What Are We Doing Here?
Marisa Guerin, PhD – March 30, 2021
Years ago, in my mother’s final years, she was coping with the effects of Alzheimer’s disease. She paid close attention to what was happening around her, trying to stay oriented.
One day, our large family was gathered in my parents’ living room for some festive holiday, and Mom felt confused. She asked, “What are we all doing here?” My brother Paul, always quick-witted and humorous, loved it: Mom was channeling French philosophers! We all had a good laugh, and of course, we provided her with the concrete answer, too.
Still, her question lingered for all of us and we mention it to each other from time to time. Mom’s innocent question functioned as an unintentional reminder that there is always a larger purpose at work, although we aren’t usually paying attention to it.
This week is pointing my attention to that larger window on reality, past the horizon of regular blog posts about work.
Most of my professional-topic posts are related to organizational life and leadership; they convey some practical advice, or at least, that’s what I hope they do. Maybe they address how to think about a problem at work, or how to manage boundaries with other departments, or how to take up a leadership role so that it is both useful and psychologically healthy. As you may know, my approach is based on system psychodynamics, and I find that perspective is often helpful in unraveling knotty problems.
But sometimes life grabs you and puts even depth psychology into the shadow. Yesterday was such a day, when I learned that one of my long-time mentors in the work of consulting, an admired friend, had suffered a tragic loss in his family. The sorrow that came over me was profound, all the more so because I have a personal sense of the vibrant life and love in that man’s family, and how shattered they must be in these days of grief.
Whether it is sudden and tragic, or slow and painfully-accepted, we lose loved ones for many reasons – covid 19, gun violence, accidents, illness, age. Brilliance and wisdom were no protection for my friend from the unexpected, the unimaginable, the terrible. In the immediacy of loss, our hearts bleed and tears flow. What was important yesterday is nothing today. Organizations, politics, daily hassles, whatever had occupied us fades into the background noise as we grapple with sorrow or anger, as we reach out to comfort others, as we wait in the dark for healing that feels like it will never come.
There is a great paradox here. The painful experience of loss comes precisely in proportion to the fullness of our love. There is no way to avoid it.
I do know that eventually we re-integrate the ordinary with the most important, and life continues. My father pointed me to this reality not long before he died, when he and I were talking about how to manage the funeral and such. He was a practical man, and had written me a note about what to do. One of the things on the list that he mentioned was this: “Host a luncheon after the funeral for everyone who wants to come, either in the church hall or in a restaurant.”
I knew this after-funeral meal was a common practice in my Irish-German-Spanish Catholic family, but Dad made sure I understood why. He said, “In the mingling and the connecting with relatives and friends, the catching-up on family news and second helpings of potato salad, the community of the grieving gradually finds its footing again in the comforting, daily and normal activities of life. They start to re-weave a fabric of life that still holds the one who is gone, but in a different way.” He was right, and I was grateful for the guidance and for the way it carried hope. I imagine the traditions of my Jewish and Muslim and other Christian friends also provide for this gentle transit from emptiness to the embrace of those who support us as we heal.
The workplace is another arena for recovery via the ordinary and the normal. My grieving mentor is the same person who first taught me that good work is “reparative.” It repairs and heals either the world itself, or the people doing the work, or both. Even the simplest job has its meaning and can make a difference to someone.
So, my work-related, life-related advice for this week is this: Remember that ordinary days, ordinary work, ordinary smiles and connections, contain the power to heal and to build. They repair what is torn, they help us to remember what we are doing here.
I’ll close with a favorite poem from Mary Oliver that seems to me a very fine way to honor the simple and true meaning of each life.
Song of the Builders
On a summer morning I sat down on a hillside to think about God------
a worthy pastime. Near me, I saw a single cricket; it was moving the grains of the hillside
this way and that way. How great was its energy, how humble its effort. Let us hope
it will always be like this, each of us going on in our inexplicable ways building the universe.