I burst into my friend’s office, collapsed into a chair, and began to sob.
“What?! What happened?”
“She — She —” I drew in a jagged breath and then wailed, “She said I was — enthusiastic!”
I always dread my performance reviews, yet I thought I’d had a pretty good year. I had solved a handful of intractable problems with creativity and grace; I inspired my teams; and by golly, I was smart. To get ready for the meeting, I had strung together a few of these adjectives like beads on a bracelet and fingered them hopefully as I walked into my boss’s office.
My friend paused. “Enthusiastic? What’s wrong with that?”
I wailed again. “I wanted her to say I was smart, or creative, or hard-working, or — or — anything else! ” In fact, I wanted her to acknowledge how hard I tried to be those things. I wanted her to say, I see you trying to be smart or creative or hard-working, and this year you were. I continued, “But all she said was that I was enthusiastic!” I practically spat the word and slumped into my chair, defeated.
My friend steepled his fingers and responded very carefully. “Carol Ann, you are those things. You work hard. You achieve results. You are smart. And —” He paused until I met his eye. “And what makes you so special to our office is your enthusiasm, your positive energy. Susan was trying to tell you that she values not only what you do, but how you do it. Yes, you work hard to be creative and all the rest. That’s your effort. We honor that. But what we really celebrate is how you change the room when you walk in.” He paused again. “With your enthusiasm.”
I listened, I nodded, I pretended to understand. And with sincere thanks for my friend’s enormous kindness, I left his office.
But I wasn’t buying it. “See me for what I do, for what I so intentionally and resolutely control,” part of me hollered inside. “Enthusiastic is what I am, not the fruit of my effort, practice, failure and learning. Do not praise me for something that is already inside me, something that’s so natural — and so easy.”
Eventually, of course, I absorbed the wisdom of my boss and my friend. And I started watching how the people around me went about their days. Yes, we were all pretty smart and creative and hard-working in our office. And I noticed that the woman over there also had a remarkable ability to infuse us with calm confidence; the man seated across from her was consistently kind and gentle; the woman down the hall could quickly distill a roomful of tangled ideas into a statement of clear purpose; and my officemate was reliably courageous and would say aloud what the rest of us were thinking.
I saw that each of us met our work’s performance criteria in profoundly different — and enriching — ways.
All of this came to mind as I think about how I can make a difference with my life, how I can make a difference today in this world, which demands supreme commitment and effort from each of us. As I’ve said elsewhere, I am investing my effort, my failure and my learning in rage and grief. These are the world’s performance criteria today, coupled with wide-awake understanding and resolute action.
And what I see now is that I must also season those very hard things — this grieving, this rage — with my inborn enthusiasm and energy, my faith in our basic goodness, and even my joy. I learned yesterday that the word enthusiasm comes from Greek and means “filled with God” or “inspired by God.” Maybe what I can contribute is seeing the world as I believe God sees it, with sadness but also with delight, affection and hope.
For the rest of my life I will perform in pursuit of justice, respect, generosity and good will. And my performance will unavoidably be tickled with sunshine and softened with love. That, my boss would say, is exactly right.
I wrote this piece for Five Minute Friday, a faith-based community site. Follow this link to see other short essays about “How.”
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