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Archive for the ‘work’ Category

This morning, I received an email from Afrigadget, a blog dedicated to showcasing how Africans solve everyday problems with incredible ingenuity.

This afternoon, I read a selection from “Why I Am Not a Pacificist” by C.S. Lewis. To me, the morning’s email and the afternoon’s reading felt very connected.

The email spotlighted an initiative which transformed a dump in a Nairobi, Kenya slum, into a community farm. Beyond such obvious obstacles as clearing the trash,

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there were other less obvious difficulties such as what to do about the high levels of lead, copper, zinc and boron.

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Part of the solution was to plant sunflowers, which leach the toxins out of the soil, in between the ordinary vegetables.  Check out this handy, made from recycled materials, planting tool:

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It is made from a hollow pipe with a stick tied onto the bottom of it for digging the hole and a yogurt container attached to the top for dropping the seeds down into. No stooping, no bending, no hard work digging.

And here’s an earthworm farm/composting pile for fertilizer:

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And the final product, three months after clearing the dump:

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And then, this from C.S. Lewis:

It may be asked whether, faint as the hope is of abolishing war by Pacifism, there is any other hope. But the question belongs to a mode of thought which I find quite alien to me. It consists in assuming that the great permanent miseries in human life must be curable if only we can find the right cure; and it then proceeds by elimination and concludes that whatever is left, however unlikely to prove a cure, must nevertheless do so. Hence the fanaticism of Marxists, Freudians, Eugenists, Spiritualists, Douglasites, Federal Unionists, Vegetarians, and all the rest. But I have received no assurance that anything we can do will eradicate suffering.

I think the best results are obtained by people who work quietly away at limited objectives, such as the abolition of the slave trade, or prison reform, or factory acts, or tuberculosis, not by those who think they can achieve universal justice, or health, or peace.

I think the art of life consists in tackling each immediate evil as well as we can. To avert or postpone one particular war by wise policy, or to render one particular campaign shorter by strength and skill or less terrible by mercy to the conquered and the civilians is more useful than all the proposals for universal peace that have ever been made; just as the dentist who can stop one toothache has deserved better of humanity than all the men who think they have some scheme for producing a perfectly healthy race.

I have come to no great conclusions, based on either the photo essay or the writings of C.S. Lewis. Both, however, have left me with much to ponder. Both challenge me to consider and ask questions about my own life.

What do you think? Do you know people who are making a difference in these kinds of ways (feel free to add your stories here)? Where are you in your thinking and acting? How do you interact with suffering and misery in the world around you? Do you get to work? Grieve? Turn away because it seems too overwhelming? Feel guilty? Or something else?

What direction does the Lewis quote send your mind in? Do you agree? Or disagree? Or some of both?

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For more information about  Kibera slum in which this field was planted, BBC has a four part article about it. The link is to the last selection, because it contains links to the other three parts as well.

Photos come from “Farming Innovations in a Slum” at Afrigadget and from the website Green Dreams Organic Farming in East Africa. This website follows the development of the farm in great detail.

The C. S. Lewis quote is from A Year with C.S. Lewis, October 19]

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Learning to Follow

Ann Patchett has some interesting thoughts in a little book called “What Now?” which was originally a graduation speech she gave at Sarah Lawrence College.

Receiving an education is a little like a garden snake swallowing a chicken egg: it’s in you but it takes a while to digest.”

I always appreciate a fun metaphor, and that one made me smile. I don’t know that that actually reflects my experience with education. I found that, regardless of what I specifically remembered from college, it changed me just hearing it and considering it.  So, there is a sense in which the impact was immediate, rather than something which came to full fruition later. But, in any case, the metaphor the author gives lays a nice groundwork for what she talks about next.

She is referring to her 12 years at an all girls’ Catholic school.

At the time, I thought that mine was the most ridiculous, antiquated secondary education in the history….I learned modesty, humility and how to make a decent white sauce. The white sauce I probably could have done without, but it turns out that modesty and humility mean a lot when you’re down on your luck.

Ann Patchett ended up waitressing for a long time between her graduation and actually beginning her successful career as a writer. At college and at writer’s school, her “specialness” had been emphasized.

I’m not knocking being special, it was nice to hear, but when it was clear that I was just like everybody else, I was glad to have had some experience with anonymity to fall back on. The nuns were not much on extolling the virtues of leadership. In fact, we were taught to follow.

Taught to follow. Is that taught very often? Does it seem hideous to even think about such a thing?

In a world that is flooded with children’s leadership camps and grown-up leadership seminars and bestselling books on leadership, I count myself as fortunate to have been taught a thing or two about following. Like leading, it is a skill, and unlike leading, it’s one that you’ll actually get to use on a daily basis.

My personality bent probably leads me more towards following or at the very least cooperativeness, rather than leading. Sometimes it has looked like something is wrong with me (or I’ve felt that way) because I just didn’t care about moving ahead when moving ahead meant getting to the top or taking charge. I appreciate what the author is saying here because it presents following as something other than a character flaw to be fixed or trained away or overcome.  And really, she does have a very good point:

It is senseless to think that at every moment of our lives we should all be the team captain, the class president, the general, the CEO, and yet so often this is what we’re being prepared for. No matter how many great ideas you might have about salad preparation or the reorganization of time cards, waitressing is not a leadership position…. You learn to be helpful and you learn to ask for help.

Ah, these words feel like a drink of refreshing water to me.

It turns out that most positions in life, even the big ones, aren’t really so much about leadership. Being successful, and certainly being happy, comes from honing your skills in working with other people. For the most part we travel in groups–you’re ahead of somebody for a while, then somebody’s ahead of you, a lot of people are beside you all the way. It’s what the nuns had always taught us: sing together, eat together, pray together.

It wasn’t until I found myself relying on my fellow waitress Regina to heat up my fudge sauce for me that I knew enough to be grateful not only for the help she was giving me but for the education that had prepared me to accept it. (quotes from pages 60 to 67)

These words made my brain go in at least two different directions: thinking about the surprising and unexpected ways that education affects us, and the whole concept of learning the skill of following. I’d love to hear your thoughts on these quotes. Are you naturally a leader or a follower? Have you found yourself in positions that require the opposite of your natural bent? And, if so, what kind of things have you found helpful for training you, either in leading or following?

It was just very nice to me to think about developing the skill of following. That feels like a whole lot less pressure to me than to try to figure out how to be the leader that I’ll never naturally be. Part of it, I think, is that we equate being a leader with influence. But, I think followers can be people of great and positive influence, too.

(This is one of many books I checked out this past weekend while visiting the library with a friend. I’m going to update my “To Read” page to reflect my current reading options.)

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rock and a hard place

This was the best visual I could find for expressing where I’m at emotionally today. Quitting is too costly. Keeping on going seems, well, pretty near impossible.

I thank God for the perspective of a friend who listened to me wail about being stuck today. Having a friend around when you’re stuck doesn’t necessarily mean you can or will get unstuck. It doesn’t automatically make the impossible seem possible. But a friend can bring perspective to the situation, even if it is just by stating the obvious so obviously that (1) I realize I really do have good reason to despair (i.e. I’m not crazy to be feeling overwhelmed) and (2) I can actually even laugh a little about it (I find it nearly impossible to laugh, alone, when I’m stuck. I have many good and funny friends, though, and I appreciate every little laugh they can eke out of me when I’m down).

It’s amazing how being able to lament with someone else about how hard things are can infuse a desperate situation with a ray of hope. A friend’s very presence reminds me that I’m not alone. One friend can be a tangible reminder of the many other people still in my life. And although I cannot defend or explain exactly how it works, a friend’s listening to my cries (and sometimes crying them with me) gives me courage to keep crying out to God and trusting Him, even in between a rock and a hard place.

Don’t ever underestimate the strength and courage you can give to someone who is stuck, by sitting with them, sharing in their grief and lamenting with them. You may or may not be able to help them see another solution to getting through or even out of their problems. But you honor their suffering by listening. You pass on courage and strength by grieving with them.

Okay, that’s enough philosophizing about pain and suffering and feeling stuck and wanting to quit and the importance of friends being there with you even if they can’t do any better than you can at getting yourself unstuck.

All that’s well and good, and I’m really grateful it’s true.

But,

(more…)

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Matthew Ward said this towards the end of his autobiography, which I recently finished reading:

“[The Lord] was the one with the music ministry, and He carried it out through us.”

In the church, I often hear people talk in terms of “This is my ministry.” Or, “This is the ministry God has called me to.” I appreciated the different perspective in the above quote.

What do you think? Am I making too big of a deal out of semantics? How would it change (or would it) the work you do, if you thought about it as God’s ministry being carried out through you vs. your ministry for God?

If you’re interested in reading more about The 2nd Chapter of Acts, I recommend the following lengthy article, “The Frame Never Outdid the Picture”.

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Ever since reading the book better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance by Atul Gawande, M.D., I have been asking myself the question expressed in the title of this post.

On the one hand, I am deeply  moved by the stories in the book where people (mainly in the medical field) refused to settle for the status quo and kept pushing themselves and those around them to do and be better.

On the other hand, I have seen people do harm to themselves and others because they are so driven to betterment–always striving, never satisfied.

Depending on which way you look at it “Always striving, never satisfied” can be a compliment or  a criticism.

Is there a place for both approaches to life? Are we wired differently? Some of us who can’t help but strive, while others seem gifted in settling into the space and context where they are, content in embracing their own realities, including limitations, without any urge to “rise above”?

I think about this, because as I mentioned in another post where I quoted extensively from this book, I saw many parallels with the author’s philosophy and how I often approach my vocation as a parent. As a parent, I feel the weight of how I parent. I feel the consequences of my parenting mistakes and also experience an earnest desire to do better. Yet, somewhere along the way, I have come up against a weariness in  trying to better my parenting skills. I read a lot, I talk to a lot of people, I take in what I observe other people doing. The list of ways I could improve and do “better” is endless. But, so it seems, are my limitations.

What I have to offer to my children is me–as is, strengths, weaknesses, weakness. I do want to become better as a parent, but I think my fingers have been loosening their grip on “better” as a goal. For me, when “better” is the goal, I seem to miss too many opportunities to be “okay” or “good enough”. 

At the same time, while I’m learning to settle for okay and good enough, I can’t seem to justify a solid, one-size-fits-all philosophy of “good enough”. There’s a place for it. But there’s also a place for better. Even for perpetual striving for better. I think where I’m at is being able to embrace my “good enough” tendencies without having to feel so pressured or less than when I’m surrounded by people who are “strivers for better”. 

I’ve seen (and read biographies of) people who have sacrificed everything–money, reputation, health–to do and be better. And I have incredible admiration and often personal gratitude for them (as their sacrifices have often made my life and life in general on planet earth better). I couldn’t be or do that, I don’t think. But neither can I condemn them in a blanket way, because I see the value and the gift and the large scale contributions they have made. Is it worth it? I guess one can never answer that question for another person.

Another question would be, “Is it worth it to NOT strive to be or do better?” As an American, it almost sounds blasphemous to answer that in the affirmative. But I want to say that sometimes I think it IS worth it.

I suppose it sounds waffly and very postmodern to say both perspectives are equally valuable and have their place. Both perspectives are good. Can they both be right?

Answering that with a “yes” makes me feel (yet again) the cognitive dissonance that is a regular companion of mine these days.

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Better

That’s the title of a a book I  just finished reading. It was an easy-to-read book which left me satisfied but also unsettled. Unsettled in a good way–asking questions, continuing to ponder what I read and its relevance to my own life.

There were several paragraphs in the introduction which seemed like they could be talking about my own life. Career-wise, I’m a lot of things right now. I don’t even really like thinking in terms of career, but since it makes things easier to have a word that refers to the things that we do, I’ll keep using the term. With that terminology, then, of all the things I do right now, Stay at Home Mom is at the center.

Thinking about that, then, I reread the introduction as if it were talking about me and my vocation of parenting.  Here are some rather lengthy quotes from the book with references to the specific profession removed. I’ll tell you at the end which career is being focused on in this book. If you are a parent, do these thoughts sound familiar? Does it resonate with those of you in different careers? 

What does it take to be good at something in which failure is so easy, so effortless? [When I was preparing for this career], my deepest concern was to become competent….

…Success in ______ has dimensions that cannot be found  on a playing field. For one, lives are on the line. Our decisions and omissions are therefore moral in nature. We also face daunting expectations….The steps are often uncertain. The knowledge to be mastered is both vast and incomplete. Yet we are expected to act with swiftness and consistency…for the care of a single person. We are also expected to do our work humanely with gentleness and concern. It’s not only the stakes but also the complexity of performance…that makes it so interesting and, at the same time, so unsettling. [This paragraph in particular rang true to me of the pressures and joys I experience as a Mom.]

….This is a book about performance in _____…. We must grapple with systems, resources, circumstances, people–and our own shortcomings, as well. We face obstacles of seemingly unending variety. Yet somehow we must advance, we must refine, we must improve. How we have and how we do is my subject here.

The sections of this book examine three core requirements for success in ________–or in any endeavor that involves risk and responsibility. The first is diligence, the necessity of giving sufficient attention to detail to avoid error and prevail against obstacles. Diligence seems an easy and minor virtue. (You just pay attention, right?) But it is neither. Diligence is both central to performance and fiendishly hard….

The second challenge is to do right. _______ is a fundamentally human profession. It is therefore forever troubled by human failings, failings like avarice, arrogance, insecurity, misunderstanding. In this section I consider some of our most uncomfortable questions….

The third requirement for success is ingenuity–thinking anew. Ingenuity is often misunderstood. It is not a matter of superior intelligence but of character. It demands more than anything a willingness to recognize failure, to not paper over the cracks, and to change. It arises from deliberate, even obsessive, reflection on failure and a constant searching for new solutions….

Betterment is a perpetual labor. The world is chaotic, disorganized, and vexing….To complicate matters, we…are also only human ourselves. We are distractible, weak, and given to our own concerns. Yet still, to live as a _____ is to live so that one’s life is bound up in others’ and in science and in the messy, complicated connection between the two. It is to live a life of responsibility. The question, then, is not whether one accepts the responsibility. Just by doing this work, one has. The question is, having accepted the responsibility, how one does such work well…. [quotes taken from pages 3-9 of the book Better, by Atul Gawande]

The author is a medical doctor and so that is the career he is looking at when he asks questions about betterment. His book is subtitled: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance.  The book is full of stories, with statistics and commentary (such as the above selections) woven throughout. It was a remarkably light read for dealing with such deep topics (I was able to follow it while exercising at the gym, which really says something about a book’s readability!)

Some questions I am asking at this end of reading the book include: What does it mean to improve? How can I improve what I do? Is better always better? Is the process of getting better or pursuing better always worth it? Can a person consciously and continuously seek betterment, while maintaining an attitude of calm at-peaceness with what they are able to do now (taking into consideration knowledge, abilities and resources)?

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