289. the Harold experiment

For those who read my blogger blog (I also mirror my posts on MySpace), I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I’ve started tagging some of my posts. One of the tags is called The Harold Experiment and those posts are all about my ex-coworker whom I code-named “Harold.” I labeled it an “experiment” because after a while, that’s how it felt.

(Brief synopsis – if you’re up on the situation, feel free to skip this paragraph.) See, I work in a small, specialized department of a much larger warehouse where it’s just me and Harold. Harold is difficult to work with. He’s not efficient, he can’t (doesn’t) prioritize projects, has a very short temper, and while I wouldn’t go so far as to say he’s lazy…I take that back, he’s pretty lazy. He’s also not much of a team player – unless you consider dumping all of the hard work on your coworker (me) teamwork.

It would have been really easy on numerous occasions for me to have reported Harold to my supervisors, and it was hard not to but at some point I came to see our little specialized department as a kind of laboratory and my interactions with him as a kind of experiment. I mean, I didn’t think of it that way at the time, but looking back on it, that’s an apt way to put it. It was a test to see if living out the Gospel in the way I had come to understand it really worked.

See, I’ve done a lot of thinking in the last few years about what it really means to live as a christian. One of the ways of understanding the Gospel that has been key to me is the idea that being a christian means living now the way I would if the fall had never happened or the way I will after Christ returns and redeems all of creation. So my little experiment involved trying my best to work with Harold as if he was a kick-ass, hard driving uber-worker even though he was the opposite of that.

That meant I had to bite my tongue a lot. There were so many instances where I wanted to blow up at Harold, shove his shitty work habits back in his face but I didn’t. When his lack of initiative left unfinished projects strewn about, instead of letting them slip past deadline and pointing towards Harold when asked who was to blame, I stepped in and finished them for him. There were even a couple of occasions where I flat out caught him taking shortcuts that were clearly breaking company rules but instead of reporting him, I just told him I knew what he was doing and asked him not to go there again (and to his credit, he never did…at least I never caught him doing it again).

I don’t mean to paint myself as a saint in this situation. I bitched a lot about Harold to some of the other people I worked with and of course I’ve dished it out in this blog but honestly, I did the best I could. And it’s not like I had anything like a holy or reverent attitude about this little experiment. Especially in the past few months, it felt stupid and pointless because no matter how many times I finished his projects or cleaned up his mistakes, he just kept being his slow and lazy and unorganized self.

You know, looking back on it now, I’m not sure what I expected to get out of this little experiment. I mean, I did my best to not think about how unfair the situation was, how little he was working, how his lack of consideration made my job more difficult that it had to be, but I don’t know if I ever expected anything to change. I just did my best to soldier on and do the job as if working for the Lord and not for Leroy (code name for my supervisor). I did my best to be Jesus to Harold.

It’s probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done. And it took its toll on me. In the last couple months, there have been times when I’ve been working in the racks and I found myself punching the shit out of some of the boxes. See, in the racks, boxes are stacked three high and three deep. Sometimes the file you need is buried back in the last set of boxes and when you try to get it out, boxes in adjacent stacks get in the way and so you have to push them aside to get the box you want out. Normally all you have to do is tap the offending box a bit to make room but there were times when a kind of rage took over and I would start slamming the box with my fist, over and over again, as hard as I could.

The scariest part of this is that these little rage episodes didn’t always coincide with Harold pissing me off. Sometimes it would just be an ordinary day where Harold and I were working on different things and everything would be fine until I’d run across some small, insignificant situation and all of a sudden I’m overtaken by an urge to throw something across the room or kick in the side of a box. Not like me at all.

And I’ve only been working there for a year. Harold’s been there for five years so maybe it’s no wonder that he’s the way he is. But then again, Harold never had to work with a Harold.

Anyway, this past Friday was my last day working with Harold because he has the next week off (my last week at work). Normally I don’t like goodbyes but I was really looking forward to the end of Friday because I knew that was going to be the last time I’d ever have to work with him. The day goes by like any other – me working like a dog and Harold working like a tree but in the last few minutes, Harold motions me aside and while I can’t remember the exact words, he says something like:

“Randall, I’ve learned a lot from you.”

Now I’m thinking he’s talking about some of the work flow things that I’ve developed to streamline the process of getting orders pulled and out on time but then he continues,

“your work ethic and the way you treat people, I’ve never seen anything like it before and it’s taught me a lot and I want to thank you. I know I’m not the easiest person to work with but you’ve really shown me something and I’m going to try to use some of what I’ve seen in you. So thanks, and I hope things go well for you at your new job.”

I don’t know how I kept myself from fainting or just staring at him with a blank look of disbelief. Instead, I shook his hand, thanked him for his kind words and wished him the best as well. He then walked out of our department, clocked out, and went home.

I couldn’t believe it. That was probably one of the most stunning things anyone has ever said to me. All this time I thought he wasn’t paying any attention. I thought, if anything, he was just taking advantage of my drive.

Earlier that day, I had been thinking a bit about what I was going to say to Harold when he left. I knew I wasn’t going to lie to him and say something like, “it was a pleasure working with you,” because it wasn’t. I didn’t know what I was going to say to him, I figured I’d just come up with something when that time came around. Actually, to be honest, when I did think of Harold these past couple days, I was relishing the thought of all the workload that I’d been shouldering falling squarely on him. I mean, we are training someone to take my place but she’s new and so if anything, she’ll be a drag on his productivity. I imagined our department full of boxes that weren’t getting put away, orders that weren’t getting pulled on time or correctly. I imagined the CSRs and supervisors coming down hard on Harold and once all that pressure hit his notoriously short temper, I pictured some really volatile, explosive situations.

I felt pretty stupid and evil and guilty for these thoughts after what Harold said.

I thought my little experiment was a failure, that soldiering on despite Harold’s sloth was fruitless and futile. I thought I was a dolt for not complaining when I had the chance. I thought I was just banging my head against a wall that wouldn’t budge.

But what if during all this time when I thought I was firing blanks I was actua
lly planting seeds?

Of course the cynical side of me says he’s just talk – that he’s going to remain his slow, unorganized self, that he’s going to push the bulk of the work on the new trainee. But what if some change does occur? What if he’s been watching me closer that I ever considered? What if God’s somehow used me to upset his world-view, showing him that there is another way to live? I mean, he’s not exactly an effusive guy. Something must have been on his mind for him to open up the way he did. He could have easily just said, “good bye and good luck.”

I don’t know. My head is still reeling from the shock of what he said. I don’t know if I’ll ever see him again. I gave him my number because earlier this week he had mentioned that he was going to use his week off to try and find a new place to live so I gave him my number and told him I’d help him move if he needed it. Maybe he’ll call, maybe he won’t.

I don’t know what’s in store for Harold and I’m still processing the results of this little “experiment,” but a part of me wants to believe that God will grow this little seed and give Harold new life. He doesn’t have to be his crusty old self, that’s just the hard, ugly shell that sin has painted over him.

And I don’t know if not reporting his poor work habits was really the best way to live out the Kingdom of God (something I define as doing your best to make wherever you are a bit more like Eden and less like Babylon in whatever way you can). One thing I completely failed to consider is the work situation for the person who would take my place. If Harold remains anything like he was when I worked for him then Newbie is in for a world of hurt. Perhaps if I had known that I was going to be resigning for a new job a few months ago I would have worked more purposely at getting Harold to clean up his act so that the next person wouldn’t have to face the brunt of his poor work ethic.

Again, I don’t know.

But here’s one thing I do know. God used me to make an impression on Harold and I don’t know what God has in store for him but I feel humbled and blessed that I got to play a part.

Perhaps you’ve heard the phrase attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, “Preach the Gospel at all times. Use words if necessary.” A brief Google search turned up this link that suggests that it’s not really something St. Francis said, but the story surrounding the quote is useful here so I’m going to use it anyway – because even fiction can be instructive (sometimes more so than the truth).

Story goes that St. Francis took a trip out to the local village with the members of his monastery. When asked why they were going, he told them they were going to preach the Gospel. Once in the village, St. Francis started assigning fellow monks to tasks like fixing roofs and broken fences, helping farmers haul bags of wheat, helping people haul water, sweeping and cleaning dirty streets. They spent their whole day just helping the villagers in whatever way they could.

Late in the afternoon, one of the monks asked St. Francis, “when are we going to start preaching?” And that’s when he supposedly replied, “Preach the gospel always. Use words if necessary.”

I share this story because I wonder if in my imperfect, clumsy way, I’ve been able to preach the Gospel to Harold. I never shared the Four Spiritual Laws with him or asked him to pray the Sinner’s Prayer, and I don’t know if I’ve ever told him flat out that I’m a christian but he knows I go to church and I hope I’ve been able to share Jesus with him through the way I’ve worked.

I don’t know. My (ongoing) Layman’s Theology series is all about a way of understanding the Gospel that has made christianity rich and meaningful for me and there are many areas of my life where I’m trying to figure out how to turn thought and theory into lifestyle and application. My little Harold experiment was a part of this exploration and, thanks be to God, it’s returned a surprisingly positive result.

Further study needed to verify long term effects of experimental data but that’s (literally) not my job.

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281. tell me about love (part 1)

You know, it’s happened twice already. I write about some frustrating situation at work and through the process of venting on the page, I come to some epiphany that helps make sense of what I do (see blog 267 and 277). But you know, despite these new insights, somehow my coworker seems to find innovative new ways to just plain piss me off.

I don’t really want to get into the latest ways he’s been getting on my nerves. I want to delve a bit deeper into what I wrote about in my last post about work. In that entry, I talked about how I decided to try my best to treat Harold as a hard-working peer even though he’s actually a hardly-working one. And for a couple weeks, it went really well. I mean, he didn’t work any harder or faster but he seemed to be in a better mood. As for myself, because I wasn’t always scrutinizing Harold – watching him out of the corner of my eye to catalog all the ways he wasn’t working – I was able to relax as well and just do my job.

But you know, just when I think I’ve seen the limits of his poor work ethic and lack of empathy for the amount of work I put in, Harold somehow manages to find a new way to just frustrate the hell out of me.

But that’s not what I want to talk about because it’s really just more of the same ole situation.

There’s something else I’ve been thinking about. See, the reason I decided to try and treat Harold as a peer was because I took a fresh look at some of the things Jesus said in the Gospels – in particular, the bit where he talks about loving your neighbor as yourself and loving the less than perfect the way God loves us.

And the bit that’s tripping me up is that word, “love.”

In 1 Corinthians 13:1-3, Paul talks about how doing what seems like holy work without love is equivalent to banging a cheap cymbal. And then he goes on to describe love in that passage you hear at so many weddings (appropriately so, I might add):

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Now if those are the elements of love then how am I doing at work with Harold?

1. patient – most of the time (1).
2. kind – try to be (1).
3. does not envy – there are times when I wish I could just sit around instead of breaking my back lifting boxes but besides that, there’s not a whole lot about Harold that I envy (1).
4. does not boast, is not proud – I sometimes complain to one of our drivers, telling him how much work I’ve done that day compared to Harold so I guess I fail on this one (0).
5. is not rude – nope, not me (1).
6. is not self-seeking – nah…although I’m hoping for a generous raise once my yearly review comes around (1).
7. not easily angered – that’s me (1).
8. keeps no record of wrongs – I try to forgive and forget but it’s hard when Harold keeps reminding me (0).
9. does not delight in evil – I don’t like evil (1).
10. rejoices with the truth – that’s why I blog (1).
11. always protects – well, I haven’t reported my complaints about Harold to my boss yet, does that count as protecting him (0)?
12. always trusts – I don’t trust Harold (0).
13. always hopes – I do hope he’ll do better (1).
14. always perseveres – well, I’m still working there…(1)

Ten out of fourteen ain’t bad right?

But here’s the thing I’ve been thinking about. Is living out the qualities of love that Paul lays out really love? I don’t think so. The qualities that Paul lists are like signposts or indicators that show that a person is motivated by love. In this way, I think it’s an all or nothing list.

Here’s what I mean. Pregnancy tests work not by going in and verifying that an egg has been fertilized and has attached itself successfully to the uterine wall, they work by detecting the chemical/hormonal changes that take place once those things have happened. In other words, the test doesn’t verify actual conception, it tests for signs that conception has occurred. Now in order to weed out false positives, the tests look for a multitude of indicators. If it doesn’t find all the right signs, it returns a negative result. (Don’t ask me how I know this.)

So I picture Paul writing this letter to the Corinthians and he comes up with this list of qualities that describe someone motivated by love. This is the last thing he writes in this letter and it’s pretty long already so I’m thinking he’s not all that interested in compiling a comprehensive inventory. Instead, he highlights the sure-things, the things that have to be there if someone is truly motivated by love. So these are the essentials, the bare minimums, and like the pregnancy test, if you ain’t got all the signs, you ain’t really lovin’.

There’s another reason I know I don’t treat Harold with love. I have zero respect for the guy. I don’t know how to respect someone who consistently takes on the lightest workload possible (leaving me to do the heavy lifting), someone who doesn’t check his work (twice in the past couple months I’ve had to hunt through the shelves to find boxes that Harold scanned in wrong), someone who complains when a rush order comes in because it means he’ll have to get up out of his chair and actually do something (since I’m probably already out in the racks working on something else).

But he’s my neighbor and Jesus wants me to be Jesus to Harold.

It’s so hard to remember that Harold has been fearfully and lovingly made by God, that he is not beyond redemption. It’s so hard to look past all the sin that’s distorting the beauty God gave him. But that is my job as a christian.

I don’t know.

Tell me about love. How do I love this guy? Does going through the motions of love count for anything? What would loving Harold look like?

268. injury plus insult

Another update on the work situation.

So, um, guess who won the Employee of the Quarter award last week? I’ll give you a hint: it wasn’t me.

Yeah, so last week Harold was christened Employee of the Quarter. Harold: I’ll-do-the-easy-work-first-and-hope-that-someone-else-does-the-hard-bit Harold, take-a-break-whenever-you-can Harold, hoard-a-bunch-of-the-blue-carts-even-though-other-departments-need-them-more-than-we-do Harold.

Speaking of blue carts…no, I’ll get to that in a second.

First I just want to make something clear. The thing that grinds me the wrong way isn’t the fact that I didn’t win Employee of the Quarter. I don’t care about the award. It’s the fact that HAROLD won because if Harold is an example of what my company considers an employee to be lauded, to be identified as a kind of ideal (because that’s what these awards are supposed to do right?) then…then..then I honestly don’t know what to say. When Harold told me about it I congratulated him with a smile then walked down one of the rows of boxes where he couldn’t see me and then I…well, I didn’t know what to do because it all seemed so surreal. I just shook my head and went back to stacking boxes.

The rest of the day went by in a kind of daze but late in the afternoon I got a message saying that people had been noticing a number of blue carts in our department – these are heavy duty blue dollies used to move boxes around the warehouse. Late in the afternoon, all the orders that are due to go out the next day get printed out and get distributed among the workers. If you get your list of orders and can’t find a cart for yourself then life sucks for you.

In our department, I’d been noticing that we had a surplus of these carts but Harold guarded them jealously and I wasn’t about to risk pissing him off by suggesting that we share them. Well, I guess word finally got out to the other departments and the same afternoon when Harold won the EOQ award,I got the message to give up a couple of our carts. I told them, “no problem, I’ll wheel them over myself.”

Thankfully, Harold had gone home by the time I got the request so I didn’t have to tell him we were getting rid of some of our carts but as I was wheeling them out to the department that was requesting them, I noticed a bunch of people giving me stink eye (a Hawaiian Pigeon English term – I think in the mainland it’s called the hairy eyeball or the evil eye). See they probably thought that both Harold AND I were hoarding all the carts for ourselves. Thing is, I’ve never brought a cart into our department, and while I’ve never actually seen Harold bring a cart into our department, there’s only two of us in our department so who else could it have been? Oh, that and the fact that he’s told me on a couple occasions that he’s grabbed some carts for our section.

So here I am, wheeling these carts out so other people can use them and people are looking at me with a gaze that says, “hey asshole, thanks for finally sharing those with the rest of us.” And I wanted to tell them that I wasn’t the one stealing them. I wanted to tell them that Mr. Employee of the Quarter was the one filching them but I bit my tongue and just put the carts back where they belonged.

Injury plus insult makes for a pretty severe test of my spreading-the-Kingdom-in-secret philosophy. Truth be told, I’ve been noticing this week that it’s been harder than usual to keep myself motivated enough to work to the standard I set for myself, and it’s usually hard enough as it is.

But I’ve been thinking about the passage in Matthew 11:28-30 where Jesus tells us that his yoke is easy and his burden is light. I notice that he didn’t say, “my hammock is comfortable and my pillow is fluffy.” Even though he promises rest for our soul, it still requires a yoke and a burden, easy and light as they are.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that even though that day last week did its best to upset me, I’m soldiering on as best I can.

267. two quotes

Update on the work situation, Harold has inexplicably been doing better. He’s been getting more work done and with fewer errors which is a relief to me because a nuclear bomb of a project just got dumped on our section and we both need to be operating at full capacity to get it all done on time.

Maybe this sounds bizarre but even though my job doesn’t involve much personal interaction (most of my day is spent with boxes and files), I’ve come to believe that doing my job with excellence is just as valid a way of spreading the Kingdom of God as any. Here’s what I mean.

Being an agent for the Kingdom (aka being a Christian) means making the world around you a bit more ordered and beautiful than when you found it and doing this as often as you can in whatever way you can. I used to think that doing Kingdom work only counted when you were working with people (preferably widows, orphans, and/or the poor). This thought always troubled me because I’m a pretty introverted person – meeting new people stresses me out and I hate making small talk. As an introvert, I used to think that I was useless as a Christian since I don’t like talking to people on planes or while waiting in line at the bank or at the grocery store.

I’m not sure how I came to see things differently but I’ve come to the conclusion that spreading the Kingdom of God involves ANY activity that makes the world look or feel more like it would if the Fall had never happened. For me at my workplace, this means that when I take a few extra seconds (and that’s usually all it takes) to straighten up files in a box (instead of leaving them cluttered), I’m doing a bit of Kingdom work. When I tape up a box that’s about to fall apart instead of just throwing it back up on the shelf they way everyone else would, that’s Kingdom work.

Some might question how doing this very impersonal work counts as fulfilling The Great Commission and while the results aren’t as tangible as, say, a Billy Graham crusade, it’s the bit of the world where God has placed me and I will tend to it as best as I know how. That is what it is to be a Christian. That is how God’s will gets done on earth as it is in heaven.

But, some might object, it’s just a box of files.

Yeah, it’s just a box of files but you know what? When I initially opened that box of files and saw how messy it was, I felt shat upon because the person who had been at that box last didn’t care enough about the next person to leave it in an orderly fashion. I like to think that when I take that little bit of extra time to straighten up the files before putting the box back, that when the next person pulls that box out they will be surprised by how nice it is inside and how easy it is to flip through the contents to find the file they need.

Now our warehouse holds millions of boxes and tens of millions of files so it sounds stupid of me to say that my tidying up the hundred or so boxes per day that I deal with makes any discernible difference. And it’s not like people can tell who straightened up a box or even that the box was straightened up at all – for all they know, the box just arrived from the client and so it had never been messy or out of order before they got to it.

True enough but take a look at Matthew 6:1-15 – a portion of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus outlines the agenda of his Kingdom. There’s a lot of talk about not doing things for show but doing things in such a way that only God sees the good that you do. I don’t think this doing-things-in-secret only applies to giving alms and praying. I think it applies to each and every area of our lives. Sure, I might never get credit for all the tidying up I do, but it’s not about getting credit. It’s about doing the right thing even if (especially when) God is the only one watching.

Now before you get the wrong idea, let me confess that I’m not always up to the task. Sometimes because of a looming deadline, sometimes because I’m just too lazy, sometimes because I’m just not in the mood, I do leave a box as messy as when I found it. My bad.

Two quotes that help me work the way that I do:

First, Mahatma Ghandi said, “You must be the change you want to see in the world.”

I think of what an amazing place work would be if everyone treated boxes and files the way I do when I am at my best. That would kick ass but I’m not holding my breath.

That’s where the other quote keeps me going.

In her book, Plan B: Further Thoughts On Faith, Anne Lamott writes about the nonviolent social activist, A.J. Muste and how during the Vietnam War, he stood outside the White House holding a candle night after night. On one of these nights a reporter asked Muste if he really thought his vigil would change the policies of the United States.

Muste replied, “Oh, I don’t do it to change the country, I do it so the country won’t change me.”

In my previous post, I talked a bit about how I felt like work was changing me into someone I wasn’t. Muste’s quote is a bulwark against that tide. Maybe no one will ever notice the work I do to keep boxes neat and tidy. That doesn’t matter because I’m not doing it to get noticed. I’m doing it so that this relentless, impersonal job doesn’t change me. And that’s far more important than recognition.

266. work sucks

(Note to self, try writing shorter posts and maybe you’ll post more often.)

Lately, I’ve really been hating my time at work. Mine was never a job I took for fun or fulfillment, rather I purposely took on a relatively menial, brainless job so I could save my creative energies for after work. Thing I’ve been finding though is that when you spend eight hours per day, five days a week on meaningless work, that meaningless tends to cling to your psyche – kind of like the black alien goo (Venom) that takes over people in Spiderman 3, only without the superpowers or the cool costume.

Now I’ve been at unfulfilling jobs before but the big difference between this job and those jobs is that I’ve never felt so unappreciated and unimportant – basically disposable. But honestly, that’s not a huge deal. I pretty much expected that. What really grinds me about this job is my coworker – let’s call him Harold.

Normally I don’t like to dis on people, but the fact is, this guy is unorganized, impatient, selfish, and while I wouldn’t go so far as to say he’s lazy, he certainly doesn’t know how to prioritize. Given the choice between tackling a difficult task with a looming deadline or doing something easier that’s due a few days later, he’ll take the easy way. Oh, and he likes to start stuff but he doesn’t like to follow through and finish. Couple this with his lack of organizational skills and off the top of my head I can name three projects that should have been done from start to finish that were only started.

All this pisses me off because one, it makes me look bad because it looks as if our section doesn’t have its shit together and two, it makes my work that much harder because his unfinished projects impinge on my ability to get my own work done.

A few months ago, I would just go in and finish his half-baked projects just to get them off the board but I’m sick of it and I’m not going to keep saving his ass.

But.

But this isn’t like me and I don’t like what this situation is doing to me.

Normally, I go out of my way to help and at first, that’s what I did with Harold. Helping him finish his work made our department look on top of things and it also made work run more smoothly for me (because things were organized). But I started to realize that I was enabling Harold’s sloppy work ethic so recently I’ve started to leave him to his own devices, even if I knew a train-wreck would result, even if I knew we’d both be left scrambling when crunch time came around.

Letting things go to hell like this isn’t me and I’m wondering if not being me at work is leading to me not being me outside of work as well.

Here’s what I mean.

When Harold does a half-assed job, I suppose it’s because he doesn’t give a shit. But I do. As a Christian, I work as if I’m working for God, not for my supervisor (Colossians 3:22-24). Now maybe this is taking the idea too far but when I think of “working for the Lord,” I lump in the section I work in as a part of that so in a way, when I stop saving Harold’s ass all the time and thus let things get a bit more sloppy than I would like (but still within company standards), I feel like I’m not being true to myself or my calling. Does that make any sense?

I suppose I should bring some of my issues up with Harold, but here’s the thing. He’s been with the company for more than five years whereas I have yet to make one year here. Who am I to tell him how to do his job? Well then I could talk to my supervisor about the situation but it’s just Harold and I in our section of the company and if the supervisor comes down hard on Harold because of something I say, that could make a lame work environment downright hostile (did I mention that Harold has a really short fuse?) And again, ratting people out is also not normally a part of my personality and so I feel like I’m stuck in a bind.

(note to self, try writing shorter posts)