Here’s a variation on a familiar saying: Life is what happens while you’re trying to get your work done. For many of us, balancing the demands of work and relationships feels impossible. These can be relationships with parents, partners, children, friends, and also ourselves. What we need to do to make a living feels at odds with the art of living itself – that is, the art of cultivating healthy connection with ourselves and others. We may find ourselves vacillating from one to the other, putting out fires at work or at home, but never quite bringing our lives into harmony, especially in both domains at once. Is the clash between work and personal life an essential tension, an inescapable feature of our economy and our society? Or is there a solution?
The key is to recognize that our work and personal lives are not as separate as they sometimes seem. Although we may put on a different mask, it is not one person who goes to work and another who comes home. And the problems we have in the one arena are not so different from those we have in the other. They may be more hidden or more skillfully managed in one over the other, but the core issues are the same. If we have trouble setting boundaries and standing up for ourselves at work, we are almost always struggling with this somewhere in our personal lives as well. If we do not believe we are good enough to be treated with love and respect in our intimate relationships, chances are that we are also taken advantage of at work. And if we do not know how to listen compassionately, we most likely are missing critical messages as much from our coworkers and clients as from our loved ones and ourselves.
Now, the fact that we have the same core problems in all domains may sound like bad news, like we’re always failing wherever we go, but it is also a powerful gift. It means that we only have one problem to address, not many. The same discoveries and growth will help us in both areas. When we learn to set healthy boundaries, our professional and our personal lives flow better. When we believe in our worth, we have more to give professionally and personally. When we learn to listen compassionately, we perform better at work and at home.
Once we understand this connection, we see that the tension between our professional and personal lives is mostly illusory. The problem is not choosing which one to fix, which one to give importance over the other; it is, instead, when we pit the one against the other to distract ourselves from the real work of growing as human beings: I’m just too busy to take on anything else. I’m just too overwhelmed to think of anything more.
The real choice is not between solving problems at work or at home; it is between facing our problems and running away.
We fall into the trap of distraction not only individually, but collectively. We think we have too many problems as a society today to address effectively climate disasters, pollution, species loss, ecosystem destruction, discrimination, social oppression, income inequality, democratic decline, pandemics, wars, famine, and the list goes on…Our attention flits with the media from one crisis to the next – sometimes very literally just focusing on putting out one fire and then another – without making substantial, lasting progress on any single issue. We feel overwhelmed, like our world is crashing down on us, swirling in chaos. And we think there is nothing we can do to help.
But these problems are not separate either. We are not one civilization weathering climate disasters and another struggling with social oppression and democratic decline. We are the same civilization, and we are being asked to address the same problem in all of these arenas. This problem is that our world has been atomized, broken into tiny pieces that feel so separate from each other that they do not recognize or respect each other. Sadly, the only forces that coordinate their movements are ones of greed and control. In every domain, we are being asked to rebuild healthy connection and to organize ourselves by wiser and more compassionate principles. And in every domain, it is the same skills of learning to respect, listen, and work together that we need to cultivate in order to heal and move past our crises.
The more we realize that our problems are not separate, the more we realize that our solutions are not either. When I take charge of the food I eat, for example, and switch to a more local, whole-food diet, I lower my carbon footprint, relieve global supply chains, and support my community in ways that not only improve my personal health but that of my community, the environment, and our global society. My highest good is not at odds with your highest good, with our civilization’s highest good, or with our planet’s. The illusion is that we live in a world of chaos, in a time of unbearable crisis. The higher truth is that we live in a time where we are being asked to welcome in just one core solution, one that will bring all of us back into greater balance and harmony.