Work is 'love made visible'… and love hurts.
I’ve had a quote from the Lebanese American poet Khalil Gibran by my desk for some time now. ‘Work is love made visible’ it says. It’s a line from the poem ‘On Work’ and it serves as a simple reminder to me to be grateful for my work and approach every client and every task with as open a heart as possible. This is easy with clients, harder when I am doing stuff I don't like — contracts, billing, scheduling, and taxes (ugh). It reminds me that even those things that do not immediately inspire me are part of the mix that enables me to do other things that create connection, possibility, and sometimes straight up magic.
Lately though, I've been thinking that the fact that work is love made visible is exactly why work can be so excruciatingly painful. Love hurts. We spend most of our days — most of our lives! — working. We are often undercompensated by a system that does not value certain kinds of contributions (think teachers and artists) and discriminates on the basis of gender, race, class, etc. We often work wherever we have ended up following a path paved for us by possibilities and limitations over which we may have had (or believed we had) little control. And many of us, if we can do anything about this, realize we’re not doing the ‘right’ work at a time that feels too late. And then we might not even know what the 'right' work — the work that would make that quote sound less ridiculous — even is.
Add to that all of the things that go on in work life; stress from overwork, not feeling valued, crappy bosses, losing battles, mismatched priorities, outright bullying… it is an amazing recipe for pain. You name it and there is someone right now suffering at work as a result. Some of this suffering is actually quite dire. More than once I’ve spoken to someone who felt that they had been in a work situation that made them wonder if life was worth living.
I find that this is particularly true for my mission driven clients and organizations. When we come to our work from our most sacred values — to share knowledge, ensure justice, protect or provide something, end suffering, reveal truth, etc. — every setback or obstacle can feel devastatingly personal. I speak constantly to people who are beside themselves because of something troubling at work that has at its root the fear that their mission to be of service to others is being undermined and that others might suffer as a result. What could be more painful than putting everything you care about most deeply — everything you love — into your work and having it trampled on?
But here’s the thing, when we do come at our work with love — either because our work represents what is deep in our heart, because we do our work in a way that creates joy and love, or because the gift of having work enables us to do other things we love (like provide for our family) — that love can open up a space to ‘do something’ with the pain and suffering we all inevitably find in the process of doing our work.
I'm not pretending this is easy. What that ‘something’ looks like is different for everyone. It could mean...
· finding a way to work joyfully without burning out in the face of overwhelming obstacles believing that to do so is an act of courage worthwhile on its own
· learning to really believe that who you are (and why you are fabulous) is more than what you do at work
· creating personal strategies for not getting ‘sucked in’ or triggered by the drama of a work culture that isn't serving you
· taking refuge in building meaningful relationships with co-workers that are full of kindness and laughter even if it feels like the place is burning down around you
· just remembering to breathe and that this too will pass
· all of the above
· upending the whole damn thing and doing something completely different
Whatever it may be for you, if you are suffering at work ask yourself — what would it take for you to believe right now — even just today — that your work is love made visible? And what would it take for that to hurt just a little bit less?
top photo: Mathew Henry