The following is a transcription of the Q&A session following Shundrawn Thomas’s talk “Discovering Joy at Work” at the 2020 Fall Executive Forum.
Q: I appreciated that you shared the vulnerability of saying [you went through an emotional funk]. I know what that’s like, because I had a real emotional hardship as well. And I think we all go through that, at some certain stage of our life, and I feel like I matured a lot through that time. Just because you age, doesn’t mean you mature, right? But I think through that experience, I have learned the secret that you just shared with us, that it’s not important what we do. What’s important is who we do it for—that we are doing it for God. And having that mindset has helped me to spark the joy that comes in work, in doing what you do because you know you do it for God. So I was curious to hear your experience in that emotional funk. What brought you out of it?
A: The question was just a little bit more perspective on the story I opened with—it’s very early on in the book too—about a period of time when I went through what I describe as an emotional funk. I call it in other places a dry season. The first thing I’ll say is just affirming your comment. I think it’s important to be able to share transparently this perspective, because one of the things I’ve found in doing research for the books is—just scratch your head and think about this—in the U.S. only about a third of people say that they are actually engaged in their work, and that number is more like fifteen percent when you look globally. So one of the things that means is that people are working really hard every day, but a lot of people are not highly engaged or passionate about their work. It means that many people are going through this.
The other thing that I would say is, what was very real to me, was having different experiences, particularly over the last two decades. I got into management very early, and a lot of that is about leading people. And I was so surprised to find at times how I would work with extraordinarily talented people, and when you got them to a moment of truth, they were so unhappy in their roles or their situation or their work. And so for me, to your question of what got me out of it, the first thing that I really had to do was realize that I couldn’t look to the typical external or extrinsic things to pull me out of that. That joy was not going to come through some “changing of the circumstance.” There was going to be no kind of pay or new promotion or that new thing, and I think that that is kind of the danger that we can all have. It’s sort of what Mother Teresa was alluding to in our quote that opened the talk—sometimes we’ll do the work for the work’s sake, but more than that, sometimes we’ll believe that work can offer us the kind of fulfillment that only God can.
I think the other thing was realizing that there was a reason for what I was going through. Because I think that only after really struggling through it can you go through that process of tearing down some of those idols in your own life. Because anything that you put before God is an idol—and it’s an insidious thing. You can be going through all the proper worship and all those things and serving in the church and not realizing how some things have become more important than they should be.
And the last part of really getting through it was taking what God was showing me in my own life, and seeing how I could deploy it to serve others. I think so much of our joy comes through serving other people. That thought was one of my big passions around writing a book, but what I also began to see is that the more I was transparent in sharing with others, in just trying to help them navigate these same things, the more my attitude and inner condition changed, and I was finding that joy that comes through service. Now, you say, isn’t that what the Bible tells us? Yeah, but I mean, just because we know it in our heads—[laughs]—it’s a different lived-out experience. So that was how I was able to work through that.
Q: How do those of us who have come to realize perhaps for the first time that systemic racism exists in our society answer those who adamantly oppose that it exists? And will reconciliation be possible more through corporate policies/corporate mandates, or individual efforts?
A: That’s a great question and a deep question. I’ll offer some perspectives. First of all, one of the things that I think we really have to wrestle with and accept is that racism is not an intellectual problem. I think that people should be informed, but the thought that giving people more and better information in and of itself will change their views is a false reality.
So the first thing I think has to happen is that we have to actually search for and declare truth. This is not so much about information or facts, per se, but it’s about truth. So I’ll give one truth—and people will react to this, but this is true. The very construct that we call “race” is a social construct. It is not a real thing. It has no biological reality. Anthropologists will tell you that it has no meaning beyond what we have cessed to it. It is what we would call an intersubjective reality. So the construct of race only exists because we all decide it does. As a thought exercise, tomorrow if we all got up and decided racism didn’t exist, it wouldn’t. So that’s a truth that, actually, we need to really grapple with.
Another truth is, anybody who wanted to take the time to look at the underpinnings of race would come to understand that in its inception, it is prejudiced. It was based on a hierarchy. And so it’s hard to have a social structure based on a hierarchy, that says somebody’s at the top and somebody’s at the bottom, that is informed by racist ideas. And I want to be clear when I say the term “racist ideas.” I think all people in western culture, and certainly in the U.S., have embraced racist ideas. It’s so intertwined. We have to understand that, regardless of all of our good intent, we all, by virtue of being part of this society, have processed those things. There’s certain truths about that.
I think the most important truths for us to share is what the Bible tells us. And so I think one of the reasons we struggle sometimes with trying to attack this thing called racism is that we lend it to political solutions or political ideology. Or we lend to other things, whereas the Bible gives us real clarity around what Jesus taught, which is a gospel of the kingdom. And that supersedes any ideology around politics or anything else. And so I think there’s a foundation if we start there.
I think the second thing is—this will sound really simple, and it’s really important—the vast majority of people do not have real intimate relationships with people who are not like them. Period. And so when we start talking about race and reconciliation—well, I mean, it’s a wonderful term, it sounds intellectual—but the reality is, if we don’t have any meaningful relationships with people from “other races,” what is there to reconcile? See, there’s nothing to reconcile because we never make the investment of having the relationship. I actually don’t use the term much, because I don’t think our issue is reconciliation; our issue is no relationship.
I have found that it’s really hard to mistreat someone that you actually know and care about. And I find it’s very easy to be disparaging to someone that you don’t know and that you don’t care about. The Bible very clearly gives us the answer to it, if we choose to use it. He says, “Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself.” And for all those who are confused, he gave us that wonderful parable of the about the good Samaritan, so just so when we think of the person who doesn’t look like us, that isn’t from our background, that isn’t from our neighborhood, we know that that is exactly who he’s talking about. And so it’s one of these things that’s really simple, but we have made it really hard.
Everything that we do in our organizations, where we live—I’m sorry I’m giving too long an answer to this very important question—but I think that’s it. And I think because of the realities of the world we live in—we can all say, it’s not necessarily the one we created, but it is one that potentially we all perpetuate. So it means that if I live in a monolithic community, I’m going to have to go out of my way to make connections with people who don’t share the same background with me. To actually know and hear their stories and to actually care. It means that I’m going to have to do some real work to unlearn the racist ideas that we all have learned being part of this society. I’m going to have to do that work. It brings up that I’m going to have to do some real work to realize, as the Bible says, that there is wickedness in high places, including the political and the business arena and things like that, and say, “I’m actually going to commit to interjecting the gospel of the kingdom,” so that that is what reigns and influences every area of life. And I think that’s the wonderful thing about people being gathered at an event like this, because I actually think we’re the people of God to do it. That would be my perspective.
Q: I have a question around joy. I think right now when you look at the daunting statistics of the shadow pandemic and our human incapacity to deal with imperfection, mental or emotional anxiety, depression—and when we think about joy, and how sometimes that gets replaced with sort of this perpetual, naive prosperity, what would you say based on your seven principles? How do we bring authenticity to joy in suffering?
A: That’s a great question. How do we bring authenticity to joy in the midst of suffering? I can only share personally how I’ve had to go about it. One of the things I’m finding for myself, and I encourage people to consider, is that we’ve got to turn a lot of things off.
So I’ll start with an age that we live in. Social media is so interesting, but it’s so dangerous. There’s an algorithm that knows everything I’ve looked at and seen or what-have-you. And I’m not a big social media person because of this reason, because it’s going to continue to show me things and views that correspond to the things that I have. There are two things that can be done to social media. Either they will feed me more stuff that they already believe I buy into, or actually feed me stuff to drive my insecurity and anxiety for a simple reason: because it knows that makes people engage more. So if I’m going to figure out how to flourish in an environment where we’re already dealing with a pandemic, I’m going to have to turn off some of that stuff.
I think that the media that we have today—it’s concerning to me that we actually have media that’s classified as conservative and liberal—and I promise you, I’m not trying to offend anybody, but I’ll tell you my truth—that’s just a dangerous thing. Once I claim some extreme, I’ve given myself the right not to listen to someone else. And then I think that that creates tensions, right? And so we can’t get past our deepest divides. And already when you’re in a crisis, it makes it really difficult. So I think the first thing is just turning off some things, I’ve found for myself, and re-engaging more with God. Because I think that the only way to really find joy in suffering is to find that hope that we have in Christ, which means that I literally have to be able to see it from his perspective. If I lean to my own understanding and see what I see, it can be really depressing. And it’s just easy to sort of sit with that and wallow in that. And so that’s the thing that I wrestle with. That’s what I talk to my sons about all the time. That’s what I talk to people in the workplace with. You know, I feel like a lot of us as leaders, we serve as pastors in the workplace, so to speak. And so that’s the encouragement that I have.
The last thing that I would reiterate: for me, it’s actually giving life to when I am suffering. Because I think that the reason we often can’t find joy in it is because we’ve been taught to wear a mask. And we put up a facade. And it’s not okay to. So being able to share with my friend, and say, “You know what I’m really going through, but I still have my hope in Christ.” It is literally in going through that transparency and that process, when I literally feel what, to me, the Bible is talking about when it says to rejoice. That’s why the “rejoice” helps. I wasn’t there at that moment, but I admitted to that thing, I was transparent about it, and in the midst of that I begin to see more Christ working in me, because I realize where my hope really is.