Bring Meaning to Work and Purpose to Spirituality

This is an alchemy of several moments in my life over the past a few days.


An old college friend of mine shared a memo by a well known Chinese philosopher (Deng Xiaomeng) of his mother who received no formal education and began writing and publishing assays of her life stories in her late seventies until her death last year at the age of 93. Some of her assays have been highly praised and published by top literary journals in China for their originality and, get this, the most tender and even romantic sentiments, despite the fact that she and her family have lived through and been subjected to the most brutal treatments of the bloodiest (20th) century in Chinese and world history.


This contrasts sharply with most of the social media that I receive daily from my childhood and/or college friends who still live in China. Most of them are near or already in retirement due to a legacy Communist policy that mandates absurdly low retirement ages (woman at 50 and men at 55, slightly higher for those with college education). Their world, as are everywhere in social media, is dominated by petty details punctuated by sensational news of philandering celebrities and/or politicians. Instead of allowing herself to be drown by the bitterness of past miseries, this remarkable Chinese lady discovered a fountain of youth, so to speak, in re-living the most tender moments of her long and hard life, in her philosopher son’s words, “successfully transformed a life of misery into one of splendid achievements”. Such achievement is of course universally admired and celebrated across all cultures.


Independently, I have been putting together a reading list for a professional and community development program that aims to regenerate vitality at workplaces. Not unlike the social media scene, most of the American workers are not exactly occupied by inspirational thoughts while at work. The 2017 Gallup poll shows that 70% of American workers are not engaged with their work. In addition to the social, economic and political forces depressing the workplace today, the lack of authentic connections of individual managers and workers with each other and the work they perform together lie at the root of most if not all other problems. One of the books that I am recommending is “Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity” by the poet, David Whyte. It’s been years since I last read it and it feels just as fresh and potent when I picked it off my bookshelf last week. As a poet, David has an intimate and yet provoking way of revealing the mysterious and hopeful horizons of the seemingly mundane activities which most of us come into contacts on a day to day basis. What’s the point of creating a detailed engineering drawing or responding to a customer’s request or helping a colleague meet an urgent deadline when everything in life seems destined to drift out of our consciousness, sooner or later? Sure, a company could and they do implement quality assurance policies, monitor phone calls with customers and even measure and reward collaborative behaviors. But how do we guard against our inner fears of the unknowns that are so prevalent on today’s globalizing, technologically innovating and fast paced socio-economic landscape? The longevity of established businesses has been shrinking dramatically for decades. Most have learned the hard way that the only way to survive is through reinventing themselves faster than their competitors do. The key competitive advantage then becomes our human capacity to change, not only in products and services but also in behaviors and mindsets that produce them. However, companies typically find themselves running into walls when they try to change behaviors and mindset under in the same way as they traditionally do with efficiency. The resistance comes not merely from the bureaucratic apparatus although this is definitely a huge challenge but also the fear of unknown in the employees themselves. This is how David Whyte describes the underlying human dynamics at play: “the human soul thrives on and finds courage from the difficult intimacies of belonging. But it is almost as if, afraid of those primary intimacies, we have unconsciously created a work world so secondary, so complex, and so busy and bullied by surface forces that embroiled in those surface difficulties, we have the perfect busy excuse not to wrestle with the more essential difficulties of existence, the difficulties of finding a work and a life suited to our individual natures; the difficulties that would lead us to an older, intimate, and more human sense of belonging.”


Now we have come full circle to our original story of the 80 year old Chinese woman’s capacity to transform her life of physical misery into literary sweetness. Is it any different from what modern workers, especially managers, are required to do? Sure, work itself is concrete and uninspiring in the mundane details. But that is no reason to despair at all if we are inspired by the human capacity to transform hardship into the glory of creation, physically (products) as well as spiritually (culture).

Finally, I want to finish this discourse with the story of the winning design for the Vietnam Memorial in Washington DC. It was a brilliant example how greatness can prevail from the most unlikely source and despite unfavorable political circumstances. The winning design by then a Yale undergraduate student Maya Lin, an Asian American, emphasized the human suffering over heroism of wars. It was controversial since it deviated from the tradition of heroes worship deeply rooted in the long human history of ethnic violence. It required a reimagination of our best natures as an evolving species to break such cycle of violence, not only physically but first and foremost imaginatively. Our imagination is our fountain of youth, enabling us to grow forever young at any age.

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