In my dream the Washington Monument is falling. (This is a real disaster, not a photo stunt! Ignore the Eiffel Tower.) I stand alone under it, arms straining to keep the stone tower from falling. If I try hard enough, if I am determined and focused, the monument won’t fall.
Growing up in the late 1960’s and the 1970’s, I knew only a few grown up women besides my mother. Most were stay-home moms like mine. There were two or three who were not married, so they had jobs. Of course married women might have jobs too—until they had children. Options available: nurse, teacher, or secretary. Each of these gender-approved professions featured ease of employment, and the bonus of supplementing (but not surpassing) a man’s income. No one I knew admitted to enjoying work. When I began paying attention to what women said about their jobs, a common theme emerged: you gotta suffer.
Like a step-sister in Cinderella, I believed that you’ve got to cut off a toe (or your curiosity, joy, sense of self) to make the coveted glass slipper fit! Never mind the pain, it will be worth it to win—the job, the prince, both. There was also the If you love God, you’ll make sacrifices—suck it up! slant.
As an adult myself, I believed that suffering and work go together like shampoo and conditioner, grin and bear, and pay your dues. It’s tough to escape this ethos. Look at the ubiquitous TGIF or Oh, God! It’s Monday memes on social media. Based on my arm-chair research, the combo of work+suffering is acceptable to and for women in particular. My sample is small, so don’t report me to the people at PEW.
Bloom where you’re planted
Being bright, capable, and good at something that needs doing automatically means you should just do it. Stepping right out of college with my degree in Education and into the first year of marriage, a glow of optimism and can-do shimmered around me. I asked the organization Ken worked with for a job. Boom! Meet the office manager and keeper of petty cash. That sucked all the optimism and shimmer right out of me. Soon I was apologizing for taking up space.
If anyone had told me, “Bloom where you’re planted!” I’d have stabbed them with a fork! Or, more likely, stabbed myself because obviously the problem was my attitude. It needed adjusting and if I were mature (gag) and more determined (grunt) and right with the Lord (gulp) I would accept my lot and be grateful, dammit! The Washington Monument is falling over!! Try harder so it won’t hit the ground…
Today, when I explain my idea of healthy professional life as an 80/20 balance—80% of what you do energizes and 20% of what you do drains—I get a condescending smile. How quaint. Let me know how that works for you. Suffering is so normal that it’s accepted as inevitable.
If you enjoy your work—you look forward to Monday and feel satisfied with you pay and responsibilities—and you enjoy your work environment—the place, the people—more than 80% of the time, I am thrilled for you! And when can we talk? Because you are rare. The list of women I know who fit the 80/20 split is short: my counselor Jackie, my daughter the occupational therapist, my niece the patient educator, and my friend Lisa the church pastor, and my friend Sandra the reading specialist.
If deep unhappiness at work (aka professional suffering) were an olympic sport, I know 63 or 64 women who’d qualify for the national team, and several would medal. Way too many women spend 40+ hours a week gritting their teeth and waiting for Friday. They dread their morning alarm only slightly less than Monday morning.
Keeping it personal: The lie
But this is about personal anger. I am angry that I swallowed the destructive belief: Suffering is a virtue, and worthwhile work requires self-wounding.
I wrestle with this limiting belief because it goes deep. As I anticipate the next chapter of how I show up and offer my gifts to the world, I want to be as light and as free as possible. Because I don’t trust the echo chamber of my own thoughts, so I’m back to my counselor for a tune up.
My counselor knows my stuff. Together we’ve untangled my issues of worthiness, of boundaries, of self-care, and beliefs that go to the bone, but that don’t reflect the truth.
Here’s the truth: I am a child of God. Always. Completely. Not in a compartmentalized joy-in-the-sweet-by-and-by way, or the it’s-a-spiritual-reality-and-that-should-be-enough way. I am, in my counselor’s words, a hand-made child of God. Known inside and out. Loved. Understood. Called. And I believe that you are too. Called to a yoke that is easy with a burden that is light. Right now, in this skin, in this messy and imperfect and marvelous life where we can do work that we love with and for people we love.
My counselor helps me examine the spiritual mumbo-jumbo that seems to validate suffering as a virtue: trials and tribulations, the refiner’s fire, talking up one’s cross. She assures me that those words can be read in their divine spiritual intent, but often are not. (When NOT read in their divine intent, these words sound like the step-sister’s approach to the glass slipper.) She assures me that God is with us in suffering, but that God does not order suffering as part of some spiritual get-in-shape plan.
What if, after years of self-loathing and wishing I could be grateful to be miserable, I’m the right size and shape for the work I’m hand-made to do? What if I don’t have to suffer to be valuable? What if I do get to work hard in the calling I love, but I don’t have to hustle, suffer, strive, grasp, and hold up the Washington Monument?
What if I am guided by the Spirit. What if I am yoked with Christ and the yoke is easy and the burden is light? What if my hand-made deep gladness is called to meet some form of the world’s deep hunger?
For starters, I’d feel a lot less angry.