Bring your Grief to Work Day! (Actually Please Don't)
Imagine being free from our problems for 8 hours a day, 5 days a week. Imagine living in a world where we could disconnect ourselves from the nagging personal foibles that encroach on our work life and professional development. Imagine implementing work-life-balance with such force that you could single-mindedly focus on, and commit to, the task at hand. No lingering intrusions from your personal life, no emotional distractions breaking your concentration, no pesky anxieties waiting in the glove box for the car ride home.
What you’re imagining is the plot of Ben Stiller’s tv series Severance, which recently completed their first season on Apple TV. Adam Scott plays Mark, a man who has undergone a surgical procedure, where he essentially lives two lives for the price of one. The cost is significant though. His memory is ‘bifurcated’ (split) so that while he is at work, he has no memory of his outside life, and as soon as he leaves the office, he has no recollection about his work life.
This enables him to be the consummate ‘yes man’ for a shady and soulless corporation without windows or scruples. It also offers him an escape from the pain of everyday life, and the grief that whittles away at his enjoyment of life. His existence as an ‘outie’ might be hard going, but at least his ‘innie’ work can be somewhat carefree, easy, free of complication, and limitless in possibilities.
And it’s not uncommon for us to live vicariously through our work identity, as if it’s an entirely separate world with alternative realities. Work-life-balance is becoming an endangered species, being rapidly outpopulated by work-life-integration. Particularly for those with a portable, interconnected, and online work station.
One of the blessings and curses of working from home is that you no longer have to physically be around your colleagues. Great for bypassing the bullies, the suck ups and the procrastinators. Not so great for maintaining social skills, sanity, and keeping goblin mode at bay. Also not so great for dealing with personal issues such as mental health, relational breakdowns, and grief.
It’s got to be said that most physical workplaces don’t really do this either, with the ‘tyranny of positivity’ crafting the unwritten rules that often deny permission to deal with our emotions on the job. As if we’re cats bringing a dead bird to work and dropping it on the board room table. Grief and struggle are unwelcome experiences on the resume, being seen as a detriment to workplace morale.
“There’s an unspectacular mundane suffering that pervades the workplace” where grief is prolonged, work suffers, and relationships don’t function as well as they could. Rather than work being part of the healing process, ‘Disenfranchised grief’ creates a sense of alienation, exhaustion, and an inability to let people work through their complex emotions in times of need.
And this connects with a larger issue prevalent in society; We’re not particularly adept at knowing how to deal with other people’s suffering.
Whether it’s being ill-equipped to know what to say, or not knowing what to feel at funerals - we have an inbuilt tendency to repress and minimise the pain of death and loss. We elevate and celebrate individualism while forgetting what it means to be an interdependent neighbour.
There is an ineffable quality to suffering that will always slip through our ability to quantify, comprehend, and explain what is happening to us or our friends.
Perhaps it’s why a beautiful artwork or solemn pieces of music can bring us to places that conversations often fail to. Apparently Gorecki’s incredible 3rd Symphony would move people to pull their cars off the road to weep as the ‘sorrowful songs’ overwhelmed the rattly car speakers. Why is it that creatives are often the ones that help us know we’re not alone in our pain?
New York Times author David Brooks in his book The Second Mountain describes suffering as something that ‘smashes through the floor of what you thought was the basement of your soul and reveals a cavity below, and then it smashes through that basement and reveals a cavity below that’ (p37). It becomes an entirely different form of self-discovery as circumstances are thrust on us in disorienting ways. At our best we learn things like gratitude, empathy and humility. But at our worst we become bitter, disillusioned and resentful - which is why we need each other.
Brooks talks about ‘suffering our way to wisdom’. A wisdom that is often acquired, practiced and passed on in the context of community. Being able to process with those we spend our passing hours with is an important part of moving on. While stoically suppressing it by choice, or by a sense of obligation to our workplace won’t be consequence or pain free either.
On the other hand, being able to share our struggles openly with those we work and live with can be a freeing and focusing release, spurring greater trust, greater work satisfaction, and greater wellbeing. And as Susan Cain's article (referenced earlier) points out, it can actually be good for business too.
Let the Right One In
In 2012 Female stand-up comic Tig Notaro opened her set in a novel, astonishing, and somewhat legendary way. "Hello. Good evening, hello. I have cancer." That became the premise for her profoundly honest and industry-changing set. Vulnerability, weakness and storytelling have unlocked an entirely new way of producing comedy that is simultaneously beautiful, authentic and paradigm shifting. Inviting others into their world, and letting them know they’re not alone in the trials of life. Bringing your grief to work, and talking about it can actually be part of the healing process.
I’m coming up to a year since my Dad passed after a short and sudden battle with cancer. Thankfully I have been in a workplace where people checked in on me, prayed for me and gave me as much time and space as I needed. I’ve had some friends continue to ask the attentive questions even as time marches on.
And I have found this to be exactly what I’ve needed. The Bible talks about ‘carrying each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfil the law of Christ’ (Galatians 6:2). It’s a call for Christians to live out their mandate, but it’s also a reminder that we as the human race need each other, and cannot carry our burdens alone.
Christ understood this more than we’ll ever know, which is of course the story that the crucifixion so vividly and shockingly tells us. Our burdens are nailed to the cross so that we bear them no more. Beautiful, authentic and paradigm shifting.
For me, the Christian story ineffably and beautifully shows a universe where we are not alone. God cares about the world enough to enter it, fight for it, and to spill his very blood on it. We need not suppress, split or struggle our way through suffering alone. Not only do we have each other, but we have a God able to carry our burdens, and soothe our souls.
Maybe your particular workplace won’t ever reach that point of welcoming conversations beyond the superficial. But the God of the universe will always invite us to honestly pour out our fears, frustrations and sorrows. Having poured himself out spectacularly and now inviting us in –with the promise of restoration, rest and comfort- that’s something worth planting deep in the hippocampus, and never letting slip or split.