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In an earlier post about reading my late mom’s diaries from the 1960s, I briefly mentioned how often she wrote about her weekly routine of doing “the work.”
“Grandma came down today and will be staying awhile. Did the work.”
“Did the work. Studied Geometry.”
“Did the work! Got a white long sleeved blouse at Westrates.”
“Did the work. Erwin Dykstra was killed in a car-truck accident this morning.”
“Did the work. Played piano a lot.”
Sometimes she called the work, “Saturday’s work.” It was the work of cleaning the house on Sunday-eve: bathrooms and kitchen, dusting and vacuuming. She carried the habit of weekly cleaning all the way to the end of her life. On her last weekend on this earth, a dear friend of hers came to stay and give respite to my dad and siblings. Part of the reason that I think my mom could relax into death that following week was because her friend did “the work”—cleaning her house from top to bottom. When everything was in its place and the fixtures and windows sparkled, Mom could rest.
I do not clean with the frequency of my mom, but I do get a deep satisfaction from everything being in its place. I particularly enjoy a freshly purged and organized drawer, shelf, or closet. I lament, though, that it takes so little time for those cleaned spaces to become cluttered once again. As I read in Mom’s diaries, witnessed in her life, and participated in as her little helper, “the work” is something that needs to happen over and over and over again. “The work” is never finished. It keeps needing to be done.
Brené Brown, in her Dare to Lead podcast, asks her guests a series of rapid-fire questions at the end of each of their interviews. One of the questions is: “What is the hard leadership lesson that you have to keep learning and unlearning and relearning?” In other words, we might say, what is “the work” for you? Abby Wambach’s work is to choose to do something instead of procrastinating. Barack Obama always needs to remind himself to take into account that people respond emotionally, rather than analytically. Adam Grant’s leadership lesson: you can’t bully people into changing their minds. Susan David needs to learn and relearn that courage is fear walking. Liz Wiseman keeps forgetting and remembering that things that are easy for her might not be easy for someone else. As a conflict avoider, Michael Bungay Stanier has to keep doing the work of naming problematic behaviour: “I’m just trying to be more and more courageous about naming the thing that’s not working, and with a spirit of generosity going, ‘We need to do something here.’” Charles Feltman has to keep attending to his shadow. “Humility has the shadow of arrogance, and if I don’t recognize where I’m arrogant, I can’t be fully and honestly humble when I need to.” In response to that Brené said, “Oh man, that shadow work is the work, isn’t it?”
The work. Doing things over and over and over again – and hopefully learning along the way.
For me, “the work” is that of self-differentiation. Ever since I learned what it meant to differentiate a self, this has been Saturday’s work for me – the lesson that I’ve had to learn and relearn again and again. To differentiate oneself means to be defined in who you are and connected to others at the same time. As my pastoral care professor, Ron Nydam, used to say, to be self-differentiated is to hold on to yourself, especially in the presence of those with whom you disagree. In every relationship and role and reality of my life, I ask, what does it mean to be defined, Heidi? How do you find your definition in God in this moment? And what does it mean to be connected to others, Heidi, without losing that definition?
That work of self-differentiation, when it is going well, feels like purging and organizing a junk drawer. At the end of the cleaning, each part is in its place and knows its purpose and relationship to the other parts.
Self-differentiation as definition and connection also reminds me of the work that Jesus called us to do. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength (this is the work of definition) and love your neighbour as yourself (this is the work of connection). This is the work that Jesus did. He defined himself, while staying connected. He connected with others without losing his definition.
This work requires learning, unlearning, and relearning. It is work that is never finished – always there for us to do. It’s Saturday’s work – in that it is both fuelled by and leads to Rest.
God bless you as you do the work today – whatever it is.