Steve Garber, in his recent book, Visions of Vocation, explores a fundamental challenge we all face: once you come to know the messiness, tragedy, and pain that inhabits our world, how do you stay engaged?
The implication is that once you come to know injustice, pain, and tragedy, you are implicated--you are involved. As a human being, you are implicated and you have a responsibility for the outcome of this world. This is a hard truth that I don't really want to hear if I’m honest.
Garber tells the story of a school principal who recounts his memory of the day images of wide spread starvation in Africa were first shown to the world on TV. "After a while," the principal said, "you have to ask yourself 'what do you do?'"
So, here’s what I struggle with, and I’m guessing many of you can relate. On the one hand, I become overwhelmed in the face of the messiness and pain of this world, freeze up, and never answer the question: “what do I do?” Right now, the global refugee crisis is overwhelming. A friend told me about the story of one family - out of the countless refugee families - that he is involved in helping. The family witnessed their extended family being murdered, and somehow escaped. Now in Southern California, the father, who is a teacher, cannot get a job due to the red tape with getting official refugee status. He needs work to support his family, and they all need healing from the severe trauma they've experienced. So, “What do you do?” “What do I do?"
Or, on the other hand, I sometimes focus on helping people “out there” or doing good in some abstract way all the while neglecting those closest to me. I have done this to my family more than I care to remember. I spent four years pursuing a graduate degree at UCLA while working full time so I could “do good” while neglecting my wife and young kids.
This question waits for our answer in the broader context of our vocation, and also in our day-to-day work. Our fundamental vocation--our calling as human beings--is to love others and to engage the messiness and pain in this world to make it a better place. However, we carry out this calling, not in an abstract way, not in a single way, not in one right way, but in many different ways throughout our lives and careers.
Love calls us to a common good, yes, but love asks us to be involved in a personal way.
And it starts in our little corner of the world.
The defenses of my UCLA days have crumbled, and I am now in the process of rebuilding. People often ask me if I would go to UCLA again if I had it to do over. The answer is a resounding no. While I am thankful for what I learned, and the people I met, it damaged my little corner of the world too much.
We are embodied and relational beings. We are located in a particular place and time, and we can only extend ourselves so much. We relate most deeply to those in our little corner of the world. We have a profound responsibility to the people we interact with day in and day out, and even more so with those who rely on us for care - our children, spouses, partners, employees, friends, co-workers, and those who are hurting in our communities. Babies rely on their parents to literally regulate their emotions through eye contact and nonverbal communication. These early attachment experiences shape the very structures of their sense of self and impact every aspect of development. When done well, this is attachment love. This, ultimately, is the love we extend outside our little corner of the world. And - it’s not an either/or - we have a responsibility to extend our “little corner love" to the world.
There is some fascinating research that supports this idea that engaging the messiness and pain of this world to make it a better place starts in your little corner of the world.
Samuel and Pearl Oliner interviewed 700+ people who lived in Nazi-occupied Europe, including those who rescued Jews, those who chose not to rescue Jews, and Jewish survivors.(1) In contrast to the non-rescuers, the rescuers exhibited a deep sense of relatedness. “What distinguished rescuers,” the Oliners note, "was not their lack of concern with self, external approval, or achievement, but rather their capacity for extensive relationships—their stronger sense of attachment to others and their feeling of responsibility for the welfare of others, including those outside their immediate familial or communal circles.” This deep sense of relatedness developed during childhood. For both rescuers and non-rescuers, their early family lives revealed that their "respective wartime behaviors grew out of their general patterns of relating to others.” Rescuers generally experienced strong and cohesive family bonds during childhood, whereas non-rescuers more often reported poor family relationships. For those who risked their lives to rescue Jews, extended love started with attachment love in the family.
Whether you're an entrepreneur, manager, or influencer seeking to do meaningful work and live a fulfilling life, it starts with human connection, love, and your little corner of the world. Here are 3 practices to help you love in your little corner of the world, and beyond.
1. Be mindful of your little corner of the world. For me, it’s my family, friends, clients, colleagues, students, and communities of which I’m a part. I have a different role and relationship with each group and person. A challenge for me is to be mindful that these people are my little corner and to invest accordingly every day. It starts by being cognizant of this; being aware that these people are my little corner. They need me in a significant way, and I need them just as much.
2. Be intentional about making your little corner a better place. How can you be more mindful of the people in your little corner and invest in them daily? For me, it’s a matter of constantly reminding myself of my priorities. This is a mindset shift that needs to be recalibrated over and over again. Life is about relationships. Connecting and being present with those closest to me is more important than checking the next thing off my to-do list. Take the time to connect when the opportunity presents itself.
3. Seek ways to extend your "little corner love" to the world. First, be aware of your limitations and the balance needed between loving your little corner of the world and extending it beyond that. But at the same time, don't freeze and ignore the question, "What can I do?" Start with one small thing that you can do. Second, be mindful of the unique individuals that you come across each and every day. Take the time to be present and connect. Third, think about how you can extend your little corner love in ways that are meaningful and motivating to you and will make a positive impact. Maybe it’s giving to a cause that you deeply care about. Maybe it’s using your talents and gifts in some way to help others. Maybe it’s serving your community where you live, or your work community in some way you haven’t done before. Whatever it is for you, think of one small thing you can do to start extending your "little corner love."
I’d love to hear your thoughts. How do you love your little corner of the world, and how do you extend it?
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(1) Samuel P. Oliner and Pearl M. Oliner, The Altruistic Personality: Rescuers of Jews in Nazi Europe (New York: Free Press, 1988), 249, 186.