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By Gideon Strauss
You’ve been let go from your job. You cannot find a new job in your field. You dig into your savings to try out a new direction. You blow through your savings while this new direction turns out to be a dead end. No job; no money. Against a scenario like this — the story of one of his friends — Umair Haque asks in his Harvard Business Review blog, “What do you do when you reach the edge of heartbreak?”
We’ve asked a few former De Pree doctoral fellows (the Max De Pree Center for Leadership, through the generosity of our donors, is able to offer fellowships to doctoral students at Fuller Theological Seminary) how they would answer this question.
Cory Willson, a 2011 De Pree Fellow, writes:
“Heartbreak is never easy. And when it comes to work, it is probably safe to say that Americans are more accustomed to talking about heartbreak over relationships than over their jobs. As humans, we are hardwired to work just as we are designed to be in relationship with others — after all, we bear the image of God the relater and worker. While unrequited love will continue to serve as grist for love ballads for the unforeseeable future, Umair Haque reminds us that we should not overlook work as a potential source of heartbreak.
“So what do I do when I reach the edge of heartbreak at work? I engage in the practices of lament and gratitude. Believe me, it is easier said than done. Let me explain. In the span of three months I went through a cycle that involved burnout and refreshment only to be laid off from my job just two months into marriage. In the wake of this ordeal I had to face heartbreak in some profound ways. At first there was a wave of fear and uncertainty of future, but this quickly gave way to an overwhelming sense of failure. Even with the gracious assurances from my boss and co-workers that this was not the case, I couldn’t get my emotions free from the narrative of failure. It was not until my wife began using the language of loss that I began to have courage to break free.
“As my wife and I talked through our losses — a boss who believed in and trusted me, a team of co-workers who aspire and inspire others to be their best, and a shared vision for a better world and the desire for our organization to be a part of this — I began to see these overlooked gifts that had graced my life. And instead of bitterness, a deep sense of gratitude appeared where dark feelings of failure once lived. When I hear Brené Brown describe creativity and joy being born out of the same context as shame and vulnerability, I know firsthand that that creativity and life can surprise us as we engage in lament.
“A mentor of mine told me that he once asked Max De Pree how he as a leader should respond to the economic recession the country was facing. Max’s response is both instructive and inspiring. He said, ‘you have to remember that people are grieving during this time.’ Work is indeed an essential and beautiful part of our experience of being human. And like human relationships, precisely because of its potential for beauty and joy it can also be a source of heartbreak. Yet as Max reminds us, if we can learn to grieve our losses, heartbreak can be limited to part of our journey and not our destination.”
Sooi-Ling Tan, a 2006 De Pree Fellow, writes:
“I am an adjunct lecturer at Malaysia Baptist Theological Seminary, Penang, Malaysia with a focus on worship studies.
“That is a difficult place to be in, when everything falls apart. I agree with Umair Haque about brutal honesty and absolute surrender as the initial necessary steps. There is a place for weeping and lament. Indeed, the Psalms are rife with deeply honest and sincere lament. Grieving enables me to put a ‘full stop’ or a ‘period’ to this particular phase. In order to move on however, I find the need to tap into the larger narrative, the bigger picture and the idea of the whole journey. ‘Hope’ is the pivotal word, and perhaps for each individual, hope is mirrored in different ways. For me, its in the chuckle of a new born baby, a poor student fighting against the odds to do well in school, the grandeur of the mountains, the steadfast rhythm of the waves on the shore or a friend’s presence that reminds me of God’s steadfast love.”
Rebecca Shenton, a 2010 De Pree Fellow who currently lives in Cape May Court House, New Jersey, writes:
“I am currently engaged in writing a dissertation that develops an Anabaptist/Mennonite agricultural ethic, while serving as Official Dragon for my parents in their interactions with the wild world of healthcare. (Both are unpaid, but very important, and some weeks the second task overshadows the first, as it did last week, when my mom was in the hospital.)
“When I reach the point of heartbreak, I turn to my social support network, a carefully-constructed group of friends, family, and colleagues who are able to listen well and remind me of the greater purpose beyond the current pain and struggle. I am reminded time and again that not all of my endeavors end in failure, and that many of the situations that seem impossible are challenges that will be overcome through persistence, creativity, and an abiding trust in the God I love and serve.”
Shi-Min Lu, a 2012 De Pree Fellow, writes:
“I am the Executive Director of Upward Bound Study Center, a Christian non-profit organization in Monterey Park, California, that serves as a catalyst to empower the immigrants in San Gabriel Valley (currently all Chinese) to reach their God-given dreams through listening to them to discover their God-given power, forming a sustainable and supportive community, inspiring leadership formation, and building up staff and volunteers.
“The first thing I would do when I reach the edge of heartbreak is to take a few days off for a personal retreat to celebrate a break from work routines. I learned from my past experiences that there are lessons to be learned at the edge of heartbreak. If the situation is self-inflicted, I need to learn from it so that I do not repeat it. If it is beyond my control — such as natural causes or an economic downturn — I meditate on the possible messages of the larger environment to see how to fine-tune my ‘reason and purposes’ using Umair Haque’s words. Second, I would continue my life outside work and even expand it now that I have extra time. For example, I helped others in the same congregation I attended to polish their resumes and interview skills during my own search for a job. I took the time to connect with family members and friends whom I had not contacted very often as I planned and worked on the steps toward my ‘purposes.’ Sometimes it takes a lot courage to step into the unknown even after careful planning. Being a Christian, I sense the great joy of encountering surprises after taking the faith leap. The edge of heartbreak may be the connecting edge of a new horizon.”
Michaela O’Donnell Long is a 2013 De Pree Fellow. She writes:
“When professional heartbreak looms, my instincts tell me to RUN — run away from the reality of failure and disappointment. However, I have learned the hard way that running enables my denial and assists me in my quest to not deal with the heartbreak.
“Instead, I am learning to place myself in a context in which I am most likely to deal with the heartbreak and face the unclear future. While specific heartbreaks call for different kinds of responses, my contexts always include a safe person and safe physical space. The combination of a safe person/space helps me to confront the realities of my failures and disappointments. Submitting myself to the process of facing reality means letting go — something I’m pretty bad at. But, it is in working to let go that I begin to grieve, and ultimately navigate the unclear future.”
Near the end of his Harvard Business Review piece, Umair Haque writes, “It is grace that gives us, finally, the power to love. To, through the heartbreak, the grief, and the joy, breathe life into possibility, and so breathe possibility into life. And that is what a life that feels burstingly whole, achingly full, timelessly true, is really all about: the power to love.” And then he asks his question again: “What do you do when you reach the edge of heartbreak?”
So, what do you do, when you’re not the one hired into your dream job, when your startup hopes have been disappointed, when you’re out of pocket and out of plans?
Gideon Strauss is the executive director at the Max De Pree Center for Leadership and also editor of Fieldnotes Magazine.
Fieldnotes Magazine is a publication of the Max De Pree Center for Leadership at Fuller Theological Seminary. We would love to hear from you about people, businesses, or other organizations we can interview or feature. Please email The Editor at Fieldnotes Magazine.
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