Saturday, August 21, 2010

Life on the margins

I spent much of yesterday catching up on the blogosphere, and found this interesting post on Faith, Fiction, Friends.  You should definitely read the post -- it's an excellent one -- but essentially he's talking about a quote from Wendell Berry which he encountered in L.L. Barkat's latest book, God in the Yard: Spiritual Practice for the Rest of Us.

Berry is speaking about marginal land – land where things don’t easily grow because the soil is poor or eroded or the land doesn’t get much rainfall or is exhausted from overfarming. This is what Berry said:

“It is at the margins that the weaknesses of an enterprise will show first and most dramatically.” 

For writer Glynn Young, this quote was a huge eye-opener, and his open eyes helped to open mine as well.  Like me, Young is a career communications professional: his job in life has been to help communications flow from corporations and organizations out to the constituencies they do -- or could -- serve and, in turn, to help communications flow back into the organizations.

Young's revelation is that communications professionals live at the margins almost by definition.  I'm visualizing it as a sort of osmosis, you know, where the outer edges of a cell become semi-permeable so oxygen can flow from one side to the other.  But of course, when you live on those outer edges, removed from the core of an organization, it's much easier to see the disconnect between what the constituents want and what the organization actually offers; between the organization's declared mission and what it's actually accomplishing.

But my experience has been that when you try to carry that information back to the core you run the risk of some serious shoot-the-messenger behavior.  And, more importantly -- for me, at least -- those margins are a pretty lonely place to live.  You are not safely tucked into the bosom of the organization because you need the distance in order to observe effectively -- and, because of what you observe and then communicate, you are often unwelcome in the corporate bosom.  But you're not really part of the outside world either; the constituency and customers tend to assume that you espouse the goals -- and flaws -- of the organization you serve.

Well, duh!  No wonder those jobs were so uncomfortable for me!

And yet -- in some ways, I feel that I am conditioned to live on the margins; to be that permeable membrane, to understand both sides of the issue, and to communicate in both directions.  But surely there must be another, less painful way to honor my makeup and calling; to serve both sides rather than offending both sides.

I suspect that's why I'm in school: it's a conscious effort to reapply those skills in a less combative environment; to become more involved with service than with selling and spinning.  It feels like Organizational Development and coaching would be a much more productive use of this skillset.

But who knows; time will tell how this plays out.  In the meantime, I'm still loving what I'm learning!


Maureen said...

How lovely that you gave Glynn a shoutout. He's done some wonderful posts on Laura's God in the Yard.

Love the new image.

Melissa said...

Thank you for this post, and so many of your others. You, and Glynn, again accessed my mind frame this week - the flow of communications from the inside out, and the outside in, how marginal a place that is -- and the wrestling that takes place simply to connect good with good. I so often think of permeable as well.

My day ended yesterday on that note, with an end of the day message from a volunteer, on the need for interaction and presence outside, and me considering yet again some new way to communicate that need effectively and graciously within. The volunteer, the customer - they keep your heart beating. So, off I will go again. Knock, knock, knock.

I do wonder if there could be 'a less painful way to honor my makeup and calling'. I have always seen both, and voiced both, and it always hurts. Although, for me, at this moment, it is good that I learn where to replenish and how to use my voice.

Glynn said...

Diane - thank you for this reference and discussion. A day doesn't go by without being reminded of the truth of what Berry said. You've amplified it well with this post. and you're point about pain -- I wasn't quite ready to explore that aspect in my post, but it can be very painful indeed.

L.L. Barkat said...

I love how you expand on Glynn's post. And that has got to be one of my favorite quotes from the book. :) said...

Thanks, all -- especially to L.L. and Glynn, who escorted me across the margin into this new wisdom. There's so much to think about here! I'll be musing on this for a while...