My first job out of college was working for a private non-profit that provided summer camp and other activities for children with cancer and support for their families. My second job was being the outreach coordinator at a shelter for victims of domestic violence. I was woefully under-qualified for both jobs, but in taking them, I experienced the greatest period of emotional and spiritual growth in my life.
When I was 22 and had only been working with young cancer patients for a few months, I went to the doctor complaining of chronic insomnia. “What makes you think you are an insomniac?” he asked. He seemed skeptical of my self-diagnosis. “I haven’t had good sleep in months. I toss and turn. I have these really stressful dreams when I do sleep. Sometimes, it takes me forever just to fall asleep and then, I’m awake at 5 in the morning. No alarm. I just wake up, get dressed and go to work.”
“I see,” he said. “And what are you thinking about mostly when you are ‘tossing and turning?’”
“Work,” I answered, but I didn’t see the relevance of his question at that moment.
“I could prescribe something, but I don’t think that will really help you. I think you’d do better not to think about work.”
Considering that the year was 1989, his reluctance to pull out his prescription pad surprises me today. I’ve long forgotten the doctor’s name, but I will always credit him with inadvertently turning me onto holistic medicine. His advice gradually led me to meditation as a means of quieting myself enough to sleep. Cognitive therapy, mostly through my own reading, taught me to look at a crisis and ask, “How important is this really? Where does my power over this situation begin and end?”
And let me tell you, once you’ve comforted the parents of a dying child or accompanied a domestic violence victim to court, the questions related cognitive therapy take on a whole new level of relevance. Back then, I was keenly aware that what I said and did might impact another human life in some profound and irreversible way. Because I knew I was under-qualified to handle other people’s fears and sorrows, I developed a habit of praying daily that my thoughts, words, and actions would be pleasing unto God, that I would find peace in His presence and that I would be an instrument of Divine Healing because on my own, I’d screw it up—royally!
While working at the shelter, I had a co-worker whose bachelor’s degree was in hospitality management but she was working on her master’s in social work. Because I was curious about career paths, I had to ask, “How does one go from wanting to work with tourist to wanting to do social work?” She told me that she had always planned to go into hotel management, but during her senior year, she landed a part-time job as an EMS dispatcher. The hours worked well with her academic schedule and the pay was good. When she finally graduated, she found a full-time position as a concierge at a golf resort. According to her, the golfers would get irate over minor things, such as having their tee-time moved back 5 minutes or not getting the caddy they requested. Eventually, she cracked. She told one of them, “Look! THIS IS NOT AN EMERGENCY! YOU AREN’T HAVING A HEART ATTACK! YOU HAVEN’T BEEN IN AN ACCIDENT! NO ONE IS HOLDING A GUN TO YOUR HEAD! SO, SIT DOWN AND SHUT UP!” And she was fired. Yeah, I edited out the profanity—but you can use your imagination.
Yes, there is something about working in a job in which you are dealing with genuine life-or-death situations that renders you unable to take minor inconveniences seriously—enev when everyone around you sees it as a complete disaster.
Years later, I had my own version of my co-worker’s story. After four and a half years working in the non-profit, social work, crisis management field, I did a year of retail and then found my niche: museum work.
At first, I didn’t take my museum work seriously because it was part-time, and it was interesting and fun without any of the gravity of cancer or depravity of domestic violence. “What? The lecture series is sold out? Sounds like a good problem to have even if you don’t know where they will all park!” “The exhibit guide won’t arrive until the day after the exhibition opens? Not that big of a crisis is it, really?” “The noon volunteer never showed up? But no one died, right?” I was almost flippant about it. “THAT is not an emergency.”
Time and increased responsibility brought me back to center. No, it’s really not that big of a deal when a patron complains about a lack of parking, but on the other hand, you are losing your funding? Your budget has been cut by 25%? Attendance is way down and so you have to cut staff hours? Okay, these probably aren’t life-or-death tribulations, but they are pretty big obstacles, so I won’t make light of them.
I think I may be in another period of emotional and spiritual growth right now. At least, I hope that is the case. I don’t worry like I did when I was in my early 20s. I am, however, very impatient. I have found the past 11 months to be incredibly stressful because nothing and no one—including myself–moves fast enough for me. Whether I am dealing with my mother-in-law’s behavior or illness, managing her care or her care-givers, dealing with her house or her stuff, or balancing her needs with those of my children, or discussing money with my husband, I’m grouchy and I want whatever is going to happen to hurry up and HAPPEN. And those things I’ve listed are pretty much all I ever do and so I’m grouchy and impatient most of the time.
It’s definitely time for me to start praying again—as I once did—and turning it all over to God because I am so tired of barking orders at people and feeling that no matter what I do, it will be wrong and it will all take too long.
I need to find zen again.
I know that Zen is a Buddhist ideal, and some Christians are bothered when they hear a fellow Christian use the term, but I’m using it in a more slang, general way. Perhaps Buddhists should be offended that I’ve commandeered the word, but please know it’s not my intention to insult anyone. Think of it as “the Peace which surpasses all understanding” because isn’t that what enlightenment is all about? Knowing that it’s all okay? We are in the hands of a loving God and even when we are worried or scared or grouchy or incredibly impatient, it’s all okay because all the hardships and challenges in this life are working towards something good even if we don’t ever see it. My favorite Bible verse is Romans 8:28—“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him…” Remembering that can bring me to a very peaceful, zen-like place…and it’s kind of sad that I haven’t been to that place in a long, long time.
Yet, I am able to accept that it is all a journey and rocky roads, derailed trains, and delayed, forever-changing plans are all a part of it. Maybe that’s a lesson from earlier in life, too, and I’ve just had too little time to remember it and so, I’m having to learn it again.