About fifteen minutes into our conversation, the refrain from Billy Idol’s 1983 hit song, “Eyes without a face,” kept looping round and round in my consciousness. That song was conjured by the large, expressionless eyes of the corporate director who sat before me. Months earlier, before she had begun working here, I had been hired to help in a process of constructing leadership retreats for the company. The former director, who had headed this project, had been moved to another department. The unblinking eyes without a face (EWAF), belonged to his replacement model. What I had thought would be a friendly breakfast meeting to pick up where we had left off, was actually a kind of interview to see if I would continue on the project.
Like a mismatched pair of athletes, one skilled in tennis, the other in racquetball, the corporate representative lobbed a question from her side of the court—the business side—and I whiffed at it on the Psychology/Marriage and Family Therapy/spirituality side of the net. With a resonant thud, one-at-a-time, the questions settled on the corporate dining room floor. “Blink. Blink. Blink.” Went the expressionless eyes. “Sip, Sip, Sip,” went her mouth on the liter-sized water bottle in front of her.
The friend who sat next to me, the colleague of EWAF, who introduced me to his company in the first place, mercifully took control of the meeting and asked her, “Since you’re new here, what are your goals for this institution, and what is one thing you hope to accomplish with us?” “Blink. Blink. Blink. Sip. Sip. Sip.” “I am too new here to answer that question. I am still in my assessment phase.” My friend continued to ask questions with the same result until he pressed her about what she hoped to give to the employees of this company. In between sips from her water bottle (no doubt filled with an intergalactic nutrient routinely consumed by life forms on her planet), EWAF said, “I want people to realize that the new corporate contract is no longer about longevity. Employees can no longer count on working for years and years for the same employer. I want them to know that in the modern employer-employee contract, the company will give you meaningful work that will sharpen your skills, until such a time as either you, or the employer feels that it is time to part ways.”
It was shortly thereafter that EWAF pressed a few buttons on her communication device, and said, “I’m sorry, I have a meeting with (here she inserted the name of one of the many replaceable parts in her company).” With that, she politely gave my hand a, “Don’t call us; we’ll call you” shake, and took her leave.
In this Sunday’s Gospel (Luke 16: 19-31), Jesus offered a parable meant to outline hiscorporate philosophy. The story involved two men, one rich, one poor; one named Dives, the other Lazarus. In that famous tale, Dives could not be bothered with caring for his impoverished neighbor. The natural spiritual consequences that flowed from Dives’ lack of faithfulness to his neighbor in need were made manifest in the latter part of that story.
After I picked myself up off of the corporate dining room floor, I got in my car, and drove across town for a decidedly different sort of meeting I had scheduled with David, an old mentor, and friend of mine. For about a year and a half, David had been fighting pancreatic cancer. Only about 5% of the people diagnosed with this virulent form of cancer survive, and yet, here was David, slightly thinner, inviting me into his company’s dining room for lunch.
David Flemming was to Catholic spirituality what Pete Sampras was to tennis. Consequently, there were many things that David had to say about this phase of his life that were worthy of reflection. But given the meeting I had just exited, the biggest thing that struck me had to do with the fidelity that David exercised toward his company, and the fidelity that his company was practicing toward him. It seems that all the while that David had been battling cancer, he continued in his work writing, editing a journal, and providing presentations for his organization. He explained that his company had been patient with the pace of his work. In fact, he had been provided a room with a cot near his office. When he grew weary, he took an hour or so to rest. After his siesta, he would go back to work. As a result of this arrangement, David, in the middle of cancer treatments, edited nearly a dozen journals, wrote articles, gave presentations, and laid the groundwork for his successor to continue after his death.
When one looks at how David lived his life, and how he let go of it, one sees the fruit of a life lived in intimacy with Christ: courage, peace, and resilience. Through the prism of David’s company, one sees an organization that is decidedly different than the one that was described for me, just an hour earlier. Operating from a contemporary business philosophy, David would have been handled with a kind of dispassionate (dare I say, “inhuman”) efficiency that would have made room for the next replaceable part. But, unlike the rich “Dives” in this Sunday’s Gospel, David’s old-fashioned (i.e. “human”) company practiced fidelity relative to an employee who showed up with a kind of Lazarus-like-poverty. And just look at the fruit this company reaped as a result of their old-fashioned employee contract. With his last breath, David donated the treasures of his time, energy, creativity, and intelligence, leaving his company far better than he found it.
One practical implication of this Sunday’s Gospel is that our works of mercy are not to be left in the parking garage on the way to work. Recognizing the personhood of our employees and colleagues isn’t only the right thing to do, it is also the profitable thing to do. In this era of “Doing more with less,” a manager, supervisor, or director must ask his or her employees to give so much more of their time and energy. When an employee observes a company treating a down-in-his fortunes colleague like David with fidelity, and generosity, a kind of vicarious, and spontaneous reciprocity occurs. They will have a tendency to approach their work with fidelity and generosity. Pope Francis is making big headlines by simply articulating the simple truth of this Sunday’s Gospel. When it comes to our brothers and sisters in need, what goes around comes around. In our homes, our church communities, our neighborhoods, our political choices, and our workplaces too, we are to give God a warmly human face.