The Great Spiritual Resignation

And the recovery of the joy of vocation

“A record 4.4 million Americans quit their jobs in September” was the headline across media platforms on Friday morning.  The Great Resignation is in full swing and journalists are trying to understand why. According to the Washington Post:

Many workers have made the calculation that their old jobs — low paying work in industries like restaurants, which have really struggled to fill holes — are no longer desirable, even as companies dangle raises and bonuses to lure employees back to the workplace. Some older workers have taken early retirements, part of a portrait of a labor force that has shrunk by percentage of the U.S. population during the pandemic.

And some economists question whether there are other factors that have reshaped the traditional dynamics of the labor force after 750,000 people have died.

Most of the explanations are economic; stories often cite poor working conditions and lack of child care as the primary drivers of people quitting. There’s talk of a “general strike.” And after years of politicians promising “jobs, jobs, jobs,” the new mantra seems to be: “get me out of this job!” There are jobs aplenty – and people don’t want to fill the openings posted and don’t want the jobs they have.

When I think back over the course of the pandemic, I realize that I probably said, “I quit” about a thousand times. In the last twenty months, I had to navigate moving my work online – including consulting, speaking, creating a newsletter and a podcast, and constructing and conducting an entire virtual book tour. I learned a great deal and did work I’m proud of. But truth is, it was hard. Especially in one’s early 60s – a time when workers typically reap the wisdom of decades of experience – you don’t really expect to spend the last years of your career basically relearning everything and re-platforming your life.

We’ve all worked really hard in the last twenty months, often doing things we never imagined we could do, work where we’ve learned much but that also hasn’t always been what we feel confident in, good at, or held the greatest emotional rewards. It has been hard for everyone: young adults entering the working force; mid-career workers, many of whom are also parents and had school-age children at home; those approaching retirement. People who had to work at home; people who couldn’t work at home.

Early in the pandemic, Bill Gates commented that most Americans had navigated about fifteen years of technological adaptation in three months. In effect, we leaped into the future of work in the most unwelcome of circumstances, leaving people exhausted, afraid, and worried about the vocational choices we’ve made.

Last weekend, I did an in-person event in Norman, Oklahoma – the sort of thing I used to do a few dozen times a year, speaking on a book and preaching on Sunday. I actually felt a bit nervous before my first lecture. As I looked out over the masked (and socially distanced) audience, I wondered if I remembered how to teach and what to say. Thirty years of standing in classrooms and pulpits seemed irrelevant. After so many months of staring into computer screens and talking over Zoom, it was like beginning again.

But then I started, a little haltingly at first, then with increasing confidence. By the end of the evening lecture, I felt something I hadn’t felt in nearly two years: the overwhelming joy of being a teacher. The joy of vocation. The joy of being with people sharing stories, of the sound of laughter in a room, and seeing eyes wide with insight. I’d certainly felt proud and happy about much of the online and written work I’d done in the last year and a half, but the bursting forth of raw joy in giving a lecture — and its spontaneous creativity — I’d forgotten how that felt.

That gave me pause. We’ve scarcely thought about this Great Resignation in spiritual terms relating to the joy of work and the power of vocation. Of course, there are awful jobs and terrible bosses, there’s brutal work for too little pay and bad benefits, there’s the crushing power of corporations taking away our humanity for profits – there’s all that.

But there’s something else. For nearly two years, we’ve worked really hard doing things we never expected and that, in many cases, did not offer us the pleasures of the work we knew. When I lectured last week, I realized that not teaching in person had cleaved me, that part of me had actually disintegrated during the pandemic – a part of my work that I find deeply fulfilling. A piece of me has been missing.

I’m certain that I’m not the only person feeling disintegrated from the pandemic. Few of us expect work to be easy, but when we do work that makes us proud, work that makes a difference to other people, work that resonates with some emotional part of our souls, we experience personal fulfillment and joy. I’ve known this my entire working life – when I worked in a florist shop as a teenager and learned to arrange flowers, in various ministries in college serving others, and when I worked as a maid in seminary and took pride in washing up dishes and making beds. It wasn’t only about being a public teacher or having a white-collar sort of job. It has always been about work well done for and with others, of creating beauty and gifting others with the work of my hands. I’ve felt that joy helping a bride with flowers, cleaning toilets, and delivering a speech on a global stage.

We might talk about jobs and work and resignations in economic terms as we struggle through this stage of the pandemic. Or we might revisit the idea of vocation, the calling of our lives. Too often, the idea of vocation is limited in the religious sense to clergy or those in ministry. But truthfully, we all have callings – that inward voice we follow to serve, heal, teach, reveal truth, make the world fairer or more just, to create, to give to and provide for others – to “repair the world” as my Jewish friends say, or, as many of my Christian friends put it, to “co-create” with God. Discovering, following, and enacting a calling isn’t always easy, but it is the source of genuine joy and gratitude – experiencing the power of a job well done.

The pandemic has severely limited the ways we practice vocation and experience its rewards. We’ve been cut off from the best parts of work. And social media interactions don’t frequently foster the supportive and spiritual aspects of work – and too often leave us vulnerable to the culture of criticism (and even violence) that can attend online communications.

Last weekend, I remembered that I’d forgotten joy. And, sadly, after twenty months, I’d nearly resigned myself to work with less of it. “I quit!” sometimes seemed the only way to fight against it. To resign was a way of pushing back against emotional resignation to work that seemed increasingly unrewarding, even barren.

Of course, I didn’t quit (I’m not exactly sure how one “quits” being a writer!). Instead, I said “yes” to an in-person event, to teach again, to get back on an airplane and travel to a strange city, to receive the hospitality of strangers and trust others to care about health and safety and provide appropriate protocols. And I had to trust that I was still a teacher, that I could still tell good stories, laugh in community, preach a sermon with heart. When I did all this — recovered my trust in others and in work — I rediscovered what I’d lost: the joyful heart of vocation, work that gives meaning and embodies a call.

I hope that some people in the Great Resignation haven’t quit too soon. As we move ahead and exercise the more familiar rewarding parts of our jobs once again, I hope that people will rediscover satisfaction and fulfillment. And for those who truly discovered their jobs had little to do with calling, I pray they will find work attended with joy — and that the Great Resignation will be the first step toward a genuine spiritual renewal of vocation, the rediscovery of meaningful work. A Great Reintegration, perhaps?

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Then a ploughman said, Speak to us of Work.
And he answered, saying:
You work that you may keep pace with the earth and the soul of the earth.

For to be idle is to become a stranger unto the seasons, and to step out of life’s procession, that marches in majesty and proud submission towards the infinite.
When you work you are a flute through whose heart the whispering of the hours turns to music.

Which of you would be a reed, dumb and silent, when all else sings together in unison? Always you have been told that work is a curse and labour a misfortune.
But I say to you that when you work you fulfil a part of earth’s furthest dream, assigned to you when the dream was born,
And in keeping yourself with labour you are in truth loving life,
And to love life through labour is to be intimate with life’s inmost secret.

But if you in your pain call birth an affliction and the support of the flesh a curse written upon your brow, then I answer that naught but the sweat of your brow shall wash away that which is written.
You have been told also that life is darkness, and in your weariness you echo what was said by the weary.
And I say that life is indeed darkness save when there is urge,
And all urge is blind save when there is knowledge,
And all knowledge is vain save when there is work,
And all work is empty save when there is love;
And when you work with love you bind yourself to yourself, and to one another, and to God.
And what is it to work with love?
It is to weave the cloth with threads drawn from your heart, even as if your beloved were to wear that cloth.
It is to build a house with affection, even as if your beloved were to dwell in that house.
It is to sow seeds with tenderness and reap the harvest with joy, even as if your beloved were to eat the fruit.
It is to charge all things you fashion with a breath of your own spirit,
And to know that all the blessed dead are standing about you and watching. . .

Work is love made visible.
And if you cannot work with love but only with distaste, it is better that you should leave your work and sit at the gate of the temple and take alms of those who work with joy.
For if you bake bread with indifference, you bake a bitter bread that feeds but half man’s hunger.
And if you grudge the crushing of the grapes, your grudge distils a poison in the wine.
And if you sing though as angels, and love not the singing, you muffle man’s ears to the voices of the day and the voices of the night.

— Kahlil Gibran

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With Thanksgiving and Christmas and all the winter holidays coming up, there will be special doings here at the Cottage!

To the entire Cottage community (both free and paid subscribers): I’ll be sending out an Advent calendar — a short daily devotional every day from Dec 1-24. Please invite your friends to sign up to join in!

For the paid community: The next ZOOM to the Cottage will be an open conversation, talking about how we’re doing at this stage of the pandemic and whatever comes up in the news, with an extended time of “AMA” (ask me anything) on WEDNESDAY, NOVEMBER 17 at 3PM eastern/NOON Pacific. As always, I will record the session and send out the recording to everyone on the paid list.

Upgrade here

Also, we’ll have some sort of Christmas party together via ZOOM — hoping to invite along a special guest musician to celebrate the holiday at the Cottage.

THANK YOU FOR BEING PART OF THE COTTAGE — however you arrived, and whichever list you are on, your presence and your attentiveness to my words is a gift — you have given me joy in the work I do here. I’m so grateful.

This weekend — Saturday Nov 13 & Sunday Nov 14 — I’ll be speaking at St. Paul’s UMC in Houston. If you are in the neighborhood, please join us on Saturday night or Sunday morning for church. Click here for info.