Unavoidable Fact of Life #4: You must reconnect work and the human spirit in a new way.

Posted on | April 1, 2009 | Comments Off on Unavoidable Fact of Life #4: You must reconnect work and the human spirit in a new way.

Unavoidable Fact of Life # 4: You must reconnect work and the human spirit in a new way.

Our knee-jerk reflex when life isn’t going our way is to try to change what’s happening, to impose our will on life.  It rarely works.  As the French existentialist said, “In a fight with reality, bet on reality.”
David Whyte, a poet who consults with the senior executive teams of large corporations, puts it something like this: “The mind’s mission is to have power over life’s experiences; the human spirit’s mission is to have power through life’s experiences, regardless of what they may be.” [1] Power over is our default setting; learning to have power with is a new muscle altogether.  But apparently, we’ve been trying to overpower reality since the beginning of time.
In the colorful story in Genesis about how the world came to be, God is said to have offered humans a few guidelines for how to have a world that works.[2]  You could think of these as a planetary Operator’s Manual, like the booklet that comes with your new refrigerator.  At our house, when the thing’s not working, my last resort is to go back to the Operator’s Manual.  Maybe it’s time to look there for clues in our exploration of reconnecting work and the human spirit.  
Many people know the story, but I want to propose some alternative meanings for several key phrases which may make it more understandable-and useful.[3] Let’s take the story phrase by phrase.
“Be fruitful and multiply-and fill the earth. . .”  
We’ve sure got that one down!  Human population growth is nearly vertical.  I recall a plane trip recently from Florida to New England where I was never out of sight of some mass of lights.  The strip from Washington DC to Boston looked like one huge city, a megalopolis.  We are working hard at “filling” the earth, a power over concept if there ever was one.
But that Hebrew word, MaLe, translated “fill” here has another valence.  It’s the same word that’s used, for example, in Psalm 107, where the words speak of “filling the soul with good things.”  Here, as in other places, the sense of the word is not merely filling, in a quantitative way, but filling in a qualitative way.  It has the sense of “giving something of value” or “blessing” the one on the receiving end.  We are, in other words, meant to multiply, but also to make sure that we give something of value back to that which we are filling with our presence.  
Translation here in our context: Go ahead, get promoted, get higher up, take up more space, get the quantitative payoff, acquire more ‘stuff’, but give a qualitative blessing back to the organization and the people around you in the process.  Just make sure you also fill the space you take up with blessings for that which you displace. It’s a two-way flow of mutual benefit, not a one-way street.
“Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth; subdue it. . .”
You may have heard the phrase, “Let’s put the kaibosh on it,” meaning to crush, to kill or to put down.  That’s the most frequent translation of the Hebrew word, KaBaSH, another power over word.  But in other contexts, the word can mean “massage tenderly” as in the treatment of wounds, a kind of rubbing against in a healing way. Now that puts a different spin on things, doesn’t it?  

Translation here: First, multiply, but make sure you give back qualitatively to the earth which sustains you. Now: Interact with your people and the world tenderly, as if you were intending to heal with your presence.

“Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth; subdue it and have dominion over every living thing. . .”
This time the phrase appears to be completely straightforward and clearly favors the power over option. But again, there is another meaning which needs to be taken into account. The Hebrew verb here is RaDaH and is usually translated “to rule” or, literally, “to tread down.”  “To walk over” we might say today. But in the ancient Middle East there were many dikes used to control water to irrigate the arid land. Without the sluice gates and the person who moved the water around when needed, the land would have been worthless and people would have starved. The name for the person who played this crucial role, the one who made the water flow to provide life, was-get this-the RadaH!

Perhaps you’ve seen pictures of people in desert areas of the world, walking, (or you could say treading), on a paddle wheel which raises or pumps water up and into the irrigation ditch, facilitating the land’s capacity to grow and produce.  It’s still done today. I’ve seen it in Kenya’s Maasai Land. This person’s job is not to rule over the land under their feet, but to use their feet to facilitate the land’s capacity to produce what it needs to produce.  Definitely a power with concept.

Now the instructions in the Operator’s Manual become:

  1. Multiply, but make sure you give back qualitatively to the world which sustains you quantitatively.   
  2. Interact with-rub up against-your world tenderly, as if you mean to heal it with your presence.   
  3. Use your hands and feet to facilitate the development and productive capability of everything-and everyone-you are responsible for.

The Outer and the Inner Game
Not long ago, I was in Wisconsin offering a seminar to members of the Young Presidents Organization (YPO). The day before I was to go on, I had the pleasure of sitting in on a seminar led by Tim Galway, author of several best-selling books, including Inner Tennis.[4] It turns out that, years before, when he was a senior at Stanford, he found himself playing in the championship match of US Collegiate Tennis.  When he muffed what was a sure match point (“Any of you here could have made that shot!” he told the audience), he went on to lose the championship.  “I spent the next four or five years of my life replaying that shot over and over in my head.  What had happened? My body knew how to make that shot-easy.  I’d made that shot thousands of times.  My conclusion was that my mind, rather than helping me in that instant, had interfered.”
Tim explained how he had come to see that he-and all of us, he believed-had two people inside him: Player A and Player B.  Player A was a natural, played relaxed, stayed with the ball in flight, just hit the shot-or not-and went on to whatever was next without a lot of drama. Player B on the other hand, was chattering constantly, worrying about this and that, thinking about “What might happen if I miss this shot?” and generally distracting Player A from his game with concerns that lay outside the moment.  Tim allowed that we need to learn to access our Player A and tune out Player B when it tries to distract us from playing our natural (inner) game.
What a great metaphor for life and work.  

[1] This is my adaptation of his quote on page of his powerful book, The Heart Aroused: The Renaissance of Poetry and the Corporate Soul.   

[2] This can be found in Genesis 1:28 for readers who like to know this kind of thing.

[3] These alternative interpretations were suggested to me in a conversation in the early 1970’s with Dr. Frank Seilhammer, a student and professor of The Hebrew Scriptures.  From him I learned the delightful-and sometimes challenging-thing about the Hebrew language is that word meanings are not precise, left-brain, and scientific.  They are more general, right-brain, and artistic.  Words occupy an area, not a pinpoint and usually need to be understood in light of the context where they stand.  A Hebrew word can have almost opposite meanings, depending on the situation in which it is used.

[4] And Inner Golf, etc.


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