Work is love made visible. And if you can't work with love, but only with distaste, it is better that you should leave your work and sit at the gate of the temple and take alms of the people who work with joy. - From “On Work”, by Kahlil Gibran
I once heard a true story about an elderly Belgian woman who took care of a mentally ill man. Every day, in a fit of nervous compulsion, the man would twist off all of the buttons on his shirt. And every night, the woman would sew the buttons back on the man's shirt. Button by singular button, she would hand sew them back on that shirt. Every single night.
It wasn't the mere sewing of the buttons that stayed with me. And it wasn't this singular nightly ritual, the sheer time it must have taken each night to sew all of those buttons back on, or even the remarkable fact that the man was not the old woman's son. It was that each morning, the woman gave the shirt back to the man, knowing what would become of it. She could have simply insisted on shirts without buttons.
During days that often feel as though we are all symbolically sewing buttons on each night only to have them pulled off in the morning, again and again in an endless loop, I wonder if the woman ever felt defeated. Or angry. Surely, no one would fault her if she ran out of patience, if only occasionally. From what I recall, however, when another person in the story suggested that the woman sew the buttons back on with fishing line so that the man would simply be unable to twist them off, she was offended. The man needed to tear those buttons off, the woman responded. It was an act that soothed his otherwise agitated mind.
There is something disarmingly beautiful in this simple act of what looks like - from my vantage point - extreme fortitude. But there is also something frustratingly distant. Most of us could live our entire lives trying to emulate such poise and never fully succeed.
Yet when I turn my attention to the man in the story, I wonder if poise is beside the point. Whatever you view as work - whether it be paid work, household work, childcare or even the existential work of bettering yourself - perhaps it is the intent with which you perform the work that matters more than always doing it with grace. Regardless of the severity of the man's mental illness, I'd like to think on some level that he understood what the woman was offering him each time she handed back the newly sewed shirt.
Adapted from LinkedIn Article found here.