Towards WE, Away from ME

1 Sep

I was speaking with my boss, the associate director of my library, today about an upcoming supervisors retreat we’re planning. Earlier she asked those of us attending for comments and suggestions to help plan the day – to make it a day we’d feel invested in. The deadline was yesterday and before the day ended, I sent her a note saying I wasn’t ignoring her request, but that I honestly had nothing. Nothing to offer. Nothing to add. No fun or engaging exercises I hoped we could do together. I’m usually very good at this kind of thing. I like retreats to spark and reinvigorate work. But I can think of nothing right now.

Perhaps I’m tired. Perhaps everyone is. The world seems tired to me. If you read or listen to the news, there’s so much anger and meanness, bickering and selfishness, war and strife, and a pandemic that simply won’t quit – or at least one that has left us with so many signals that things will never be what they once were. It makes me weary.

It also makes me sad. My boss said this morning, “It’s a kind of an ennui we’re experiencing.” She said, “ennui” but I heard, “un-we.” And I said, “That’s exactly what it is. UN-WE.” We’re a very productive library, ticking off boxes and accomplishing projects and providing services, but the further we get from March 13, 2020, the further we get from the collective sense of team – of “WE” – that I once took for granted. Our virtual and hybrid working worlds have not and do not take away from productivity, but they have taken something – something that’s not easy to log in the reference services database.

A few weeks ago I attended the annual Boston Library Consortium Forum. Once called “Networking Day,” this year’s Forum was the first held in person (with a virtual component) since 2019. Per the BLC’s announcement, it was a day “dedicated to uplifting and celebrating our community” and being together in person at the University of Connecticut did much to achieve this goal. The keynote speaker was Charles Vogl, the author of “The Art of Community: Seven Principles for Belonging” among other works. He is a sought-after speaker on the practice of bringing people together; helping people to not feel disconnected and alone in life.

His talk was virtual (hmmm…) but engaging and insightful and funny. He also led us through some activities that helped people share honestly and openly about times we’ve felt alone, and during the Q&A time, he asked individuals to volunteer to share their stories and experiences with the larger audience. It was an excellent talk and the activities were helpful, personally. However, when I asked Vogl his thoughts on how we can rebuild community at work, I was sad to hear him jokingly say, “No one really wants to be friends with the people that they work with.” People laughed, but to me it was disappointing. It’s a serious question. Maybe we don’t look to find our best friends at work, but given the amount of time we spend working, it sure seems to me that we’d benefit from being a community. If community is about belonging, I believe we do better when we feel we belong at work.

I’ve heard from a number of people – from friends and colleagues in my profession, as well as friends who do very different work – that it seems there’s a trend where we’re all doing our own thing. Plenty of times we’re doing the things that we do well, but we’re doing them in our own silos, our own homes, our own pods. We’ve lost some of that collaborative spirit among colleagues.

I’m at a loss for what to offer for retreat planning, but I hope some of our work together helps us come up with some ideas and actions to address this. COVID affected and exposed so much in our societies. I imagine we’ll experience the fall-out for years to come.

Vermont farm with silos. Image by David from Pixabay

2 Responses to “Towards WE, Away from ME”

  1. Maureen Dunn September 2, 2022 at 10:41 am #

    Agree 100% with all of the above, Sally. Been seeing this happen for the last 2+ years, even in an “always-in-person” working environment. It’s harder to get people to join committees, work toward – or even decide on – shared goals, or go outside the bare minimum of effort. We see it in our staff turnover – my hospital’s famed culture is threadbare at the moment and not strong enough to hold people. I see it in my kids’ schools too – fewer parents signing up to volunteer for PTO and activities, or even just showing up for them. It’s partially people being out of practice, I think, after a couple years of being told NOT to do stuff…but not having those communities makes everything harder in the end because there’s no backbone of support to rely on. It takes effort to rebuild those communities, but those of us who tend to be community builders are really tired too – so things languish. But I figure it’s like exercise…it’s really painful in the beginning when you’re out of shape, and it takes a WHOLE lot more effort to get moving. Eventually, however, as your muscles get conditioned, the exercise flows more smoothly and doesn’t feel so damn hard. Our community muscles have atrophied and need some serious work. We need some kind of living-in-community Zumba. I’m back in the beginning stages of running after a more or less two year hiatus, so I’m feeling ALL my muscles. 😀 And I’m hoping that the energy I know that I’ll gain by doing that can be used toward supporting my community building muscles. I’m trying to be optimistic and reframe the situation as: this is just a building year (or maybe a few years) for team humanity.

  2. Winnie September 5, 2022 at 3:55 am #

    I’m glad to see a post from you again Sally, it has been a while and I missed it! I totally see where you are coming from and I do see the same thing in my own country and my own environment. However, I just want to add a more positive note. My (very small) team of four has never felt more close. No, they are not friends, at least not in the sense that we go to each other’s birthday parties. But we see each other in the office twice a week, we’ve done a team day, we share our lives and we make plans for the future. I guess it’s easier to do that when you have such a small team, but it does definitely feel like we have our own small community.
    More in general, in our library network and in our country it is getting harder to find volunteers. Even so, I see that the young active people (I’m not young, though I think I’m still pretty active) are finding new ways of reaching out and trying to grow the volunteer community. I still have hope 🙂

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