinforcing messages of “difference.” There have been times, however, when I thought maybe my isolation was a thing of the past. There were glimpses of being a part of a team, of belonging, of being wanted. My first years as a librarian felt that way. I loved the work, my colleagues, and the patrons. But then, one day, I was called into an office and led to another empty swimming pool.

Understatement: rejection hurts. Especially when you feel you have gifts and talents to contribute, but they are pushed aside. Your efforts are misunderstood, and you are left asking why. So, at this moment in my life, I am still struggling to make sense of this loss and to find someone, somewhere who wants and needs my gifts.

I am not writing this solely for myself, however. I am writing because millions of others find themselves in similar situations. They have gifts and talents to give the world but find no outlet for them. Jobs are scarce; competition is cut-throat. “…[E]ver more sophisticated robotics…reduce the need for human workers in every business, most notably at the moment in the auto industry, shipping and warehousing, education, and medicine….Computers and robots don’t ask for raises, they don’t talk back, they don’t take days off….” (p. 15, “When the Rich Get Richer” by Anthony Walton, U.S. Catholic, May 2015).

During Pope Francis’ speech to Congress on September 24, 2015, he used the phrase “common good” six times. He said (Laudato Si’, 129),

Business is a noble vocation, directed to producing wealth and improving the world. It can be a fruitful source of prosperity for the area in which it operates, especially if it sees the creation of jobs as an essential part of its service to the common good [emphasis mine].

Much work needs doing. Ask any full-time employed worker who, because of “downsizing,” must now do the work of three people for the same salary. Those who are working are overworked in many cases, while thousands of people have no work at all. It should be, therefore, a moral imperative for business and government to partner to create jobs, reduce unemployment, and restore the dignity of those who need work.

My own experience has shown me that one area in which thousands of jobs could be created is in public education. Every school teacher I know, including myself in my years of teaching, spends innumerable hours working before and after school, many times late into the night, to complete tasks necessary to ensure the next day at school flows smoothly. Many of these tasks do not require the expertise of a teaching certificate, however. Things like cutting out templates for educational activities, grading papers, designing new assignments, bookkeeping, and filing could be done by a teacher’s assistant. Imagine if every classroom teacher had an assistant!

Many other white-collar jobs have lost the assistant positions that used to make them run smoothly: secretaries, runners, mail-room clerks, and more. Doctors do patient data entry, accountants type their own correspondence, and government employees manage their own attendance records. Though computers aid in these tasks, it still takes the employee’s time to complete them. Read Craig Lambert’s Shadow Work: The Unpaid, Unseen Jobs that Fill Your Day to learn about more of the ways we do work that others used to be paid to do.

Of course, the tired refrain is, “There is no money to bring back jobs such as these!” Well, we should find the money. People need work. People have skills that are going unused, and there is much work to do. The richest 1% should partner with government to create and fund these and other jobs because, if they do not, over time our nation will look like other nations who have a radicalized underclass who will pick up arms rather than tools. Rejection hurts. Let’s do this for the common good.

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In Our Image

I wondered as I watched the crowds partaking of communion during Pope Francis’ mass in Washington, D.C., if those people in that moment were participating in the ongoing creation of God.

What? The creation of God? But God was not created! God has existed before time, before the universe. God is omniscient, omnipotent, and eternal. But are we sure?

I began to wonder about the creation of God when I watched the 1998 movie “Antz,” an animated feature about an ant who rebels against the totalitarian structure of the ant colony. If I am remembering correctly, one scene shows the ants congregating together to worship their god. And what does their god look like? An ant, of course! We’ve all heard that humans created God in their own image. But we knew that behind that statement we didn’t really mean that. We may represent God as a man with a white beard or as Jesus on a cross, but we know that these representations are inadequate. God is not just a person, really. God is much more.

What if both of these ideas are true? What if, in fact, we did create God? And what if God is much more than any one human being’s creation? What if God, instead of being a force who enters into our world from without, has been emerging from within our world from the time of its creation? What if God is emerging within us?

This notion of “emergence” has been gaining ground as a theory of organization in science and other fields. Rather than reducing matter into its tiniest component parts and saying, that’s all there is (reductionism), this theory looks at how complex systems emerge from simple parts. The ant colony or bee hive, for example, exhibits a striking degree of complex behaviors and intelligence as a collective that cannot be explained by studying a single bee or ant. A greater “intelligence,” if you will, emerges from the colony as a whole. And it is not merely the sum of its parts.

Listening to one of my favorite programs recently, “Tapestry with Mary Hynes” on Canadian Broadcasting Company radio, I was intrigued by Mary’s interview with Nancy Abrams, author of the book “A God that Could Be Real.” I read the book, and its thesis has transformed the way I think about God. From the book’s description on Amazon.com:

Abrams finds something worthy of the name “God” in the new science of emergence: just as a complex ant hill emerges from the collective behavior of individually clueless ants, and just as the global economy emerges from the interactions of billions of individuals’ choices, God, she argues, is an “emergent phenomenon” that arises from the staggering complexity of humanity’s collective aspirations and is in dialogue with every individual.

Just as an individual ant cannot fathom the complexity of the intelligence that guides the organization of its colony, so too perhaps can we as humans only dimly perceive the complexity of this “God” who has arisen to guide and organize us for our greater good.

During the papal mass in Washington, according to this theory then, worshipers were actively participating in the ongoing emergence of God. Taking a bit of the bread, the body of Christ, into their mouths was the outward symbol of the inward shift that continually moves our species toward God.

Stuart Kauffman in “Beyond Reductionism: Reinventing the Sacred” (2006) wrote:

Thus, beyond the new science that glimmers a new world view, we have a new view of God, not as transcendent, not as an agent, but as the very creativity of the universe itself. This God brings with it a sense of oneness, unity, with all of life, and our planet….It is utterly remarkable that agency has arisen in the universe–systems that are able to act on their own behalf. Out of agency comes value and meaning.

Now, so far, this discussion of an emerging God has centered mainly around the notion that this is an entirely human phenomenon, separate from the rest of creation. I don’t believe there is any arbitrary separation between the organizing uber-intelligence of humans and that of the beehive or a pod of whales.

Author David Abram, in “Becoming Animal” (p. 123) asks,

What if mind is not ours, but is Earth’s? What if mind, rightly understood, is not a special property of humankind, but is rather a property of the earth itself–a power in which we are carnally immersed?….What if like the hunkered owl, and the spruce bending above it, and the beetle staggering from needle to needle on that branch, we all partake of the wide intelligence of this world–because we’re materially participant, with our actions and our passions, in the broad psyche of this sphere?

Sometimes we Christians say that we, the church, are the hands and feet of Christ. In other words, it is God’s expectation that we perform God’s work in the world. Perhaps this notion is far more apt that we ever thought! Our actions, our prayers, our worship–along with the intelligences living among the trees, insects, mountains, and animals–are co-creating God.

Many more questions arise from this notion of God. I’m not saying that I’m certain that this is how God “works.” But I am excited that this idea has opened for me broad, new vistas for envisioning the nature of God, consciousness, and intelligence.

A Culture of Care

An opinion piece in last Sunday’s New York Times (“A Toxic Work World” by Anne-Marie Slaughter) reminded me that my wife and I are hardly alone in the following experience: We witnessed the demise of our careers because we asked our employer for time to care for a family member. We submitted a proposal (we worked for the same company) to work a different set of hours that would allow one of us to be able to be at home to care for our son. We did not ask for fewer hours; rather, we requested that one of us be able to come in earlier and one later so that one parent would be at home both before our son went to school and after he came home.

We thought we were being “proactive” (an overused corporate term) by submitting a solution to management showing that we had thought through the problem and wanted to ensure we did not slight the interests of the workplace. However, our request was denied and viewed as impertinent. Our career trajectories began a rapid decline after that. I was told I was just a “worker bee” without leadership qualities and was removed without warning from my department and duties.

Asking for time to care for family (or yourself for that matter) means in an employer’s eyes that you lack ambition and don’t have the “go-getter” attitude that they need in today’s workplace. And, what’s more, you can be easily replaced by “…young people who are healthy, and wealthy enough not to have to care for family members” (Slaughter). Because women are still society’s primary caregivers,

many women who started out with all the ambition in the world find themselves in a place they never expected to be. They do not choose to leave their jobs; they are shut out by the refusal of their bosses to make it possible for them to fit their family life and their work life together.

Slaughter says that this is not “just” a women’s problem; it’s the breakdown of an antiquated work and school system. You shouldn’t be made to feel you are a slacker at work because you care for your family. In fact, an ethical society should demand–and reward–caring. “To be fully competitive as a country we are going to have to emulate other industrialized countries and build an infrastructure of care.”

How do our institutions need to change to permit care? First, I think workplaces would do well to analyze the successful economies of countries like Germany that have well-developed infrastructures of care. Germans receive generous sick leave and vacation days–up to six weeks per year! Yet Germany is one of the most productive countries in the world. American institutions falsely believe that quantity of hours worked means higher productivity. The ideal is the quality of time worked results in the highest productivity.

What contributes to a worker’s quality of work? Do you think an employee who fears losing her job if she takes a day, or even an hour, off to care for her mother is more or less productive? Is a factory worker, who has had only one week of vacation in the past year, more or less productive? Is the cashier who must come to work sick more or less productive?

Technology would allow people to work in many more flexible ways, yet we perpetuate a system begun at the dawning of the industrial revolution. Be at work for at least eight contiguous hours, starting and ending at set times. Do not leave work for any reason except your lunch period. Work at least five days per week. Do not work from home; the company requires your physical presence in your cubicle.

Why? Why must people be physically present for eight contiguous hours when we have smartphones, Internet, Skype, and other technologies? Why can’t a worker arrange to leave work for a doctor’s appointment and not have to make up the time missed? If this person completed his tasks, shouldn’t that be the measure of his performance?

Two women, Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson, created a methodology called Results Only Work Environment (ROWE)and their thesis is exactly that. Work, wherever possible, should be task-based not time- or location-based. If you complete your task, and your boss is satisfied with your work, you’re done. If your task can be completed from home or from a coffee house, fine. What matters is the task, not the time or location.

Obviously, this approach would not work for many jobs like assembly, cashiering, and food service. But more flexibility could be incorporated into these positions. Collaborative approaches to time management, taking into account people’s personal and family lives, could become a part of the team’s scheduling process. Giving one cashier time off during the workday to see about her child could be worked into the schedule without inflicting shame or guilt onto her. This type of planning would be a normal part of managing time for everyone on the staff. At one time or other, everyone has needs to attend to beyond work.

This change would require a shift in our society’s thinking: A worker is a human being, and you shouldn’t have to leave your humanity at the door when you get a job.

Depression

Depression is Jupiter’s gravity
brought to earth.
Even thoughts are subject
to its merciless pull.

My eyelids barely open,
my limbs lie soldered
to the bed.

Upright at last,
feet planted on kitchen tile
I wonder how
I will scale that mountain
of dishes
when I can hardly move my legs.

Anti-gravity lies on the other side,
so I climb.

Contemplative time

Am I alone in fantasizing about spending time in darkened cathedrals with only candles for light? I imagine sitting before the altar, its screen barely visible above and before me. Figures of Christ, Mary, and the apostles look down on me. Is Christ breathing? Behind me, the pews sit empty and the aisle waits for footsteps. My silent prayers drift upward into the darkness, joining hands with thousands of past petitions in an unbroken chain. Though I am alone, I feel someone watching. I rise, light another candle, bow to the altar, and turn to the aisle. My footfalls echo against columns and glass as I walk toward the baptismal font. I dip my finger into the water, cross myself, and step back out into the night.