We’ve all read why scores of time in John 15.
I am the vine, you are the branches. Remain in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love, … I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” [Jn 15:5-11]
Complete joy is what God wants for us—in our work lives just as He does everywhere else. Joy is not only possible, but will be ‘automatic,’ as St. Thomas Aquinas puts it: “Joy is a response to having been ‘united’ with what we love.” To be united with Him whom we love with all our beings, we must simply keep His commandments and do what He tells us to do in the very next verse:
Love one another as I have loved you.”[Jn 5:12]
Our jobs may take place in hospitals, courtrooms, laboratories or skyscrapers. We may do our daily tasks with our hands, our voices or by clicking on keyboards. Our companies may be organized for profit or not. Our tasks may be called patient care, social services, financial management, education or science. The pay may be high or low, the promotions fast or slow, the tasks repetitive or not. In any case and in every case, there are people to serve, colleagues to work with and competitors to spur us on. If we love them the way Christ urges us to love them, with the self-giving benevolence of Christian love—joy will come to us because we branches have stayed connected to His vine. But if we fail in this call to love, we will be cut off from His vine—severed branches withering, miserable, all alone.
The first question to ask ourselves then is: Are we attached to the vine as we go to work each day? Do we consistently love these work-neighbors of ours—our customers, our co-workers and our competitors—the people with whom we spend 80 hours a week for forty years of our lives?
We know we don’t. Yes, some of these people aren’t “lovable” but let us consider that because we put our ‘work-neighbors’ in an entirely different class of people than we put our family, friends and community neighbors, we sometimes give up even trying to love them. It’s true, they can make life painful—so can our families—but with our families we know we have to keep trying, forgiving 70 times seven. But, we often do the opposite at work, protecting ourselves from pain with cynicism and a defensive dislike of others that only serves to harden our hearts in the long run. We don’t realize how much damage we’re doing to ourselves every day in a place where God means for us to find joy.
Perhaps some of you have seen “Mad Men,” the TV series about advertising agency life in the 60’s. In one episode, there’s an encounter between Megan, the former secretary and now the boss’s wife, and Peggy, the copywriter. Peggy has just made yet another sarcastic, nasty remark about a client and Megan retorts, “You see, this is why you’re all so miserable! You don’t know how to smile; you only know how to smirk. You can’t find happiness in the middle of all the cynicism.”
She’s right. Cynicism is the great enemy of the benevolent love Christ asks us to extend to our work-neighbors and it creeps up on us slowly. We react to the inevitable frustrations and disappointments at work with one of those “tiny angers,” CS Lewis said is the beginning of the corruption of our virtue. With every jealous remark about a colleague, with every sarcastic criticism of a manager, with every bitter complaint about a customer, with every snide attack on a competitor, we inflict on ourselves a scrape of the saw or the blow of the axe that soon has us completely cut off from the vine—a lonely branch dying on the ground.
We don’t want to die, though, we want to live! But can a branch that’s been chopped from a vine stay alive? Yes! All you have to do is put it in a vase and add some water. A branch in a vase is the perfect metaphor for the work-lives many of us endure. It’s true, we’re cut off from the vine, but we console ourselves that at least we’re in a pretty vase—a well-known company, an impressive job title, a corner office. And the water is good, too—a lot of money, or at least a steady paycheck, a short commute, casual dress, a big budget, perks. Hey, we’re alive!
It’s true, a branch cut from a cherry tree at blossom time, for example, will bloom and soon leaf out, but it will never do what it was meant to do; that is, bear fruit—a cherry. It can’t. It’s not possible. It’s been cut from the nourishment of the tree. For us, too, life in a vase can pleasant enough, but it will never be fully “fruitful”—fulfilling our God-given potential to unite ourselves to others in love, experiencing joy in return. Instead, our self-absorption chokes off the love that should be flowing through us to others, leaving us, and all those we touch in our work, “fruitless.”
Yes, we exist day after day in our pretty vases but still ache for something we can’t quite name and yearn for something we don’t have. We grope for happiness. We think the next pay raise will do it, or the next promotion. Maybe a faster-growing company, a shorter workweek, a reduced travel schedule, an international posting, a job in a noble not-for-profit or at least a corporation that offers free lunches and day care. But they cannot satisfy. They are just newer, prettier vases, or a change of stale water.
It’s sad, isn’t it. We look for happiness in all the wrong places—in things, not in people. But God has not left us alone, without hope. Pull that branch from the dark interior of its watery dwelling and you’ll see something extraordinary growing along its cut edge—roots! Every severed branch still wants to be part of a vine. In the same way, God has planted in each of us the latent desire to be re-united to Him, no matter how fully severed we have let ourselves become. And so, the solution is obvious—we have to get ourselves grafted back on His vine!
But how? The remedy is easy and ready to hand—it is nothing more than simple gratitude. Recognizing our indebtedness to our workplace-neighbors—to our customers, our colleagues and even our competitors—softens our hearts in humility and opens us to the Fruits of the Holy Spirit—the first of which, as you know, is love and the second, joy (Gal 5:22-23).
Gratitude—easily said and surprisingly easily done. At first, though, we may have to make a conscious effort to be grateful and apply gratitude the way a gardener uses grafting tape to hold a cut branch on a vine until the wound heals and the two become one.
This post is an excerpt from a talk given by Lisa Fortini-Campbell author and adjunct Professor of Management at the Kellogg School of Management