Our Real Work

By Wendel Berry

It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,
and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.
The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
The impeded stream is the one that sings.

Workplace practices that form our future, better selves.

Almost three months into quarantine, as my company makes a major structural shift, and on a weekend that was a painful reminder of all that’s broken in our system, I wondered, what does it mean in times like these to bring our whole selves to work?

My job did not change much with quarantine. Pre-COVID, most of my work was already conducted on Zoom, collaborating virtually with a global team in every time zone. The twist now? We’re seeing more of each other’s outside-of-work selves: the kids at the kitchen table doing their homework, the audio interrupted by a bark or a paw on the keys, the books on your shelf, the DIY haircuts. Even the choice of fake background gives a fuller picture into who you are (piloting the Millennium Falcon or enjoying a beach in Maui?).

This new level of intimacy has planted seeds of compassion. We start calls by checking in kindly and gently; the question “How’s everyone doing?” is no longer perfunctory, we genuinely need to know about each other’s well-being. The commencement of global sheltering-in-place coincided with the announcement of my company being acquired, so between the perturbations of COVID and our M&A activity, there has been much to check in on.

Then I mused, tiny seeds grow into big trees. Where could this lead?

These days, the workplace has become a more expansive crucible for the refinement of my “whole self.” 

I was thinking about it this weekend, as I was wrestling with my own paralysis in the face of my country’s deeply rooted racism. Perhaps some of you did the same as you watched the national fury, which everyone keeps trying to rewind, start to unspool again. I am not a white man, but I have privileges. I am not black, but I endure blatant harassment and chronic micro-aggressions. The thing is, all my life I have unconsciously played it either way depending on whatever my lizard-brain thinks will protect me at any given moment.

As an Asian American female raised in the age of assimilation, I never thought about it until my kids started schooling me. My kids are “mixed,” and can play to some extent with their phenotypes; meaning, they can “pass” as white, or they can let other people wonder where they are on the spectrum of “brown.” They have explained to me that upon entering a room, they always do a quick scan of the players and make a calculation about which “side” of their identity they will dial up or down, depending on the scene. And much of the time, to their credit, the end goal of their calculation is not self-protection, but advancement of the conversation we all need to have about inclusion and justice.

In the context of my work, I am seeing where a little more of this kind of mindfulness and humility helps me to let go of some privileges and become more aware of my own biases. 

In the borderless, stateless world of Zoom, I work with people who kindly stoop to speak English with me. I am struck by the grace of this choice. It’s a true fact that they would surely ignite my imagination better, and we’d all be even more effective, if only I were able to understand 日本語, Français, தமிழ், Nederlandse taal, తెలుగు, Español, 中文, Portuguesa, Suomalainen, Italiano, tiếng Việt, Melayu, русскоязычный, 한국어, Tagalog, עברית, or dozens of other languages in which my colleagues are fluent.

In their family histories, my colleagues have experienced varying extents (and both sides) of colonization, occupation, appropriation, exile, repatriation and acculturation. That’s a whole big blog in itself, so I’ll let it lie. But I will say that pre-quarantine, when I was one of the few American-born people in my section of the open floor plan, I swam in a current of dark humor and witty banter around culture clashes, and it was a great way to fight my lazy nationalism and myopia.

Many of my colleagues are models of resiliency and goodness in the face of incredible challenges. My co-workers are living with people on the front lines of COVID19; foster-parenting; hampered but not defeated by illness; supporting extended family hit hard by the recession; advocating for their parents with Alzheimer’s; grieving the loss of friends and family to cancer, COVID, or suicide; working on renewable water and energy solutions in their spare time; overcoming depression to get up and contribute every day. When I can wake up and appreciate their work in the greater fabric of their lives, I have a much better handle on the value of our professional collaborations.

Of course with SIP and WFH policies, my family members have become co-workers too. I hear my husband and grown kids on their own conference calls. My son talks teens through traumatic stories of abandonment and abuse as he prepares their immigration papers. My husband pores over data about local arrests and incarcerations and their impact on communities of color. My daughter produces virtual events for artists speaking to issues of race, gender, and identity. They are all hurting with their communities right now, and ever so lovingly inviting me to feel with them – to be fully alive in this way too.

The incalculable value of this work

George Floyd’s murder, coronavirus’ toll on the Navaho Nation, blatant attacks on Asians in my progressive city of San Francisco… each of these broken social contracts is one more cell in a metastasizing tumor that is steadily attacking our hearts. I numb myself to the vast, endless, ever growing lists. It takes work and focus for me to remember that these are people who should be protected and cherished, but are instead denied rights, deprived of resources, detained, threatened, and exposed to all manner of ultimately fatal viruses and violence. All because we have a scarcity mentality and want to make entire groups of other human beings expendable.

It takes even more work to acknowledge my own complicity, the privileges I only have at the expense of others, and the ways I must repent.

In this light, I believe my only hope for reformation is if I am “arrested” by the truth. I may need to choke upon my own complicity and suffocate in my airless rationalizations, if I am ever to start anew. I can’t think of any other way to replace injustice and exploitation with fairness and compassion, unless we die to a system that doesn’t work for any of us, no matter where we sit.

But I can’t just do this soul-project on the weekends, or after work hours. Empathy requires constant nurture, with the people right in front of me. I need a safe space to admit my blind spots. More importantly, I need people to point out those blind spots, tell me the uncomfortable truth, and lift my gaze. When we work on a SaaS go-to-market plan, we’re not ultimately ending racism or supplying reparations for generations of colonization, oppression and deracination of indigenous people. But we can practice right living while we’re doing such things, to make us fit for a better future. I count myself lucky that I am able to do this, in the job I have, with people all over the world and right here in my own backyard.

#DiversityAndInclusion #COVID19 #WorkHabits #UnconsciousBias

This was the song that was in my head as I was musing: “The road that I follow, calls me on my way – got my eyes on tomorrow and my feet on today.”

Miriam Makeba https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CuPlbISAoBg

Because massive, unprecedented moral shifts have happened before, driven by ordinary people like you and me.