Work as Self Expression

“Why are you always in such a good mood?”

I was standing on the terrace of the first floor, looking east. The sun, barely over the horizon,  was climbing stalwartly above the power lines. I had arrived before dawn, brewed myself a cup of coffee and taken up my station to watch the sunrise. I had watched the glowing curve kiss the horison, watched it illuminate the little pond in the courtyard, turning it into one giant mirror, listened to the call of Egyptian geese from the rooftops. The serenity had been broken when, moments later this colleague had joined me on the wide expanse of tiles. Hailing me with that ever standard platitude: ‘Hi how are you’, I had responded with my standard, cheerful ‘Fantastic.’ My face never left the view.

But now, with such a pointed question, he had ventured beyond that which social conditioning requires.

I surmise there are less than five hundred words that constitute office interactions, outside of those that concern the conveyance of information requisite to fulfilling the job function. Most of those five hundred words are platitudes; questions we never really want the answer to, ‘standard conversations’ that permit the illusion of contact. It is sad that, even though we may be surrounded by different people, each with a story to share, potential friends, that we choose to closet ourselves behind the mask that comes with your job description. When you can measure your days not in hours or accomplishments, or how many ‘deliverables’ you have met; but in terms of meaningful conversations, going beyond the standard five that is an achievement.

I briefly debated joking about the virtues of experimental drugs, but then something prompted me to ask, “Do you really want to know?”

On this particular morning, this particular entity responded with grey sobriety. “You come out here almost every morning to watch the sun rise. You work long hours in a stressful environment but I’ve never seen you angry or upset.”

An icy wind forced its will on the courtyard, and the geese protested loudly. It was novel to have been thus observed though I could readily call to mind instances where I had been exactly that.

“How come you’re always so excessively happy, and especially on a Monday morning?”

I lifted my mug, took a sip. The coffee was still too hot. “Has anybody in your family died recently?” Something of a startling question.

“No …” His eyes narrowed.

I raised an eyebrow. “Are you in good health?”

He shuffled on the spot, seemingly inspecting the leather of his polished shoes. “Yes.”

“Do you have a good job?”

He nodded, a grin curling the corners of his mouth as he nodded slightly, realisation more than affirmation. “Yes.”

I raised my cup in half a toast. “Then it is indeed, a good day, is it not?”

My colleague gave a light chortle. He was quiet for a few moments, as I stole a glance at the rising sun. Soon it would be too bright to look at. I expected him to move on – that old sense of urgency loves to kick in just after the first cup of roasted beans – but he stayed. A short woman bustled past in a grey skirt and puffed blouse, her boots thumping determination on the terracotta. She mumbled The Greeting without looking up. My colleague nodded, uttered a string of sibilants. I stirred the steam.

“So how do you deal with those (censored) in your department?”

An interesting question. A deep question. I blew across the brown surface of my cup, savouring the aroma. “I see each day as an opportunity, a potential to learn something; every encounter is a chance to grow. Each person is a mirror to you.” I gazed at the pond. Reflected in its unbroken surface were strings of clouds, tinged with red and blue.

His eyes roamed over the reeds in the pond, down to the stray cats who were chasing each other despite the cold. He looked almost about to float away, but then he stared at the ground, his shoes, his coffee. “Go on.”

My eyebrow bounced again. “You go to Church, right?” I knew he did.

“Every Sunday.”

“And what you learn there, stays there?”

“No.” His mug moved closer to his chest. Eyes narrowed. “It’s here, locked in my heart.”

“If you lock it in your heart it can’t get out. If you don’t live your spirituality, it remains nothing but words. See, it doesn’t matter what religion or creed you subscribe to. What matters is whether you live it. Every day is an opportunity to take what you have learned and put it into practice.”

“I wish I could.” He looked at my jersey, then my face. There was something pained in his expression. A prisoner on parole. “But in this job I have no choice.”

“You always have a choice. It’s the consequences of making a different choice that you fear. So you are content in your ignorance to say you have no choice. You could wake up on a Monday morning and say ‘I think I’ll stay home today,’ but you worry about how you will justify your absence from the office. You feel guilty about taking a day off. You allow yourself to become sick just so you have a justifiable excuse for staying home to rest. Then you feel bad, you feel sorry. But to apologise is to recognise in your self that your actions somehow became misaligned with the intention behind them. So you feel bad or guilty because you have failed in the eyes of another, which is the eyes of yourself. When you are forgiven you feel redeemed, but that renders the apology meaningless, unless you align action with intention. To do that is to take responsibility for the outcome of your actions. The results give you feedback on your intention, and allow you to make adjustments if you so choose.

“You spend eight hours a day at this job, probably longer. Your job is your primary vehicle for self expression. Every action is an expression of intention. In these four walls, between those two hours of the clock you get to act out who you really are, who you aspire to be within the role that previous choices have led you to. The people you encounter, through your interactions with them, and their reactions to you, are mirrors back to you of who you are.”

Grey eyes regarded me with something like silence, though I suspected there was none of that behind them.

“So unless you take the lessons given you by your spiritual pursuits, and put them into practice, they only remain theory. Knowledge plus action equals experience. Experience lived mans Wisdom, and wisdom lived must return to the world in order to enrich it, to elevate it. It’s a chance for you to uplift your fellow man, to contribute. And if you have lifted somebody in knowledge, you have shed light on the darkest affliction of all – ignorance. And to lift people out of ignorance is to empower them, and give them courage, and then it was not just another dreary day at the office. Not just another wasted day.”

It was not odd that an ordinary office week begin with such a profound discussion. It was enlivening. If every day began thus, less people would come to work looking at their shoes, and more would seek out the rising sun. “Yes, it is a task sometimes to do this, when Theresa from Travel has lost your ticket and you have a plane to catch, and you have the boss on the line wondering where he left his car keys, and your two-year old crying because the twins smeared fried egg in her hair, but even that is an opportunity for you to look at your default settings, and make a change. Changes made in the moment are decisive; they rewire your brain spontaneously, and you grow.

“When pressures come – and they will come – they are not obstacles to be destroyed, or storms to be weathered. Rather, they are opportunities for you to look at your default setting – your knee-jerk habitual reaction – and make a conscious choice in that moment to act instead of react.

“Think about this. For centuries men have marched into war against other men. Few have marched against themselves. The true Warrior is not the one who goes out to slay the enemy. It is the one who journeys inward to conquer self. It matters not whether you attend church, temple, mosque, coven or sacred circle – it matters if you meet yourself on the battlefield of your own mind. As it is written, ‘Many will die for a good man. Few will die for a righteous man.’

“A friend of mine once said that he wished he could preserve into the week the serenity he established after attending church. To hang on to that serenity is to cultivate desperation, but to see in every face and circumstance an opportunity to transcend your immediate reaction, is to engender the fortitude that will become the fortress of that serenity.

“To besiege the castle of your own habits requires a fundamental change. It takes you making small decisions towards the greater good of your own evolution and development. And that starts with your spiritual life. Not your religion, mind, your spiritual life. It means to take those spiritual lessons and apply them in those moments when you feel tested; when you feel weak, burdened. I once saw a wonderful motivational poster. It said, ‘When you feel sad, don’t be sad, be Awesome, instead.’ It can be tough, when you have fifteen unreasonable customers making unreasonable, unrealistic demands; and what does ‘keep your cool’ mean anyway? In those moments, with your focus on that which you treasure – the desire to be better, to change, to evolve – you find a courage that wells up inside you, like a guiding star, and lights the way. That is when you act. It takes a purpose-driven, conscious effort to act. And yes, its okay to be angry. Its okay to want to beat the (censored) out of the petrol attendant, because that too is an opportunity to recognise that he, like you, has his own challenges of a different nature. He too has a path to follow. And in that all men are equal. Be thankful that another entity has risen to the challenge of being a mirror to you that you may learn through them of the opportunities for your own growth. And so it is that our greatest enemies are often our greatest teachers. People are not evil. They are just lost, and afraid. To turn the other cheek means to answer with love the accusation given in fear.

“So if you woke up this morning with the notion of being somebody greater than you have been, and desire to make that change, you will be given that opportunity. ‘When you pray for patience, it’s the opportunity that is given.’

A white cuff, with flashing silver cufflink smoothed down his tie. Preening.  Smoothing down ruffled feathers? I sipped my coffee, knowing the conversation was through. He nodded stoically, the maximum display of corporate-permitted emotion, and with a meaningful look at his watch moved off. I watched him open the door, and return to his work station, noting the incline of his neck. He was walking slowly, but he was no longer staring at his shoes.

Books by Mark


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