Wednesday, October 5, 2016

The Truth About Religion At Work

We live in a time of terrible strife. This is not the fault of religion. It is the fault of religious fundamentalists and in particular those who use religion to gain power and money.
I want to talk about my own personal experiences with religion at work. This is not to argue in favor of religion, against religion, to subtly proselytize etc. etc. If anything I would like to show that it's complicated.
Oddly for a Jew I find my most influential religious teachers have been Muslims at work. How about that? I started covering my hair for awhile when I saw a devout Muslim woman on her way to work, praying. I confronted my workaholism when a Muslim employee inquired about the logic of sending emails at 3 a.m. I learned about what really matters at work when a Muslim colleague offered money to help another colleague who was struck with terrible personal luck. (Nobody else lifted a finger.)
How about that?
A long time ago another colleague of mine, a Christian, started a weekly prayer service in a room they made available at work. It was actually called "Wednesday's Word" (interestingly, today is Wednesday). No I never went, because as a Jew I'm not allowed to go. But I remember how she had this beautiful poster of an angel against a blue sky. The bubble of the lettering. She had a boring job, but her eyes lit up to talk about faith.
It's funny. Once I went to Chop't with a different peer at the same agency and we had a three-hour debate about Jesus. Or, at least it felt like three hours because time just seemed to stop altogether that day. At the end of the conversation, she just had to walk out the elevator and let it close. On that subject we could find no beginning, nor reach a logical end.
I think my atheist and agnostic colleagues are some of the most respectful people around when it comes to religion. Or maybe they feel sorry for me. But never once have they engaged me in any kind of debate over whether G-d exists.
Of course I've worked with Jewish colleagues. I'm not sure exactly what it is that we share in common half the time, since our backgrounds are usually so different. But if there is any cultural characteristic about us that stands out, I'd say we'll argue over principles till our dying breath. Not only do we seem to have strong opinions, but we strongly disagree even more than average people seem to. (You haven't lived until you've argued as to whether cholent is more of a Jewish heritage food than sushi.)
My best friend of all time, at work, has retired. She is Jewish by lineage but introduced me to Buddhism, to the Dalai Lama. I can still remember her handing me Becoming Enlightened. The whole philosophy of it, the ideas - I remember thinking "this is an amazing system," and though I frankly couldn't absorb all of it in depth, the central points made so much sense to me: We are all suffering here. What matters is compassion for one another.
Of course religion is a personal matter, and in fact one of the great things about the United States is that we separate church and state. Including prohibiting discrimination based on someone's beliefs.
But there is a difference between "prohibiting discrimination based on religion" and "omitting religion altogether." I get that it is a hot-button issue, but all the same so are a lot of things that make us unique. And we don't lose any of them by walking in the door of the workplace.
I count myself enriched by the great diversity of my colleagues.
Photo by Matthew Fearnley via Flickr (Creative Commons)