A few months back, my wife and I were exposed to the type of trauma that no one wants to endure. As with new hurts, pain continues fresh each day. Though not as heinous as day one or week two, mornings bring a struggle which often carry through to interrupted nights; even to the question of what tonight might bring with hard thoughts and difficulty resting.
As a Christian man, I turn to prayer and the power (if not wisdom) of Scripture and seek comfort from Jesus, who has been called "The Suffering Savior". In my years of church teaching, I heard that because Jesus has been through misery He can sympathize with us. As a human, however, it is not so simple to rely on an unseen source of strength. Curiously, I probably received the best encouragement in this from a different Jew than Jesus - Dan Ariely.
As a teen, Ariely caught the blast of a magnesium flare, resulting in burns over 70% of his body. Years of surgeries and dreadful therapy are detailed in his books, including Predictably Irrational. While Ariely typically writes of the behavioral aspects of economics, I was struck by how he applied his pain to our purchasing tendencies. Ariely wrote about adaptation, pointing out that humans are unaware of our own elastic nature. In the same way that we get tired of a new car or children set aside presents the day after Christmas, we are also able in time to swim in the current of trauma. In the first moments of pain, we cannot imagine what normalization lies beyond. The person who loses sight or limb believes this to be the end of life, but eventually forges a new existence, albeit changed. Laughing, loving, and joy will certainly follow, though these may be impossible to perceive in the initial days of injury. Ariely also wrote of "the unpredictability of not knowing when the pain will start or ease off; or to the benefits of being comforted with the possibility that the pain would be reduced over time."
In other words, anguish intensifies when its end is beyond sight. Strength is at hand if we could only know the timetable for relief.
I know this well, and have preached it to others; the heartache is different in a year, the loss is lessened and perhaps a faint memory over time. I have advised friends that, though the sorrow is great now, they ought to think on an inevitable time when it has waned. When my mother died years ago, I had already mourned her presence due to the disease and drugs which made her little more than a living body. I think fondly of her many years later, and life continues without the intense sorrow. But with a new tragedy comes forgetfulness and a feeling that "this is different". Somehow I have lost the lesson.
In the midst of affliction, work product diminishes as focus can become foggy. Having listened to soldiers returning from combat, I can vaguely identify with the feeling that one's daily routine is meaningless when previously witnessing life-and-death occurrences. They may ask, "How can my boss expect me to produce when I have watched friends die not long ago?" Business reports pale next to ultimate matters. My circumstances are not the same, but express themselves on a lesser plane.
Real life often interrupts work life. Performance-based fields can be uncaring, so when deadlines are missed no one should expect a compassionate ear for personal reasons why. A friend once asked my opinion on moving to a part time schedule to care for her children. My honest response was that a part time collaborator ceases to be considered one of the full time team. While sympathizing with her plight, I saw a bottom line industry that places value on contribution regardless of obstacles.
When personal struggles invade the workplace:
Work with fallible people. As it is possible, seek out management and work atmospheres that recognize you as human. I have heard many authority figures say that family comes first, and I have relished the few who mean it. Beware the singularly-minded, driven alpha boss who demands a physically impossible 110% or a cut-throat atmosphere that will never allow for the frailty of humans.
Put goodwill in your bank. Establish a reputation as a solid, devoted worker so that you can draw on this reservoir when hardships come. The dependable employee is more likely to be excused during calamity than the unreliable. Whether the Boy Who Cried Wolf or the Boy Who Called In Sick All The Time, if not dedicated when required we will be drawing on an empty account during real personal adversity.
Focus on the future. There will be a day when the pain ends, the fog lifts, and the wounds heal. Just as exercise tears muscle to build it stronger, calamity will strengthen your soul. Ariely writes, "Resilience is often considered a process that occurs in spite of adversity, but we might want to instead think of it as a phenomenon that appears because of adversity. Indeed, we can become even more physically and mentally capable as a result of our misfortunes."
Elliot Anderson is the pseudonym of a midwestern father and writer who wishes work were not such a painful place for people. He believes if leaders would invoke simple courtesies, they could help employees thrive. As a team player, he brings joy to his workplace by cracking jokes and sharing food. He’s worked in both nonprofit and government organizations. He studied religion, journalism, and intercultural studies. Though you won’t find Elliot on social channels, he will respond to comments on his articles here.