He is so desperate, I am so blessed.

He is so desperate, I am so blessed. 

I found myself saying this to myself today after a series of coaching appointments with clients facing deep struggles in their paths toward finding meaningful work. Or any work at all… sigh.

Days like today weigh heavily on my spirit. Seeing the very real barriers – internal or external – that complicate the job search process can break my heart. Especially when I look at how blessed I am in my own life and my professional path.

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I struggle the most when the barriers individuals are struggling to overcome are the result of structural or systemic oppression. Where language, access to health care, disability, mental health status, cultural differences, or poor self-advocacy skills create huge roadblocks that overcome even the last glimmers of resilience.  I feel helpless.

I worry I am not doing enough, and on the really tough days:

Am I causing more harm than good? 

Considering my own blessings in contrast to those who are sincerely struggling to sustain daily living can leave me feeling guilty. When I was first exploring my identity as a white person I thought a lot about the guilt I felt being born part of the privileged dominant group in my country. I also think about the ways I can use my privilege to fight systemic oppression.

As I have grown in my field, I also think more about the ways my own privilege can get in the way for clients I serve who are from underrepresented groups. I know I find myself in the “buffer zone,” as social justice educator, writer, and activist, Paul Kivel, describes:

“If most people receive minimal levels of care and those who die do so in hospitals, at home, in rest homes, or in prisons, it is less likely that people will add up the total impact of the concentration of wealth. So there are many jobs for people to take care of those at the bottom of the pyramid: nurses, attendants, social workers, teachers, youth workers, child care workers, counselors—poorly paid jobs that are primarily done by women and that provide minimal services to those in need.

“Taking care of those in need is valuable and honorable work, and most people do it with generosity and good intentions. But in our society, it is also unsupported, low-paid, exploitative work. It serves to mask the inadequate distribution of jobs, food, and housing, and to hide the full impact of the concentration of wealth” (Source here).

It may be honorable work. It may be valuable work. I may dedicate my whole heart to supporting those I meet with. In turn I hope that I am supporting a vibrant and equitable community. However on days  like today I feel so overwhelmed trying to parcel out all the pieces at play. The struggle to do my part of  the work towards social justice can feel overwhelming, especially when I struggle to even sort out what “right action” looks like in the moment.

I feel called to serve, to support, and to empower. The idea that the very act of trying to help can get in the way and perpetuate all kinds of inequality — it just feels too big. Too daunting. It makes me feel so small, so unsure of what my next right choice should be.

Comfort comes in faithfully believing that I am doing my best to put my heart to the work, praying for grace, and as Rainer Maria Rilke reminds us, living the questions:

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.” – Rainer Maria Rilke

Hold fast to your passion

The natural human spirit is irrepressibly radical; it wants the unattainable, yearns for the impractical, is willing to risk the improper. But as we conform ourselves to the practicalities and properties of efficiency, we restrict the space between desire and control; we confine our intention to an ever-decreasing range of possibilities. The choices we make — and therefore the way we feel about ourselves — are determined less by what we long for and more by what is controllable and acceptable to the world around us. After enough of this, we lose our passion. We forget who we are.

Gerald May, from The Awakened Heart, as quoted in Wayne Muller‘s book, A Life of Being, Having, and Doing Enough

Challenges to scheduling rest

At first glance, the idea of scheduling rest seems worthy. Yet in my case, it is far more likely to be a harbinger of burnout on the horizon. Let me explain why…

This year has been a wild ride of hard work, difficult days, and an overabundance of blessings. Since finishing graduate school, landing a job I love, moving across country, and buying our first house (phewf!) – I have been hyper aware of the multitude of things that “need” my attention.

Overcome with the blessings in my life, I have been fixated on honoring them to the fullest by working harder and harder to make things click at work, home, and in my relationships. Why? I do this all so that I can feel at peace and open to all the grace in my life. (This is also a major downside to having “responsibility” as one of my StrengthFinder strengths).

So I have been scrambling for the last several months. Got it. This is how so many of us live.

Well the trouble is that tonight is Tuesday, yoga night, and I am not there.

This happens to me. I “schedule” my downtime (responsibility) but when it comes time to rest and renew I am not up to it. I get so worried about everything I think I should be doing (one responsibility competing with another) that the fleeting thought of doing something kind for myself (yoga) falls victim to my never-ending to-do list of things I’m stressed about getting done.

This all has me wondering: How often are productivity systems just ways of hiding from our worries or our fears?

I recently spent a good deal of time tinkering with some new ways to streamline my to do lists at home and at work.

That’s all nice, and I value organization, but if I critically look at the lists I see my worries and fears jumping out at me:

  • Will we be happy in this house?
  • What will we eat this week and how can I handle all the prep?
  • Are we saving enough?
  • What really are my passions and interests?
  • Am I good at my job? Is this really what I am meant to do?
  • Are we living in accordance with our values?

How do I know my productivity systems are masking my worries? Capturing my “should do” or “ought to do” items in a list doesn’t simplify anything. I’m still not at yoga tonight. If I said yoga was important, and I scheduled it, it should happen. Something else is going on.

What if the simplest way to simplify isn’t to work tirelessly to capture and do it all? What if it actually lies in looking at the questions and worries driving all these tasks to see how they align with my real priorities? 

You won’t get any answers from me tonight. Just an invitation to ponder the questions behind your “to-dos” and explore the ways they may be challenging your priorities, values, and your deep desire for peace in your life.

  • What might it look like to re-invent your to-do list so that it honors, but does not mask, your worries and fears?
  • So that it clarifies and affirms your priorities?
  • So that it puts your responsibility for taking care of your needs, hopes, and passions first?