Sunday, August 21, 2016

We Are All Temporary Workers

During my professional career, I was privileged to be involved in doing institutional administrative planning, culminating as an external consultant to colleges and universities nationwide. This role required me to be closely embedded within an organization’s employees for varying lengths of time depending on the scope of the project. During that period, I was an “outsider” functioning as an “insider” – often a delicately balanced role to fulfill.

In these potentially difficult situations, some people would welcome my presence, happy to tap into whatever assistance I might be to them in meeting their job responsibilities. Others could be wary, if not openly antagonistic, to my disruptive presence in their work life. It was not necessarily hostility to me personally. It was more that outsiders were seen as just there to take dollars out of their already-too-thin operating budget, and a belief that they had no real concern or loyalty to the institution “like a real employee does.” However, my consistent observation over time was that within the ranks of the many good employees I had the honor to work with, some “real” employees often evidenced little concern for the greater good of their institution, while placing a high value on their own personal benefits and power base. Conversely, I knew many consultant colleagues who, regardless of the nature and duration of their affiliation, cared very much about the future welfare of the institution and its employees.

In the end, we are all temporary workers, whether on the employee payroll system or a consultant fee-for-services contract. Whether our affiliation is for a day, a week, a year, or forty years, we show up, we do the work asked of us – hopefully of quality and with respect for others – and then we leave. Also hopefully, we do work of substance and dedication until our last day on the job; no free rides and not “just playing it out.” But at some point, we do leave. We leave some legacy, ideally a positive and inspiring one. Yet by definition a legacy is a past story. We did our work in one moment, in a manner suited for us. Then the day after we left new people took over and began changing what we did and how we did it. Our legacy is a remembrance, not a granite monument set forever in place, unchanged. We have our moment in time on stage; we make room for others to have their moment. That is how it should be.

So it is with all things. Yet we often put great emphasis and pride on “owning” stuff – houses, cars, clothes, etc. Such ownership makes for some implied permanency and success. But our clothes go out of style; new cars turn “used” as they are driven off the lot; houses no longer serve us properly as the decades roll by. They are all just temporary fixtures in the passing moments of our life. “Pride of ownership” ultimately becomes “lead weight holding me back.” The whole idea of “personal ownership of the land” was incomprehensible to the spirit of Native Americans who saw the land as a singular whole serving its people, not divisible into separate parts. Such was a main theme for philosopher Henry David Thoreau who cautioned about home ownership, “And when the farmer has got his house, he may not be the richer but the poorer for it, and it be the house that has got him ... for our houses are such unwieldy property that we are often imprisoned rather than housed in them; and the bad neighborhood to be avoided is our own scurvy selves.”

It is not about living uncaringly and unconnected in a “disposable society.” It is about recognizing that we are just temporary workers according to our current circumstances – as parents, as employees, as leaders, as occupants of the chair. We contribute what we can in our times of temporary service, and then step away to accept the next calling that reaches out to embrace us. Which is why we hold our “possessions” thoughtfully but lightly, merely an entrusted custodian of our roles and our “stuff,” freely passing them on to others to enjoy and benefit from when their time comes about.

©   2016   Randy Bell