If You Could Just Come In On Saturday…

I think one of the biggest revelations I’ve had in my more recent spiritual life is that the most powerful venue for connecting my spirituality with my material world is in my workplace, not in my home.  Yes, at this point I still hold a traditional job.  I don’t write to make money, I write because I feel compelled to.

Anyway, I think we don’t think enough about the impact our work life has on every other aspect of our lives.  Our wages fund everything we do.  Without my job, I wouldn’t have a safe, comfortable place to live in, reliable transportation, or food on the table.  It has been said that we spend more time with our coworkers than our families, and for most of us that is unquestionably true.

Further, I think a great many of us are at least somewhat concerned about leaving some kind of legacy on the world.  Yes, that means building a family and making friends, doing things which inspire or help others.  But what about your coworkers?  Clients?  Customers?  

Our workplaces are a vital venue for putting our spirituality to work.  By this I don’t mean we should be working to convert our coworkers or using the workplace as a pulpit.  I absolutely think that is inappropriate.  

But as we spend more time and energy on our work than our hobbies or our families just by virtue of the importance of a paycheck, I think that’s the first place we should reevaluate when it comes to shaping a meaningful spiritual existence.  If you feel called to help those in need, does that not include those at work who struggle to do well or need extra assistance?  If you feel compelled to put more positive energy into the world, would it not be wise to start by making your job a more positive experience for yourself and those around you?

One of the things I feel compelled to do by my own spiritual philosophy is to inspire others to focus on their own personal improvement.  As someone in a management position, what better venue could I hope to have for inspiring others?  My spirituality shapes how I treat those who work for me and with me, what I teach them about reaching their goals and working with others.  It shapes how I interact with customers and peers, employees and supervisors.  Looking at my job as a smaller model of the rest of the universe has completely changed how I feel about going to work.  I’m not just getting things done, I’m shaping my little piece of the world.

And it has nothing to do with trying to make those around me share my spiritual outlook.  The best way to show others what you see as truth is to simply live that truth where others can see.  And real truths for life will apply no matter what someone’s spiritual outlook is.

Besides, if our spirituality can’t help us find meaning in our work, what is it really doing for us?

Budgeting for God?

I spend quite a bit of time and effort on trying to maximize the usefulness of the space in my house as well as trying to allocate money in the best way, and I think I’m a pretty standard example in that regard.  When things are important to us we tend to be more willing to put effort into making sure all the required resources are available to support that thing.  If you love to cook you’ll put more focus on creating a well-organized and updated kitchen and setting aside time to prepare meals.  If you are really into fitness you’ll be more likely to arrange your routine to accommodate long workouts as well as changing your diet to support your activity.  Myself, I’m really into cosplay, so I’m more likely to allocate time off so that I’m available to travel to conventions and I will forego other activities to make time for sewing.

But I may be a not-so-standard example when it comes to spirituality, in that I actually set aside time to focus on activities which are solely spiritual in nature.

How many of us actively work at setting aside mental energy, physical space, or available energy to devote to our spiritual lives?  I know a lot of people who only really give any thought to the relative importance they place on the spiritual portion of their activities when they find themselves in a situation where they could have really benefitted from it.  Kind of like people who only really give much thought to contributing to a savings account when an emergency happens and they need money.  Personally, I’m much more likely these days to find myself neglecting my savings account than my spiritual resources, though I’m working on that.

There are ways, though, to carve out more time, space, and energy for your spiritual life:

  1. The most common way is to designate space or time for spirituality.  For example, always going to church on Sunday or writing in your journal every morning.  Like any routine, however, this only works if you’re good at maintaining routines, or if there is some kind of external pressure to adhere.
  2. It works better to marry everyday activities with spiritual ones which can be done at the same time or almost the same time.  For instance, keeping some spiritual reading in the bathroom to read would be an easy way of carving out time to spend with devotional or inspirational material.  
  3. The best way, though, is to make everyday activities into spiritual activities.  Your routines don’t necessarily have to change, only the way you think about them.  For instance, decorating your home for the changing seasons or coming holidays can be undertaken as a way of observing the wheel of the year or putting focus on particular spiritual imagery.  Or perhaps your fitness routine becomes a method of meditation, as repetitive activities can easily be adapted to become times of focused thought.

You may be surprised at how easy it is to find spiritual content in your daily activities.

Spirit: the nonphysical part of a person that is the seat of emotions and character; the soul

(above definition from OxfordDictionaries.com)

Essentially, by this definition the soul and the spirit are the same thing.  I think that is up for debate, but I think it is reasonable to bundle them together when it comes to defining the scope of spirituality.  If the spirit and soul are the parts of us which produce our emotions and character, spirituality therefore is a focus on those activities which develop our character and help us manage our emotions.  

Whether or not you believe that there is some supernatural element to existence, the activities included in one’s spiritual life invariably fit the above description.  We seek to develop our character, to shape our actions, to guide our decisions according to a purpose which reaches beyond our physical existence.  Part of spirituality is trying to figure out the rules and traditions which will shape us into virtuous and stable people.  

Drawing a Line

I’ve been rather fortunate that not many parts of my life are affected by my spiritual affiliation or lack thereof.  I’ve had relatively few instances where I was put in an uncomfortable position by people who were suspicious or confrontational about religion.  But when I do experience instances of ignorance or intolerance, they stand out.

A while back I had an incident at work where some customers complained to me because two of my employees were discussing atheist philosophy in the store.  They were extremely upset about it, and were clear about their belief that allowing the discussion of atheism in the workplace was threatening to them as Christians.

Clearly, when they came to me to address the situation they assumed that I shared their faith and would also share their outrage.  It didn’t occur to them for one minute that I would have a different view, and they certainly didn’t expect my employer to disagree with their assessment of the situation.  

Initially, I did what I have been conditioned by years of working customer service to do:  I apologized and said I would remind my staff that it isn’t a good idea to talk about religion at work.  I caged my response in respectful corporate language which allowed them to continue to assume that I agreed with them, while actually remaining neutral on the issue at hand.

They seemed satisfied, and I wrote a memo to my staff.  

And then I proceeded to privately obsess about it for well over a day.

I realized that my actions went against everything I believed.  There is a time and a place for keeping one’s opinions to oneself in order to appease others, especially in a customer service environment.  But telling my employees that they should avoid having intellectually stimulating discussions at work because some people might not like what they hear goes against my core values.  Allowing customers to impose unreasonable restrictions on my staff just because we want them to spend money with us is unfair.

So I revised my memo.  I told my staff to make sure that they always used respectful language when they were in the store.  I told them that it is absolutely unacceptable to say things which imply that certain groups of people are less valuable than others.  But as long as they are respectful and inclusive, they should feel absolutely free to discuss things amongst themselves which they find interesting.  Those sorts of discussions are what make work interesting.  They are how we bond as individuals and become a team.  And I told them that I wanted them to feel absolutely sure that, when it comes to their rights and freedoms, I back them up 100%.  

And then I told the customers that I had reviewed the incident and that my staff had not done anything out of line.  I pointed out that starting to apply restrictions on mentioning one religion but not another would put the company in a precarious legal position anyway, and as an atheist myself I certainly didn’t support putting restrictions on my non-Christian employees which didn’t apply to my Christian employees.

My hope is not so much that those customers reconsider their religious viewpoint.  I don’t really have any vested interest in converting others to my particular spiritual philosophy.  But I do have a vested interest in protecting everyone’s freedom of belief and expression.  If I don’t stand up for everyone’s freedom, I’m not standing up for my own.

Knowing is Half the Battle

Probably the most common question I get asked when people realize I don’t adhere to a mainstream religious tradition is what, exactly, I really believe.  It’s an interesting question for me to try to answer and, truthfully, I struggle with it because I don’t have a set of doctrines to list for the curious.  The whole point of my spiritual endeavor is to discover things, to think through things, to find truth for myself.  So even if I were to give a list of things I believe today, many of them might not apply in a month or a year or a decade.  

So, really, that’s my answer.  Knowledge changes, and belief is based on knowledge, so my beliefs might change over time.  But I absolutely believe that the search for knowledge and the effort spent trying to put that knowledge into perspective in order to achieve understanding is the most worthwhile activity which can be undertaken by humankind.

The one absolute truth I have been able to consistently use as a way of describing my spiritual viewpoint is this:  

The amount of knowledge we possess as a species is only a minuscule fraction of all the knowledge it is possible to possess in the universe.  

What that means for me, spiritually, is that it is the responsibility of every single human to learn as much as they can possibly learn.  If I want to elevate my spirit, to connect to the universe, to leave behind some kind of positive influence on society, the first and possibly only step in that process is to learn.  I seek to collect facts, acquire skills, spend time thinking and thinking about thinking.  That is why I read and write, make things and talk to people.  I think if we really pay attention, our entire existence can be happily focused on filling our heads with knowledge and figuring out how to use what we learn.  

Beyond that, I don’t really have any ultimate, unquestionable truths.  

That one concept, though, easily becomes an entire way of life.  If the whole point of life is to learn more things, it follows that we should look at all sorts of things as learning experiences rather than trials and tribulations.  Change is good because change teaches us things.  Teaching others is valuable because teaching often deepens our own understanding.  If every person has a different amount of knowledge, then we can all learn something from every other person we encounter.  The quest for knowledge can easily transform a person’s life.

Teach a Man to Fish…

I have known a lot of people who live by a spiritual code which teaches them that to help others is the most important thing to do in life.  It’s an honorable code by which to live, and I agree with the sentiment.  But I’ve also known a lot of people who live this to such an extreme that they fail to help themselves and, even worse, help others at the cost of their own health and wellbeing.  

Inevitably, this kind of pursuit leads to a life consumed by suffering and victimization, a constant state of sorrow brought on by a disconnect between the personal rewards one expects to get from being charitable and kind and the actual results of pouring oneself out to the point of emptiness.  We probably all have that friend who wonders why they always help everyone around them, but when they need help there is nobody to answer the call.  

I was recently talking to a friend who was going through such a situation, and they bemoaned the fact that they gave and gave and got nothing in return.  They expressed that the most important thing to them was the legacy they left behind; that they wanted the world to remember them as giving and charitable and loving and kind.  Not stepping up when volunteers were needed, not saying yes when people asked for favors, not giving when others expressed need might damage that legacy and brand them as selfish and stingy.

After the conversation, I got to thinking about this desire to leave a positive legacy.  I think it’s an extremely common desire in humanity, perhaps universal.  We want our lives to mean something, for those who come after us to remember us in positive terms.  We want to leave the world a better place than it was when we entered.

The thing is, we all leave a legacy whether we try to or not.  It may not be the legacy we wished to leave, either.  And one way or another, that legacy will have a positive net effect on human existence, even if we are remembered as a cautionary tale.  Even Hitler’s legacy has a positive side, in that we now live in a world which seeks to prevent such hatred and genocide.  The world’s eyes were opened just that much more.

Furthermore, our legacy has less to do with our actions than what our stories teach others.  My friend sought to leave a legacy of generosity and compassion.  But if those around him look at his life they are more likely to learn that there is a price to pay for giving too much, that helping doesn’t always take the form of fulfilling every request.  And that is a positive legacy, too, but not the one he hopes to leave.  

Maybe, then, if we wish to leave a positive legacy when we are gone, we should be more concerned with being an example than being a resource.  We should think more about what we can show others than what we can bequeath to them.  It’s nice to build something to leave to the next generation, but even more beneficial to teach the next generation to build.  It’s great to be remembered as loving, but better to be remembered as the one who taught how to love.