Life and Death and the Meaning of Work

We’re sitting in the third waiting room of the day.

The first was not like a waiting room at all. Its high ceilings, ceramic tile floor, and overstuffed chairs felt more like the foyer of a fancy hotel than the entranceway of a hospital.

The second waiting room, with a sign marked “Radiology” hanging above the door, was dramatically different. Small, wiry chairs jammed into cramped quarters, with faded floors and fluorescent lights assaulting our eyes.

But now we’re in a room that’s a compromise between the two, our home for the next 24 hours. Gone are the oppressive lights, replaced by an industrial iron chandelier. Gone, too, are the ceramic tiles, replaced by dark carpet with an odd square-in-square pattern designed to soothe frayed nerves.

It’s not working.

This was not the original plan for the week of our anniversary, but it became the plan when we heard from our dearest friends the diagnosis no one ever wants to hear: cancer. They had just moved to a new job in a new city in a new state. Too new to have built the relationships needed to walk with them on this path. She with the cancer and he with the impossible job of being able to do absolutely nothing to fix it for her.

So we wait with them in the series of waiting rooms that leads to surgery and the news—we hope and pray—that the cancer is gone and has not traveled to more dangerous destinations.

And I’m thinking. Thinking mostly about the perpetually repeated point that no one on their deathbed wishes they attended more business meetings.

I’m torn by that statement. The business meetings my friend attends provides his family a beautiful home in a beautiful community and health insurance that has taken care of their needs in this difficult time, right down to the most pesky details. The business meetings I attend paid for airplane tickets to travel halfway across the country at a moment’s notice, the rental car we are driving, and the computers I own that allow me to work any time, anywhere.

In other words, much good has come from the business we do, even in the threat of death.

That’s why I’m torn. We live in an either/or world where we seek simplistic solutions to complex problems. We rarely see a both/and alternative for the conflicts that consume us. Both/and is more thoughtful, more nuanced, less amenable to sound bites and click bait.

The both/and solution I’m committed to pursuing is this: professional excellence and personal satisfaction. I don’t accept that we must choose between one or the other. That choice is based on a false belief that professional excellence can be achieved apart from personal satisfaction (It can’t). Or that personal satisfaction is not affected by professional excellence (It is).

This is the meaning of work. It’s part of the skein of color woven into the fabric of life, making it a creative, captivating experience. For people of faith, we know this to be true. In the beginning there was work: be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it.

This is the responsibility of leadership: to create a culture at work that supports this experience, instead of a culture that rewards either/or destruction of the soul.

The news is good, mostly. No migration of the cancer to other parts of her body. But a year of chemotherapy is needed to be absolutely sure.

A year.

So it looks like we might be back, sitting in another hospital waiting room. We will do it, gladly and gratefully.

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