Most of us spend a large part of our life at work, so what happens at work has a major influence, for better or for worse, on our health and happiness. It’s almost customary to regard work as a necessary evil that we have to put up with to pay the bills and, if we are lucky, to buy the things we want and the holidays we can look forward to. But is that enough? Can we make our work a satisfying and fulfilling experience, not something to simply endure?
Work is one of the main places of course where we come into contact with other people, and not necessarily with the kind of people we would ordinarily choose to be in contact with! This might be direct contact, if we are for instance a shop assistant, a nurse or a flight attendant, or it might be indirect, if we are a software designer, a writer or a fighter pilot. So quite often what makes the difference between an enjoyable day at work and a day that drags on interminably and leaves us drained and consoled only by the thought of the coming holiday, is other people.
Or is it? Is it not rather how we communicate with those other people, how we think about them, how we respond to them? Other people, after all, can be miserable, depressed, irritable, unco-operative, bored, irrational, irresponsible, unreliable, contrary, lazy and inefficient. It is a jungle out there. If our happiness and well-being is to depend on the other people our work brings us into contact with, we are a hostage to fortune and no mistake! No wonder if we sometimes end up drained and fed up after a day at the office.
Other people, by and large, are out of our control. If someone won’t do what we want them to do, there is, in the final analysis, nothing we can do about it. Of course we can ask them tactfully, skilfully, kindly, we can bring to bear the full weight of the greatest communication techniques anyone ever possessed, but they still might not do what we want. Or, we can maybe try to force their hand, but that might not work either. They may remain frustratingly outside of our control.
But what we do have control over – or rather, what we can learn to influence – is how we respond to this latest saboteur of our will. Herein lies, perhaps, the secret of a happy life, and in particular a happy work life.
What usually happens in such a situation, is that we either get angry, or resentful, or despondent. It might be a small thing, a momentary response, something we will have forgotten all about in a few hours. But the day is often made up of such small things, and such fleeting emotions. It all adds up.
What might happen, then, if we were to gradually train ourselves to respond to people in a new, different way? If, in a way, we were to learn to take things less personally? A long time ago now, I worked as a door to door fundraiser for a third world charity. A small team of us would go out on to the streets of London in the evening, knocking on doors and looking for people to support, by a regular standing order, our work with some of the very poorest people in India. Of course we learned to recognise the signs of a house having someone in it who might be sympathetic to such a request (if you could see shelves of books, and even better, a piano, you might be on to something), but even so, occasionally we would encounter some irate individual who would start to visit a tirade upon us about charity beginning at home, the corruption of the Indian government, how people should learn to stand on their own two feet, and so on. I remember a little slogan our trainers used about such a situation, advising us to reflect that it was just “their conditioning slagging off their projection.” In other words, this sorry person’s anger was all about them and not much about us, so we should move on and leave them to it. It’s easy to get down-hearted, or maybe even angry, in such a situation, and perhaps more so from the rather more frequent polite ‘no thankyous’ we inevitably encountered. But in this situation you had to remember that all you could do was to attend to your side of the communication, and leave the person to respond as they want. I suppose it’s a bit like fishing; you can cast your bait, but you can’t make the fish bite. (Actually what we found was that there were an encouraging number of people out there who did in fact want to do something about the suffering in the world, and who were actually grateful to be presented with an opportunity to do so.)
So in our interactions with other people, maybe if we can just focus on our side of the fence, doing our best to communicate as effectively as possible, always realising we are dealing with a fully automatous ‘other’ who has a will of their own which cannot, ultimately, be forced to comply with ours, maybe we can save ourselves (and them) a bit of grief.
Probably to begin with we can only expect to make small changes. Maybe when that colleague fails, yet again, to do what they said they would do, we can respond not with resentment but with, say, curiosity (why are they so unreliable? We might even think about asking them!). But such apparently small changes in our response can make a big difference to our day. Emotions like anger, despair and resentment are , ultimately, rather draining. It is really these that can leave us, at the end of the working day, fed up and exhausted. It’s not other people, not the job.
In the Buddhist tradition this really rather radical way of approaching life finds its culmination in a person known as a Bodhisattva (an’ Enlightenment being’). Such a person lives only to ease the suffering and pain in the world, and his or her days are devoted to that end. You can imagine that that might be frustrating or dispiriting, but the Bodhisattva has trained themselves to respond not with anger, or despair, or even pity. Consequently, they are known for their energy. Indeed their activity to them is ‘lila’, which means ‘play’. They have the spontaneity of a playful child.
It’s not easy to be like that, but as the Chinese say, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. That step involves us recognising that it is not other people who wear us out, get us down, frustrate us and make our job, sometimes, a misery. It is ourselves.