Personal Business

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Is it okay to use business hours to email coworkers about personal things? I have a friend who's decided it is not okay. I don't know the details about the decision; maybe things were getting out of hand, and work was taking a back seat to what felt like play. But it makes me think about my new general practitioner.

Most doctors have you fill out a tedious form outlining your physical history. The nurse hands you the form. You dutifully fill it in and hand it back to her. The doctor reads it when you're not looking. But all he really knows about you is what's written on the form.

Recently, I went to a doctor who took a noticeably different approach. Before the physical exam, he sat with me for a long time, asking all sorts of questions I could have just as easily penned answers to on a form. Okay, the question about my hobbies probably wouldn't have been on the form; he was interested that I'm learning to play piano and cello. He took down the name of my book, and we had a very amusing conversation about one of the reasons I was privileged to write that book (I have 18 siblings—steps, halves, and otherwise—but that's a story in itself). We talked about the kinds of exercise I do. Oh, and that turned out to be unexpectedly important, as he had a theory that one exercise I'm doing might be aggravating my leg.

The book of Ezra reminds me of my friend's email decision, and it reminds me of my new doctor. Not long ago, I wrote in my journal, “Why is the book of Ezra in the Bible?” Usually when I ask myself a question, I try to be cordial and attempt to answer. In the case of Ezra, I decided that (issues of divine intent and inspiration aside) it's in the Bible because it's history—the personal history of Israel. At least three of the chapters out of 10 contain lists of names . . . of people who strayed, of people who agreed to make a journey home.

Ezra records that when the foundation of the temple was laid, “people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people's weeping” (3:3). We hear not only about these emotions but also about fear, when “the people of the land discouraged the people of Judah, and made them afraid to build . . .” (4:4). Against the backdrop of all this history, we see business. Letters to and from the king and governor, exchange of goods like salt and silver, the appointment of magistrates and judges. And through it all, the hand of God quietly moving in halls of human power.

In its way, the book of Ezra is like my new doctor. Before talking salt and silver, it talks joy and tears, frailties and hopes. It weaves personal history with the execution of a major building project. Ezra suggests that maybe it's okay for my friend to talk about kids, music, or the latest cool fiction-read in a business email. Besides, “Researchers at IBM Research and MIT's Sloan School of Management [just] found that the average email contact was worth $948 in revenue.” (See Putting a Price on Social Connections.) Did those emails talk piano, cello, books, or 18 siblings? Maybe, maybe not. But my doctor, and the book of Ezra, suggest it might not have been such a bad idea.


L. L. Barkat is the author of Stone Crossings. Her blog is a member site of