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Work was something I became accustomed to early in life. From about ten years of age, I worked. My first job was as a laborer in the tobacco fields of North Carolina. Though I earned only $3.00 for working from dawn until dusk, I loved the independence it gave me, the feelings of self-worth, the freedom to buy the clothes I wanted. I loved looking forward to lunch time, sitting under a shady oak tree relishing a fried baloney sandwich, an RC Cola, and a Moon Pie. I savored the conversations of the adults and the challenge of keeping pace with the “stringer,” handing the tobacco to her two leaves at a time. Even the big green tobacco worms provided excitement in an otherwise repetitious and monotonous task.

As I grew up, each new job brought more value to my self-concept, until, finally, when I finished my education at the age of 42, I thought, “Great, now life won’t be so hard.” At last, I could reap the harvest, not have to struggle so much and have a little control in my life. After all the sacrifices—the 60-hour-plus work weeks to get through graduate school, driving the same old Ford Maverick for 13 years, and the hardest sacrifice of all, providing insufficient support to my children— I was jobless and broken. Nobody could have that much bad luck. It had to be me, something rotten to the core of my being that nobody wanted to have around.

After getting buried in an avalanche of layoffs three different times, getting fired from one job, and quitting another, my whole world caved in. Ironically, my responsibility was to teach and advise others about improving organizational effectiveness. Naively, I thought this protected me from being caught in the downsizing trends picking up steam in the ’80s. Every day I woke up so despondent that I struggled just to get out of bed. I felt utterly betrayed and rejected. Nearly every waking moment, I was preoccupied with blame and self-loathing. My feelings of abandonment, my sense of powerlessness, consumed me.

Having recently remarried, for the first time in my life I did not have to work. My husband's salary was sufficient for our family. Yet, living my fantasy of just staying home—not having to deal with all the pressures of working—just made me miserable. For all of my life, my identity was based on what I was able to do, not what I was able to be. Since I was my job, and now I no longer had one, I had nothing to fill a void so profound I didn’t know where to start nor what to do.

Thank God I listened to the barely audible finer part of myself, beckoning me away from the distraction of desire for fame, power, recognition, and money. I embarked on a new journey to redefine who I was independent of my professional work. Stripped naked of any semblance of self-worth, I started peeling away the layers of my false identity, the false hero image I had manufactured for myself. I peeled the onion down to the tears, to the core of my true nature. Escaping to my secret garden, I weeded and waded through melancholic memories, reconciling losses of a lifetime so profound I could not face until then. Digging in the dirt of my life in my garden, I discovered the delicious and tangible glory of watching things grow.

My secret garden gave me back my softness, my gentleness, things for which there was little approval in the masculine world of business. Trained to deny my wholeness, it was there in my garden I learned I am no more my job than a garden is weeds. And neither are you. In the words of Margaret Young,

"Often people attempt to live their lives backwards: they try to have more things, or more money, in order to do more of what they want so that they will be happier. The way it actually works is the reverse. You must first be who you really are, then do what you need to do, in order to have what you want."

In our life’s chain of events, nothing is accidental. It’s not what you do, but how you do it. God does not care if I am a gardener or an organizational development consultant. What is important is how I handle the trials. Adversity in the workplace can make us or break us. It’s really up to us. In Mother Teresa’s words, "God does not demand that I be successful. God demands that I be faithful."

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