When Grownups Stop Going to Work

by | Dec 21, 2005

I woke up this morning in the midst of a dream, the phrase “I’m not showing up for work anymore” ringing in my head. In the dream, a raven-haired woman of a certain age had made that declaration, and I understood it to mean that the “work” she had been doing defined and constrained her in ways that had become intolerable. Her obdurate disengagement was a symptom of disenchantment with the world as she used to know it and as it used to know her. My role was to explain all this to a handsome, black, forty-something man who was certain that he’d neither perpetrated nor supported any policies or norms that would cause her to be diminished by her work. He just didn’t get it. This time it was not about equal rights, or at least not mostly.

I could relate (to her and to him, as a matter of fact). In the past year or two I’ve often felt like I didn’t want to show up for work. I felt dislocated, disengaged, distracted. I could feel the push and pull of an emerging theme that I sensed would shift my life and work, but most of the time I experienced this as a surfer caught in a rip. One minute I’d be counting the sets and waiting to catch my wave, the next I was being carried out to sea by a current with a mind of its own.

But wait! I’m a coach. I’m also 52, self-aware, well-read, thoroughly educated in body, mind, and emotion, and committed to spiritual development whether or not I know what that means. I have been around the block. Hell, I’ve been around a lot of blocks. I know how to reinvent myself. I know how to focus. I know how to align my life and work with my values. I know how to summon the body of commitment. I know how to assemble a support system. I have a PhD in change. How can I possibly be carried away by currents I don’t and can’t control? (And how will I explain it to my friends and clients?)

Apparently Life, unimpressed by my attainments (or possibly responding to them), decided to throw me yet one more developmental curve. This time, thank you very much, it came with some topspin: hormonally driven lapses in memory, concentration, energy, and mood along with the growing awareness that Time Is Short. (Note to self: Why “Time” as opposed to “Life”?) Work as I’d understood it had become a vast, arid land where I might wander for years without finding the nourishing spring of meaning and purpose.

Meaning. Purpose. Two words I often wished would be removed from the lexicon (how uncoachlike), yet there were no better ones to describe what was missing. My soul, whatever that is, was not only parched but jaded. It’s hard to drill for water when your belief in water and wells is shaky.

Am I being too elliptical? I don’t mean to be. So far I’ve written as precisely as I know how about what it is like to jump from the high dive of mature success into the bottomless sea of not-knowing. I didn’t know how to order my priorities. I didn’t even like the idea. I’d long since graduated to what you might call an organic relationship with priorities. The notion of imposing a less sophisticated method struck me as foolish. Not only was I not likely to stick with a formal structure (one of the symptoms of my passage is an ADD-like inability to follow instructions. If it has more than one step, it’s more than likely that I won’t get to step 2. Getting to step 3 is out of the question.).

As I was saying: imposing structure to tame the chaos was impracticable. Besides, I truly didn’t see the payoff. I’d been there, done that, and I had the Stephen Covey T-shirt. I mean no disrespect. The 7 Habits is solid, it’s just that I’d moved on and going back to what used to work before my more recent ways of making sense and making a contribution seemed, well, like going backwards.

In other words, I no longer wanted to show up for the old ways of working, but I didn’t yet know the new ways. I’ve been here before, too. I’ve experienced numerous “phase changes,” shifts that begin with disorientation, and then progress from darkness to chaos, from chaos to complexity, until finally a new simplicity emerges. I trust the sequence, and I’m willing to take the leap. What I find disconcerting, however, is how much time I spend under water, then groping toward the surface, discovering where (and who) the hell I am, and tuning in to the indicators within and without that will show me the new direction and the new mode of transport. Somehow I’ve expected that knowing (more or less) what is happening will equip me to make the transition with a degree of elegance.

But here’s the deal. I think it’s not just – or not always – a transition. Sometimes what I’ve experienced, and what I see others experience, is not just transition but transformation, and I do not use that word lightly. Sometimes, if we’ve been reasonably awake players in our Life Game, we get thrown into a bigger game for bigger stakes, and at first we haven’t the foggiest notion of what the new level of play is all about.

Dear God, this seems like such a ramble. I trust that I’ll be more articulate about this territory as time goes on. I trust that some of you who come across this blog will recognize in it something of what you are experiencing and will find some sustenance, some orienting generalizations, some sign posts for your own journeys. For now, it’s about writing what I can as best I can. It won’t get better without practice.
To be continued…