The happiest moments in life come in so many different forms. Your child is born. Your partner says “I do”. A promotion in your career. The lower points have the same level of scattered diversity. The loss of a loved one. A divorce. Your company dissolves. Of course each of these just examples. For each one of us, they are different. They are more personal and more pertinent. The highs and lows in life are the things that we remember. But the things that matter more, much more, than those highs and lows, are what happens between the highs and lows.
There is a great quote that I love. “Before enlightenment; chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment; chop wood, carry water.” — Zen Kōan. Wherever your spiritual compass points, the crux of this quote is about the moments in between. Most of life is in the “in-between”. The chopping and carrying are what make up most of the human experience. Yet so often, they are labeled by people as the mundane. As the chores. As the boring. If we all just looked at those moments as gifts instead, what might happen? The truth is, whether at home or at work, so much of our time is spent in between.
I have been a software engineer for 30 years now. I stumbled into this career in college. It wasn’t because I had a passion for computers. The PC had just been invented, so the future was unknown at that point. I stumbled into it because I was in college and I had decided that macroeconomics was something that wasn’t a career that I saw myself pursuing. So during a lecture on the law of supply and demand, I got up, walked to the bursar’s office and sat down with an adviser to announce that I would like to change my major. She asked what I would like to change my major to, at which point I said, “Um…I’m not sure, I guess, computers?”. Which came out more of a question than a decision. So, I walked out of that office as a newly inducted computer science major.
It’s important to state that I had very little knowledge of what a computer even was at this point. That was 35 years ago. I have been a software consultant from the moment I left college to now. A little research on the web indicates that it is rare for someone to stay in the same career that long. So, to some, the conclusion as to why I am still in the same career now might be that I picked my dream job/career. To some, maybe the conclusion is that it paid well. And to probably others, the conclusion might be that the career was fulfilling and fun. The truth is parts of all of those conclusions and some others. Luck, for one, in the beginning. A great company a little later in my career. And some amazing people along the way. But what gets lost in all of that is that probably the majority of the days that I have done this job, it’s has been just a job. What I mean by that is that each day I go to work, it’s because I want to earn money to pay for life. Some days, as a software consultant, there is an amazing payoff because you are creating something that will change people’s lives. Those are great days. But the vast majority of the days are mundane. They are just doing what needs to be done that day.
This was the reality of my first job as well. I was an employee at a fast-food restaurant. As you can imagine, this involved working with people, and food. Somedays I’d work as a cashier, others, I’d work the grill. But most of the job was the time in between. These moments were spent cleaning grease traps, cleaning floors, cutting food and waiting. Not much of that would be described as glamorous, fun work. Necessary, but mundane.
I have heard both young and old adults actually say that they want to find a job that aligns with their dreams. Which is an amazing, noble intention. I have also heard the quote “Do what you love, and you’ll never work another day in your life.” I think there is a beautiful sentiment behind this. But I think the danger in thoughts like these, is that it sets an absolute impossible expectation. To not expect to have boring, mundane, unfulfilling moments in your job is not close to reality. The truth is, a job, ALL JOBS, are work. The majority of time during all jobs is spent figuratively carrying water and chopping wood. Over and over.
My partner and I have been married for 16 years. Of course, during those 16 years, there were tough things to face, as well as utter joys to experience. But the magic of our relationship happens in the day-to-day. Just knowing the other person is there sharing space with you is a gift. Maybe you are making a cup of tea for one another without even asking. Maybe it looks like closing a door quietly so that the other can sleep when you can’t. There are so many moments in our relationship that don’t have to be defined. They just are. And these moments are the concrete of the foundation of our relationship. We love to travel and explore new places. It is amazing. But we don’t try to fill every moment. Because those moments are just as important as exploring the world. In fact, I would argue that they are more important. If for no other reason then there will be far more in-between moments then there will be moments exploring the world.
With about half of all relationships ending, and a society that seems to have written off long term relationships, I wonder what might happen if each partner looked at those moments in between differently. What might happen if each partner leaned into those times as necessary. As recharging. As gifts.
Early on in parenting, one of my least favorite phrases from our kids was “I’m bored”. Initially, I took it as a call to arms to fill their time with something that wasn’t boring. As time went on, I learned to love the phrase. I would say “well, what are you going to do about it?”. That answer eventually evolved into “boredom is really good for you”. Our kids also, like most kids, would use the phrase “I can’t wait until next weekend” if something that was perceived as fun was on the schedule and headed their way. Our response to phrases like that, are to lovingly remind them that there are many days between now and then, and more than likely you will miss something magical if your eyes are pointed at next weekend. Kids struggle with boredom now more than ever. Electronic devices are literally designed to remove all idle time by locking kid’s eyes to screens. In this electronic era, it is paramount that we show our kids that there needs to be unscheduled time in their lives. They need time in between school, homework, sports, electronics, music or whatever they might be on their schedules. They need in-between time to connect with themselves and the earth that they are part of. This is where imagination happens. Not only do my partner and I emphasize how important it is to embrace this time in their personal lives, but we also demonstrate that there will be moments like this when they go to work as well. We are not afraid to tell them that the work day today was a little boring. Our kids know that work is important and essential. And they are looking forward to it. But they are also very aware that each day will be whatever it turns out to be.
Of course, there are toxic relationships that must be ended. As well, there are toxic jobs that must be left. I celebrate those that recognize their individual situations and act to better their lives. But for the jobs and relationships that aren’t toxic, there is a pattern. In a relationship, as a parent and at work, the reality is the same. There will be much more time in between the peaks and valleys than on the peaks or in the valleys.
How often to we say things like “time flies when you’re having fun”, or “they grow up in a blink of an eye”? I have noticed in myself, that when I honor all of the moments of time in my life, instead of just some, time slows down. Whether at home or at work, I am so grateful for those moments. I truly embrace the carrying of water and chopping of wood.
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