The Heart of Corporate America

Part III of The Religious Sense at Work Series: a witness from corporate America to the attention that changes everything.

The Religious Sense at Work is a weekly limited series that explores the way our communal reading of The Religious Sense informs and illuminates our experience of work.

I work in the heart of corporate America, immersed on a daily basis in a “system” that - from the outside - may look like a giant meat grinder whose only aim is continued accumulation of money and power.

But after 10 years, three countries, tens of projects, and hundreds of colleagues on my teams, I can attest that the “system” is not as bad as everyone seems to think it is. Or, at least I can say that the many issues that get called out on a regular basis as a result of this “system” are most often distortions of truly positive and human desires. Who wouldn’t want to provide a more comfortable life for themselves and their families? Who wouldn’t want to be in a better position to pursue advances in health, engineering, tech, or other fields? Who wouldn’t try to do their part in a mechanism that is ultimately trying to improve people’s lives?

Nobody I’ve met has set out from the get-to to be a greedy or unethical professional, or a mean boss or team leader, or an overbearing client or colleague. Some eventually end up there, especially in high-pressure situations, and I too often find myself behaving in an undesirable way, towards my colleagues, my clients, and my work in general, but what I have observed in my professional life is that everyone starts off moved by a genuinely positive desire. To learn more about complex and beautiful machines or products, to teach younger generations the ropes of a profession, to make a small contribution in the pursuit of great goals - ultimately, to use a somewhat cheesy expression, to make the world a better place.

But I do not want to propose a sociological analysis of “what goes wrong” in the corporate world - others would certainly do a better job than me. Instead, I would first like to share a few examples where I witnessed the religious sense in action – where it was able to come out from under the blankets of corporate slogans and worldly comforts.

A few conversations about love come to mind, and specifically when at 24, only a few months out of university, I told my team at work that I had gotten engaged, a colleague who would often brag about her quite eventful love life teared up with joy and burst out with “things like this give me hope!” Or during the protests related to George Floyd’s killing in the middle of the pandemic, teams spontaneously started to get together and talk about what happened, and people’s human questions were for once out in the open. More recently, in front of a tragedy that happened to a common client, a partner whose greatest strength is establishing very personal (and profitable) relationships confessed that he has no idea how to behave in the face of death; or another colleague, who was complaining about a particularly stressful situation with some team members and suddenly turned the conversation from a “venting” session into a broader discussion about what we truly desire from this job and how to look at life and its problems.

These episodes are simple moments of humanity, which generally end very rapidly: silencing the heart is a hard habit to overcome, and our deeper and more radical desires and aspirations most often don’t have a place in the corporate world. The “party line” in front of anything that may bring those questions to the surface is to find ways to cope (a beloved term in corporate lingo). To use Rilke’s words that Giussani quotes in Chapter 5 of The Religious Sense, “all combines to suppress us, partly as shame, perhaps, and partly as inexpressible hope”.

And even though my life is very unique when compared to that of many of my colleagues because of the grace of faith I have received, the risk for my daily routine in the office to be arid and monotonous is very much present. Specifically, I see that the great temptation in front of the problems and tensions (or even the successes) of my work is self-reliance. It is up to me whether my day is going to be a good one or not, it is up to me whether I treat my colleagues and teams humanly, it is up to me whether my work is successful or not. And inevitably this leads to treating work like a burden – to desiring only to get through the day. Ultimately, this leads to a deep dissatisfaction and boredom.

In addition to helping me pay more attention to the small signs of the human heart emerging, which become nourishment to my humanity and my faith, the recent School of Community work on The Religious Sense has also helped me look more closely at my own position in the office. What am I here for? Who do I respond to? How different is life when the starting point for my days is an openness, a question, a prayer!

That truly changes everything: the spark of interest that made me passionate about this job comes back. It doesn’t change the content of what I do, but it changes its meaning, which makes it interesting again. And funnily enough, as much as corporate America wants to believe that efficiency and focus are the only ways to “change the world”, this attention to my human desire is actually what makes me good at my job. This attention is what helps me look at my clients and teams with a sincere interest and allows me to work with them in a constructive way, in search for solutions that truly contribute to the betterment of the small piece of reality that I am given. Perhaps that is how I can begin again to build the Kingdom - even in corporate America.

Massimo, Philadelphia, PA