Sunday, February 26, 2012

In It But Not of It: The Art of Detachment at Work

Christians routinely say they are in this world but not of it. Zen Buddhists talk of the art of detachment, of not being attached to any particular outcome. I'll have to learn to embrace both of these notions in my work life, at least for a while.

I thought American workplaces had advanced beyond the rigid hierarchical practice of emotionally flogging and demeaning your subordinates and publicly criticizing your predecessors as incompetent just because you can. What was I thinking? Clearly they haven't, and my workplace has, in the last five months, joined this race to the workplace morale bottom, so much so that there's a race to the exits among those who can retire.

After speaking up to my immediate superior in what I can see now were far too polite exchanges, I finally had it and escalated my complaints up to the next level in concert with a few of my colleagues. I knew that by speaking up and speaking against someone higher in the hierarchy, I was going to have a proverbial target on my back. But who better? I'm civil service, I'm an attorney, I'm union, I'm good at what I do, and I rarely insert myself in personnel issues. And I was prepared, by no other than Black Man Not Blogging (BMNB).

"You know you're going to have a target on your back, right?", he said.

"Yep," I replied.

BMNB, who spends way too much time reading "The Art of War" and watching The Military Channel, put it this way: "Sounds like the person you're speaking up against has been successful because the person has been able to pick off each of the employees who've complained, not unlike a sniper. Give the person so many targets that no one target can be easily picked off. Get some allies."

Good advice. I did. But I still have a target on my back. It's just that I now have company.

The other good piece of advice BMNB gave me? "You know that once you start this, it will consume a lot of your energy at work."

"Yep," I replied.

But I've decided otherwise. I can't allow it to. I have too many other important things to do in my life than to try to fix the workplace moral compass of my superiors, who would much prefer to duck their heads and pretend not to see how one of their colleagues overworks and demeans the rank and file employees. The workplace hasn't changed. They have.

And so must I.

I'm the kind of employee who brings in cakes and pies on the fly, decorates shared work spaces, and makes sure the admins get a joint Christmas gift from the attorneys. I'm the kind of employee who takes up a collection for donations in the names of departed relatives of co-workers, who makes sure the sympathy cards get signed. I'm the kind of employee who buys ground Peets coffee for work, puts on two pots -- regular and decaf -- of coffee every morning for myself and my co-workers, and cleans the pots before I catch my bus home or drive home with BMNB.

But no more. I can no longer care about the quality of life in my workplace because I don't have the power to change it, and continuing to fight to maintain it will only consume me. I have too many other important things to do in my life than to have my energy consumed by a fight I know I can't win. All the good I do doesn't matter because it can't overcome the evil perpetrated and tolerated by the higher-ups. I refuse to continue to put lipstick on this pig of a workplace.

I am officially in, but not of, my workplace. Color me detached, not unlike many other American workers.

That is, until I create my own workplace.

Oh, and the last piece of advice I received from BMNB after I spoke up?

"You know you're toast, right?"

"Yep," I replied.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Whitney Houston: A Child of God Called Home



Whitney Houston's passing has left me without words to say how I feel.

It's easy to think of her loss in terms of it being a premature dimming of an extraordinarily bright star in the music firmament. But we forget she was somebody's mother, somebody's daughter, and, most of all, a child of God who struggled and was deserving of grace and mercy, just like you and me.

I don't want to speculate on how she died. I'd rather remember how she lived when she was at her best. And, to my mind, she was at her best when she was singing songs of praise. For all the people who love her version of "I Will Always Love You" as her best song, for me, my favorite Whitney Houston song is "I Love The Lord" from the soundtrack to "The Preacher's Wife." Even as she's acting you can tell she felt that song from the depth of her heart, and her voice just soars like an angel when she sings it. Only God could have created a voice like Whitney's. That the last song she sang publicly was "Yes, Jesus Loves Me" is fitting. Her singing career ended as it began, singing a song of praise that I'm sure she felt from her heart.

So that's how I will choose to remember her: A child of God at her best when singing His praises. A child of God called home.

Rest in peace, Whitney. Heaven's choir just got a whole lot better.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Read "The Warmth of Other Suns" for Black History Month

Ah, Black History Month is upon us! I won't go into the usual schpiel about how it's the shortest month of the year. Black History Month is what you make of it. And this year, I'm encouraging you to read "The Warmth of Other Suns" by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Isabel Wilkerson for Black History Month.

Why? Because if you have at least one Southern African-American parent or grandparent, no matter where you were born and raised, you will understand them better.

"The Warmth of Other Suns" chronicles the Great Migration -- the migration of over six million African-Americans out of the South from the turn of the 20th century to the 1970's. Focusing on the stories of three migrants, Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, George Swanson Starling and Robert Joseph Pershing Foster, Wilkerson interweaves demographics and historical facts about life in the Jim Crow South and the lives of the migrants after leaving the South with the stories of Gladney, Starling and Foster. For me, with one Southern African-American parent, it was like an emotional Rosetta Stone. It helped me understand my father's wariness and trepidation about my and my siblings' dealings with whites when we were young. It explained the hardness of his character. It explained something my mother would always say to us kids about my father when he seemed so harsh, bordering on cruel: "Your father grew up hard; your father grew up seeing things as a child that children should not see."

Indeed. When you read about the utter depravity of racism in the Jim Crow South as deftly shown in this book, you'll better understand why our Southern forbears left and how they did so with the highest of hopes for my generation.

I feel so strongly about this book that, if I had the power, I would make every African-American read this book. It is the unvarnished truth of the Jim Crow South and of our Southern forbears. If you don't read anything else for Black History Month -- or for the year, for that matter -- read "The Warmth of Other Suns." I'm hoping against hope that the film rights will be purchased and someone like Spike Lee, Tyler Perry, or Oprah Winfrey will step up and bring it to the big screen.

For more about Isabel Wilkerson and "The Warmth of Other Suns," visit here. Kudos to Ms. Wilkerson for giving us this gift of Black history.