Reimagining Work in a New Season

In consultation with my doctor, we decided it was best if I file for my company’s long-term disability benefits and stop working so I can focus more on my health—rest more, reduce stress, and better cope with side effects of treatments. I’ve been on short-term disability for about 6 weeks, and that time has shown me that it’s the right move to step away from the workforce.

I have felt a bit better removing the work stresses from my life (though the paperwork mountain that comes with filing disability provides stress of its own), but I’ve also felt a little bit lost. I’ve worked in the same field for 25 years, and it feels strange to think I won’t be doing that anymore.

Many people have told me, “You’re not what you do.” And I believe that. But I also have felt “at home” in the work that I do. I have truly felt I was working within my strengths and gifts, and feedback from managers and colleagues confirmed that. In fact, one colleague recently had a sign made for me with the nickname I picked up on one our projects (at right).

I have derived joy in improving the words someone has written so they can better deliver a message to the intended audience. And there’s been great satisfaction in taking a pile of source material and writing a report, fact sheet, or website that conveys useful information in a way that readers can easily understand and act on. That this work has been done in the context of public health means that what I wrote or edited helped people learn, make healthier choices for themselves and their families, better comprehend complex medical jargon, or access services they need. My work contributed to helping people and communities flourish. It felt like Kingdom work.

So, then, why stop doing it? As with many jobs, mine had deadlines, challenges, quick pivots in scope or direction, crises and rushes, meetings and more meetings, extra hours worked to meet client demands, unrealistic requests from project directors, and expectations that I perform to a certain level. All that led to stress. Pre-disease, that stress was sometimes hard to manage, but every job has stress, so I just dealt with it. And for the first 19 months after my stage 4 diagnosis, I continued to deal with it. Over time, the added stress of disease and medication side effects and frequent doctor visits became too much. Being absent often, not feeling well, and being distracted by any number of things related to my condition made it increasingly difficult to do a high-quality job, and the combined level of stress was surely bad for any healing processes we are trying to bring about. I was having trouble sleeping from worry—about what was on my plate for the next day and about my capacity to do it all, on top of the worry of whether treatments were working or what an upcoming scan or blood test would show.

I feel relief to have made the decision to put my job aside in favor of my health and using my energy for self-care and the care of my family. I know it’s best. I also know that my job title is not my whole identity. But writing and editing certainly IS my vocation. It’s something I feel I need to do, maybe what I was made to do. It satisfies my soul. And I feel that putting words together or finessing others’ words contributes in some way to the world—at least my corner of it.

So now, I suppose the challenge is to find ways to put the gifts I have to use in other ways. To write on my own time, when I feel like it, under no pressure. I know… this blog is writing. But I like the sense of helping when I write something for others or edit another’s work. It feeds a different part of my mind and soul than writing for my own pleasure or to get my own thoughts out of my head. Maybe I can volunteer my editing skills to a nonprofit organization or a small business that needs to communicate more clearly and concisely to funders, stakeholders, or customers.

I’ve also been trying to reframe my treatments, scans/tests, follow-up calls, and self-care (including naps) as my new “job”—doing whatever I can to give myself the best shot at long, quality life. Every month and year I can continue on current treatments gives the chance for medical discoveries to turn the tide on this disease. Hey, if they come up with a new treatment that cures my cancer or keeps it at bay with a few, minor side effects, I’ll be more than happy to go back to a paid, full-time job. All the more reason to find outlets for writing and editing in this new season—to keep my skills up, just in case.

Two Sparrows

Over the past month, I watched as two sparrows crafted a nest atop our porch pillar, and then mama bird sat patiently on a couple of eggs. Another sparrow would swoop in from time to time to try to take over, and papa bird would fight him off and then chirp noisily for awhile. It was like an episode of Wild Kingdom.

I knew it was getting close to hatching time, so I’d been watching anxiously for tiny beaks to pop up over the nest edge. Yesterday, we returned from church to find a tiny baby bird lying on the porch. He’d either fallen or been tossed out of the nest. Upon inspection, we found he was still alive, wriggling on his back. We sprang into action, grabbing gloves and a step ladder to put him back in the nest. Then crossed our fingers that mama and papa bird would return and tend to him.

The parents did return and inspected their youngster with surprise, then mama snuggled up next to baby. Later in the evening, I was pleased to see mama bird feeding not just the little guy we rescued, but a sibling who had also hatched. I went to bed with hope restored for our resident bird family.

So, it was heartbreaking this morning to peek out the window and find the nest missing from the pillar ledge. Both it and its sweet, downy occupants were lying on porch. This time, the babies were still and lifeless. I put on some gloves and carefully picked up their bodies, cooing softly to them as if they could hear me and trying not to cry as I loaded them into a bag along with the discarded nest.

In that moment, they ceased to be simply two tiny sparrows that had fallen on hard luck. They became an illustration of the uncertainty of life and the cruelty of death, evidence of The Fall, and proof that things are not as they should be.

One might accuse me of being overly sentimental or over-spiritualizing. “Seriously? They were just a couple of common birds.” But they were two of God’s creatures, two new lives in the world, created for a purpose, even if only to add their songs to the sounds of our neighborhood and eat some bugs. Matthew 10:29-31 (New Living Translation) says, “What is the price of two sparrows—one copper coin? But not a single sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it.” They may be common, but they are not unimportant to God.

This evening I find I’m still sad about the baby birds. Maybe I just have a really soft spot for nature. Maybe it’s because we’re dealing with our own boys “flying the nest” in various ways. We moved our older son this weekend into his very own apartment for the summer, and our younger son is about to graduate and head to college. I think, in part, it’s because for several weeks, I watched with anticipation, and what I had waited for ended in an entirely different—and undesirable—way.

And the circle of life had skipped several steps for those little birds. In this season of my own life, as I deal with illness, that concept feels a bit unsettling. Still, I know God’s with me in this season, and I, too, matter to him. The second part of the Matthew passage goes on to say: “The very hairs on your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are more valuable to God than a whole flock of sparrows.” As much as God cares for the sparrows, he cares even more deeply for me.

Change: The Jackhammer of Life

Our neighbors are having their driveway replaced, which requires the workers to use an oppressively loud jackhammer to break up and remove the cracked and crumbling existing surface to make room for the new.

As I’ve listened the past two days to the hammering sounds and watched the progress being made, I’ve been struck with how much that process mirrors human life whenever change is involved.

Whether you choose change or it chooses you, it’s usually disruptive. Like the jackhammer, it can feel violent and jolting. You may feel substantial parts of yourself or your life being chiseled away. Things long hidden may be unearthed, leaving you feeling violated or laid bare. What was once solid and firm may be turned to dust. And whether you instigated the change and are the one operating the jackhammer, or some other person or force is wielding that tool, there’s no escaping the noise and rattling.

Just as the sounds next door have disturbed my peace and given me a headache, change in your life can be disruptive and messy for those close to you. Rarely do we experience a shift in some important aspect of life without it affecting those we love or spend a lot of time with. Our attitude or outlook may be different, causing an adjustment in relationships. Our behavior, health, or ability may change, causing an adjustment in life rhythms. Or change may involve our departure from an environment or experience, leaving others to fill in behind your or just to miss your presence.

Sometimes, changes are ultimately for the good. Often they are. And even for those changes that seem to have no redeeming qualities, there is often some blessing mixed in—you just might have to look a little harder for it as you sift through the rubble.

And the disruptions that come with change don’t go on continuously or forever. Like the worker wielding the jackhammer next door who stops from time to time to take a break, so too do we get moments of respite even in the midst of the most complicated, enduring periods of change or unrest. These rests allow us to gather our strength to pick the jackhammer back up or get ready for another session of chiseling and chipping away.

Consider: Where in your life do you need some jackhammer action? And if you find yourself subject to jackhammering that you didn’t choose, how can you see the potential for good or renewal?