How to Survive Reaching the Edge of Heartbreak at Work

Blog / Produced by The High Calling
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You’ve been let go from your job. You cannot find a new job in your field. You dig into your savings to try out a new direction. You blow through your savings while this new direction turns out to be a dead end. No job; no money. A scenario like this (the true story of one of his friends) prompted Umair Haque, in one of his Harvard Business Review blog entries, to ask, “What do you do when you reach the edge of heartbreak?”

As I started writing this article for The High Calling, I was reminded of Mr. Haque’s question, and a little online symposium in Fieldnotes Magazine in which we asked a few former and current De Pree doctoral fellows to respond to that question. Two responses in particular reminded me of my own quest in search of a spirituality robust enough for the everyday challenges of work, leadership, and organizational life.

“What do you do when you reach the edge of heartbreak?”

Cory Willson, a current PhD student at Fuller Seminary with an MBA from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, wrote,

“Heartbreak is never easy. And when it comes to work, it is probably safe to say that Americans are more accustomed to talking about heartbreak over relationships than over their jobs. As humans, we are hardwired to work just as we are designed to be in relationship with others — after all, we bear the image of God the relater and worker. While unrequited love will continue to serve as grist for love ballads for the unforeseeable future, Umair Haque reminds us that we should not overlook work as a potential source of heartbreak. So what do I do when I reach the edge of heartbreak at work? I engage in the practices of lament and gratitude. Believe me, it is easier said than done.”

Ethnomusicologist Sooi-Ling Tan wrote,

“That is a difficult place to be in, when everything falls apart. I agree with Umair Haque about brutal honesty and absolute surrender as the initial necessary steps. There is a place for weeping and lament. Indeed, the Psalms are rife with deeply honest and sincere lament. Grieving enables me to put a ‘full stop’ or a ‘period’ to this particular phase. In order to move on, however, I find the need to tap into the larger narrative, the bigger picture and the idea of the whole journey.”

What We Need: A Robust Spirituality of Work

Cory and Sooi-Ling, in their responses to Umair Haque’s provocative question, point towards what we need for a robust spirituality for work. Eugene Peterson writes that spirituality “is always an operation of God in which our human lives are pulled into and made participants in the life of God, whether as lovers or rebels.” And this “marvelous work of salvation is presently taking place in our neighborhoods, in our families, in our governments, in our schools and businesses, in our hospitals, on the roads we drive and down the corridors we walk among the people whose names we know.”

Our spirituality is our set of orientations and practices that keep us alert to this ever-present work of the Spirit of God in our everyday lives. Our spirituality of work affords us the means by which we can attend to our everyday work as a terrain on which we encounter this work of God.

The Storyline of Wonder, Heartbreak, and Hope Found in the Psalms

As Sooi-Ling suggests, the Psalter—that gymnasium of the human heart—is a good place to work out a robust spirituality. In the regular praying of the Psalms, God’s poets school our hearts for the discernment of the Spirit in the vicissitudes of human life.

As David, paradigmatically, goes about the work of a king, he responds with wonder to the marvelous ways in which God has patterned creation (for example, in Psalm 19) and grows in wisdom, with intense heartbreak and repentance as he is confronted with the havoc his own willfully destructive exercise of authority has wreaked in the lives of those for whom he is responsible (for example, in Psalm 51), and with hope as he becomes aware of God intervening with comfort, rescue, and nourishment in a situation rife with fear and danger (for example, in Psalm 23).

The Psalms offer us paradigmatic examples for our subjective human responses of wonder, heartbreak, and hope (that is, to God’s great acts of creation, judgment, and redemption) and as such show us how “to tap into the larger narrative, the bigger picture and the idea of the whole journey,” as Sooi-Ling suggests.

The statistician familiar with Psalm 19 can delight in the patterns of big data as part of creation’s song of praise to God. The corporate raider upon her first encounter with Psalm 51 may finally, harrowingly, become aware of the human cost of her plundering. The pension fund manager faced with devastation by a poor set of investment decisions (or simply the hard constraints imposed by a recession), may nonetheless find solace and encouragement in the words of Psalm 23.

Cultivating Spiritual Practice when Times are Good

What you do when work brings you to the edge of heartbreak depends on what you have been doing while things have been going well. The Canadian novelist Douglas Coupland’s book The Gum Thief (2007) is made up of a series of diary entries shared between two people who work at a big box stationary store in the suburbs of Vancouver, British Columbia. In one of the entries the character Roger writes (with my emphasis—GS):

“A few years back I had to organize my son Brendan’s funeral. Joan was completely wrecked, and I was barely keeping it together. I remember sitting there with the funeral director, trying to think of what to say in the death notice or whom I could invite to speak. I drew a blank, and the director, an older guy—white hair, a head shaped like a stone dug out of a Scottish field, a guy who’d been through a trench or two—suggested that no-one had to speak and we could recite grade school stuff like The Lord’s Prayer. He said that most people know it by heart and we could all get through the proceedings with a sliver of dignity.

“He must have smelled my breath—tequila—because he looked at me a moment, then went to his desk and pulled out some very peaty Scotch, almost like soil syrup, and poured both of us a few fingers. He told me that most people who come to arrange services don’t believe in anything. He said that if he’s learned anything from doing his job, it’s that if you don’t have a spiritual practice in place when times are good, you can’t expect to suddenly develop one during a moment of crisis. He said we’re told by TV and movies and Reader’s Digest that a crisis will trigger massive personal change—and that those big changes will make the pain worthwhile. But from what he could see big change almost never happens. People simply feel lost. They have no idea what to say, or do, or feel, or think. They become messes and tend to remain messes. Having a few default hymns and prayers at least makes the lack of crisis-born insight bearable. That man was a true shepherd of souls. Why don’t men like him run for public office?”

To survive when we reach the edge of heartbreak at work, we need a spirituality that affords our being wonderstruck with awe at the evidence (surfacing in our work) of God’s world-ordering love, brutal in honest self-assessment when faced with the workplace consequences of our sin, error, and limitations, and bright with hope in Christ for the healing of the world, including the present “substantial healing” (as Francis Schaeffer called it) that God promises to bring about in, for, and through our own work.

The best way I know of beginning to get such “a spiritual practice in place when times are good,” rather than trying to “suddenly develop one during a moment of crisis,” is to start regularly praying through the Psalter—in common worship with your local church if you can, or on your own if you must.

Gideon Strauss is the executive director of the Max De Pree Center for Leadership at Fuller Theological Seminary and the editor of that center’s Fieldnotes Magazine.

Carrots image by Kathleen Overby. Used with permission. Sourced via Flickr.