After the last sale

In September I traveled to Phoenix, Arizona, to be with my father as he faced surgery to address a growing problem with massive internal bleeding.  Now, after a fairly torturous process he is recuperating in a rehabilitation center and, all being well, he will go back to his small home in Mesa at the end of the month.  He is 85.

For most of his life my father worked as a sales engineer.  He both designed and sold conveyer systems for a wide-ranging list of clients, including General Electric, White Motor, and Jack Daniels Distilleries.  He sold equipment for a variety of materials handling firms; and late in his career he went into business for himself.  When he did, my mother joined him in his efforts, handling most of the responsibilities that might have been addressed by an administrative assistant, and it was only my mother’s death some 10 years ago that prompted him to finally retire.

Toward the end of his work life, however, the inevitable changes in the industry itself began to take its toll.  My father had a steady hand, a good eye, and even something of an artistic bent (in the way, of course that engineers are artistic) and, by all accounts he was a skilled draftsman.  He also possessed a certain public ease with people, a gift for gab, and he reveled in the adventures of traveling.  But as engineering moved from the draft board to the computer screen, he lost touch with the leading edge of the technology in his field and he also lost the ability to produce the kind of product that industries had come to expect.

I have had a considerable amount of time to reflect on his life — some of it spent in an intensive care unit, watching him draw on the interpersonal skills that he still possesses to navigate the vagaries of aging and health care.  He is no Moses, of course, but like Moses he is now staring across to the Promised Land; and Moses, like my father, had a pretty daunting sales cycle on his hands for the better part of forty years.

Among other things I have found myself asking a long list of interrelated questions:

  • How much did his work shape his spirituality?
  • How much did his spirituality shape his work?
  • Now that he is retired, what is the relationship of the life he led to the one that he lives now?
  • Was it prelude or an earlier chapter?
  • Is his life in retirement shaped by the work that he did?
  • Or is it largely irrelevant?
  • What happens after the last sale?

That is, I confess, a difficult contemplation.  It is difficult in part because there is no objective answer to those questions; difficult in part because even now my father lacks a vocabulary to offer his own evaluation; and difficult for me because I lack objectivity about my father.

But life is art.  So there is some virtue in acknowledging that lack of objectivity and then asking, “What can we learn?”  The substance of what I have to share with you today comes from that admittedly subjective, but — I hope — helpful place and from years of working with women and men like my father who are engaged in the business world.

It is also shaped by my reflections on both the church and the academy which are — for better or worse — not so very different from the business world than some imagine. As one who has worked for years in two worlds that some argue are not all that real, I must say I have often wished that they were less “real.”

Allow me, then, to make five observations that arise out of that reflection.  Each, I hope, will be something of a stimulus for further conversation and are offered as descriptions of the way forward in our quest to discover the spiritual dimension of our work world.

First, live from a “because,” not an although.

In the July-August edition of the Harvard Business Review the editors featured an article by HBS Professor Clay Christensen.  Entitled “How will you measure your life?” the article was something of a phenomenon.  Hundreds of thousands went on line to read the article and journalists around the world picked up on themes from it, including David Brooks, who writes for the New York Times.

The editorial staff of HBR was so taken with the response that they chose to leave the article on their website through the month of October.  They went on to observe that since his article was published Professor Christensen has faced even bigger challenges than those posed by the world of commerce.  He was diagnosed as having follicular lymphoma and, a short time later, suffered an ischemic stroke.

What struck me was the way in which the editor introduced the on-line version of the article.  He observed, “Though Christensen’s thinking comes from his deep religious faith, we believe that these are strategies anyone can use.”

The “though” or “although” in that sentence is something that I often hear when people talk about religious convictions and it could and often does mean a lot of things:

  • “Although you might not be religious, you may find something helpful here.”
  • “Although I am not religious, I found something helpful here.”

But it can also mean:

  • “Although it’s religious, it’s still helpful.”

In all fairness to the editorial staff at HBR, I have no idea how many of those implied meanings might have been hiding behind the language.  But there are other times when I have no doubt that what people mean is, “Although it’s religious, it’s still helpful.”

The problem with this language is that “although” is not the same thing as “because.”  When people like Professor Christensen write out a deep faith, they arrived there “because” of their convictions, not in spite of them.  I don’t know him, but I suspect that is also what sustains him in these days of recovery.

There is wisdom to be had from religious convictions that cannot be achieved by any other means.  Believing something about the existence and nature of God — and with it, a number of other things about the nature and purpose of human life — profoundly re-shapes the way in which we see the world.  It isn’t a disposable vehicle for achieving insights that can be had some other way.  There are times when you are either religious or you aren’t, and you get it or you don’t.

My first bit of advice, then, is don’t be pressured into living without a “because.”  You arrived where you are today not in spite of your spiritual commitments, but because of them.  Don’t be bullied into living without a because by a culture that doesn’t “get it.”  Being committed to a particular understanding of God is not, by definition, intolerant.  It is about a path and a vocabulary that gives spirituality traction in your life.

Second, don’t confuse your job with your vocation.

We live in a culture defined by doing and there is much to commend that approach to life.  It has created a country and an economy that has not only benefited our own nation, but many others as well.  The downside is that when we are done doing, we are often “done” in every sense of the word.  Our mindset was captured well by one columnist who recently wrote about extending retirement ages.  She asked, “Will Americans turn French or just work longer?”  That is certainly one way of construing the choice, but, ideally, there should be an alternative to working longer, never mind turning French.

That is where distinguishing between our life’s vocation and the job we currently hold becomes important.  Vocation, from the Latin, vocare, is about the call of God on our lives — it touches on the way we are in the world, our sensibilities, skills, personality, values, strengths, and gifts.  It is not about credentialing or employment.  It is about becoming and being.

The words healer, builder, evangelist, teacher, and guide are better descriptors of vocation better, for example, than are the titles, neurosurgeon, subcontractor, salesperson, assistant professor, and consultant.  But even those words fail to capture the individual and biographical dimensions of a vocation.

Vocations are shaped over a lifetime and are the tapestry that is a lifetime of experiences.  Jobs are imperfect vehicles and rarely coincide completely with God’s calling on our lives.  It is worth asking how well “what we are doing” speaks to “what we are becoming” and that effort may help to shape our priorities.  It may even assist us in finding the job within the job that feeds and nurtures our vocation.  But, whatever the result it is a rare thing to find ourselves in a place where we can risk assuming that our jobs and vocations are one in the same.

Third, build a life, not just a business.

The best of both therapists and spiritual directors believe in the power of story.  It is not the conceptual that typically changes life.  It is the ability to tell your story and then imagine what the next chapter will be.

Storytelling of this kind captures the imagination in ways that the conceptual often fails to do.  More importantly, telling our stories increases our own sense of ownership and responsibility.

After having stood at the deathbed of more than one relative, friend, and parishioner, I confess to you the thing I struggle with the most is the sense that far too many people approach the final chapters of their lives with little or no idea how their work lives fit into those final moments.

So much of what we do is spent under various guises, that in those final moments, I’ve concluded that the most terrifying dimension of it all must be not the task of laying it all down, but of knowing what so much of it might have meant.

A friend of mine who died a few years ago now from an aggressive and unrelenting cancer, served for a number of years as a prosecuting attorney.  Before he died, he observed:  “I have a language for judges, another for those who are incarcerated, a third language for those who serve as defense attorneys, and a fourth language for my family and friends.  For some time, I convinced myself that I was translating what I had to say for people who spoke different languages.  But the content was different and I was a different person, with different values in each case.  I no longer know who I am, or what I stand for.”

Fourth, don’t check your values at the door and don’t stop checking your values.

Some years ago I assumed a leadership role in a foreign country and, among the reporting relationships that I had, I reported directly to a foreign national.

A month into my responsibilities, I discovered that a support organization affiliated with the institution that I served was running a pass-through account.  Approximately three quarters of a million dollars “passed through” that account and I made immediate arrangements to have it closed.

I have no doubt that the decision to close the account finally cost me the position.  I also have no doubt that it was the right decision.  Sooner or later, in ways large and small, everyone faces the challenge of living from “the because” that has shaped their lives.

Unless that “because” is a weak and calculated choice, it will require us to take our values into the work that we do and we will be required by our work to reexamine our values.

Fifth, refuse to live from fear.

If fear is the antithesis of faith, then courage is not bravado, it is the capacity to act faithfully, whatever the circumstances.  During the economic downturn I have found myself in consultations with publishers, seminaries, and parishes about the way forward and it is striking how many are making fear-based decisions.

Property sales and retrenchment have been the first things many of them have considered and those choices have been made without regard for the way in which such decisions will forever reduce the footprint and significance of their work.  They have sold property in cities like Boston, Chicago, and San Francisco where they are landlocked and have no hope of ever repurchasing the kind of property that other generations have entrusted to their care.

The problem here is not simply strategic.  It also represents a lack of courage and commitment or, as Edwin Friedman puts it, “a failure of nerve in the age of the quick fix.”  Fear is not our friend.

St. Gregory’s Abbey in Shawnee, Oklahoma, where I take a group of students on an annual basis is a sharp contrast with fearful decision-making.  Monasticism has faced hard times for a long time now.  New vocations, especially here in the United States, have been on the decline for decades and St. Gregory’s has watched its numbers decline and the average age of its community rise.

In spite of those realities, they are now installing an elevator as the prelude to building a new retreat center.  My students immediately wanted to know why they are doing this, granted the probable future of monastic vocations.  The answer the community gives is instructive: This is our mission, to draw others into the life of prayer and to spread the grace of God.  We may or may not survive, but we cannot fail to do what we have been called to do.

Perhaps it is this radical conviction that shapes a life from start to finish and provides an answer to at least some of the questions I began to surface sitting in my father’s hospital room.  Life is filled with unanticipated challenges — each of them with their own significance in the moment — significance that weighs heavily on us.  But the lasting significance of both the first and the last sale lies in the way we respond to God’s invitation.

Moses must have felt that way as he stared into the Promised Land, whose borders he had walked for forty years, but never crossed.  Keenly aware of the contingencies that they will continue to face, Moses does not rehearse the dangers, but instead reminds the children of Israel of the importance of Torah.   It is he says, “not a trifling thing for you, it is your very life.”[1]

[1] Deuteronomy 32:47.

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