Sunday, January 13, 2008

289. the Harold experiment

For those who read my blogger blog (I also mirror my posts on MySpace), I don't know if you've noticed, but I've started tagging some of my posts. One of the tags is called The Harold Experiment and those posts are all about my ex-coworker whom I code-named "Harold." I labeled it an "experiment" because after a while, that's how it felt.

(Brief synopsis - if you're up on the situation, feel free to skip this paragraph.) See, I work in a small, specialized department of a much larger warehouse where it's just me and Harold. Harold is difficult to work with. He's not efficient, he can't (doesn't) prioritize projects, has a very short temper, and while I wouldn't go so far as to say he's lazy...I take that back, he's pretty lazy. He's also not much of a team player - unless you consider dumping all of the hard work on your coworker (me) teamwork.

It would have been really easy on numerous occasions for me to have reported Harold to my supervisors, and it was hard not to but at some point I came to see our little specialized department as a kind of laboratory and my interactions with him as a kind of experiment. I mean, I didn't think of it that way at the time, but looking back on it, that's an apt way to put it. It was a test to see if living out the Gospel in the way I had come to understand it really worked.

See, I've done a lot of thinking in the last few years about what it really means to live as a christian. One of the ways of understanding the Gospel that has been key to me is the idea that being a christian means living now the way I would if the fall had never happened or the way I will after Christ returns and redeems all of creation. So my little experiment involved trying my best to work with Harold as if he was a kick-ass, hard driving uber-worker even though he was the opposite of that.

That meant I had to bite my tongue a lot. There were so many instances where I wanted to blow up at Harold, shove his shitty work habits back in his face but I didn't. When his lack of initiative left unfinished projects strewn about, instead of letting them slip past deadline and pointing towards Harold when asked who was to blame, I stepped in and finished them for him. There were even a couple of occasions where I flat out caught him taking shortcuts that were clearly breaking company rules but instead of reporting him, I just told him I knew what he was doing and asked him not to go there again (and to his credit, he never least I never caught him doing it again).

I don't mean to paint myself as a saint in this situation. I bitched a lot about Harold to some of the other people I worked with and of course I've dished it out in this blog but honestly, I did the best I could. And it's not like I had anything like a holy or reverent attitude about this little experiment. Especially in the past few months, it felt stupid and pointless because no matter how many times I finished his projects or cleaned up his mistakes, he just kept being his slow and lazy and unorganized self.

You know, looking back on it now, I'm not sure what I expected to get out of this little experiment. I mean, I did my best to not think about how unfair the situation was, how little he was working, how his lack of consideration made my job more difficult that it had to be, but I don't know if I ever expected anything to change. I just did my best to soldier on and do the job as if working for the Lord and not for Leroy (code name for my supervisor). I did my best to be Jesus to Harold.

It's probably the hardest thing I've ever done. And it took its toll on me. In the last couple months, there have been times when I've been working in the racks and I found myself punching the shit out of some of the boxes. See, in the racks, boxes are stacked three high and three deep. Sometimes the file you need is buried back in the last set of boxes and when you try to get it out, boxes in adjacent stacks get in the way and so you have to push them aside to get the box you want out. Normally all you have to do is tap the offending box a bit to make room but there were times when a kind of rage took over and I would start slamming the box with my fist, over and over again, as hard as I could.

The scariest part of this is that these little rage episodes didn't always coincide with Harold pissing me off. Sometimes it would just be an ordinary day where Harold and I were working on different things and everything would be fine until I'd run across some small, insignificant situation and all of a sudden I'm overtaken by an urge to throw something across the room or kick in the side of a box. Not like me at all.

And I've only been working there for a year. Harold's been there for five years so maybe it's no wonder that he's the way he is. But then again, Harold never had to work with a Harold.

Anyway, this past Friday was my last day working with Harold because he has the next week off (my last week at work). Normally I don't like goodbyes but I was really looking forward to the end of Friday because I knew that was going to be the last time I'd ever have to work with him. The day goes by like any other - me working like a dog and Harold working like a tree but in the last few minutes, Harold motions me aside and while I can't remember the exact words, he says something like:

"Randall, I've learned a lot from you."

Now I'm thinking he's talking about some of the work flow things that I've developed to streamline the process of getting orders pulled and out on time but then he continues,

"your work ethic and the way you treat people, I've never seen anything like it before and it's taught me a lot and I want to thank you. I know I'm not the easiest person to work with but you've really shown me something and I'm going to try to use some of what I've seen in you. So thanks, and I hope things go well for you at your new job."

I don't know how I kept myself from fainting or just staring at him with a blank look of disbelief. Instead, I shook his hand, thanked him for his kind words and wished him the best as well. He then walked out of our department, clocked out, and went home.

I couldn't believe it. That was probably one of the most stunning things anyone has ever said to me. All this time I thought he wasn't paying any attention. I thought, if anything, he was just taking advantage of my drive.

Earlier that day, I had been thinking a bit about what I was going to say to Harold when he left. I knew I wasn't going to lie to him and say something like, "it was a pleasure working with you," because it wasn't. I didn't know what I was going to say to him, I figured I'd just come up with something when that time came around. Actually, to be honest, when I did think of Harold these past couple days, I was relishing the thought of all the workload that I'd been shouldering falling squarely on him. I mean, we are training someone to take my place but she's new and so if anything, she'll be a drag on his productivity. I imagined our department full of boxes that weren't getting put away, orders that weren't getting pulled on time or correctly. I imagined the CSRs and supervisors coming down hard on Harold and once all that pressure hit his notoriously short temper, I pictured some really volatile, explosive situations.

I felt pretty stupid and evil and guilty for these thoughts after what Harold said.

I thought my little experiment was a failure, that soldiering on despite Harold's sloth was fruitless and futile. I thought I was a dolt for not complaining when I had the chance. I thought I was just banging my head against a wall that wouldn't budge.

But what if during all this time when I thought I was firing blanks I was actually planting seeds?

Of course the cynical side of me says he's just talk - that he's going to remain his slow, unorganized self, that he's going to push the bulk of the work on the new trainee. But what if some change does occur? What if he's been watching me closer that I ever considered? What if God's somehow used me to upset his world-view, showing him that there is another way to live? I mean, he's not exactly an effusive guy. Something must have been on his mind for him to open up the way he did. He could have easily just said, "good bye and good luck."

I don't know. My head is still reeling from the shock of what he said. I don't know if I'll ever see him again. I gave him my number because earlier this week he had mentioned that he was going to use his week off to try and find a new place to live so I gave him my number and told him I'd help him move if he needed it. Maybe he'll call, maybe he won't.

I don't know what's in store for Harold and I'm still processing the results of this little "experiment," but a part of me wants to believe that God will grow this little seed and give Harold new life. He doesn't have to be his crusty old self, that's just the hard, ugly shell that sin has painted over him.

And I don't know if not reporting his poor work habits was really the best way to live out the Kingdom of God (something I define as doing your best to make wherever you are a bit more like Eden and less like Babylon in whatever way you can). One thing I completely failed to consider is the work situation for the person who would take my place. If Harold remains anything like he was when I worked for him then Newbie is in for a world of hurt. Perhaps if I had known that I was going to be resigning for a new job a few months ago I would have worked more purposely at getting Harold to clean up his act so that the next person wouldn't have to face the brunt of his poor work ethic.

Again, I don't know.

But here's one thing I do know. God used me to make an impression on Harold and I don't know what God has in store for him but I feel humbled and blessed that I got to play a part.

Perhaps you've heard the phrase attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, "Preach the Gospel at all times. Use words if necessary." A brief Google search turned up this link that suggests that it's not really something St. Francis said, but the story surrounding the quote is useful here so I'm going to use it anyway - because even fiction can be instructive (sometimes more so than the truth).

Story goes that St. Francis took a trip out to the local village with the members of his monastery. When asked why they were going, he told them they were going to preach the Gospel. Once in the village, St. Francis started assigning fellow monks to tasks like fixing roofs and broken fences, helping farmers haul bags of wheat, helping people haul water, sweeping and cleaning dirty streets. They spent their whole day just helping the villagers in whatever way they could.

Late in the afternoon, one of the monks asked St. Francis, "when are we going to start preaching?" And that's when he supposedly replied, "Preach the gospel always. Use words if necessary."

I share this story because I wonder if in my imperfect, clumsy way, I've been able to preach the Gospel to Harold. I never shared the Four Spiritual Laws with him or asked him to pray the Sinner's Prayer, and I don't know if I've ever told him flat out that I'm a christian but he knows I go to church and I hope I've been able to share Jesus with him through the way I've worked.

I don't know. My (ongoing) Layman's Theology series is all about a way of understanding the Gospel that has made christianity rich and meaningful for me and there are many areas of my life where I'm trying to figure out how to turn thought and theory into lifestyle and application. My little Harold experiment was a part of this exploration and, thanks be to God, it's returned a surprisingly positive result.

Further study needed to verify long term effects of experimental data but that's (literally) not my job.


rjgintrepid said...


What an awesome, convicting story. We never really know how God will use what we do or don't do in a situation for his glory and for blessing his people.

Your faithfulness to this experiment is a great example, but I appreciate you sharing the struggles you had with it. Sometimes you read stories like these and the writer makes it seem like living out a Christlike idea of selflessness is a walk in the park. In reality, choosing to be a peacemaker is a difficult thing that takes more strength than blowing up at someone.

Thanks for sharing and congrats on the new job.

Anonymous said...

you're a good soul, RA. again, congrats on the job change! hopefully you won't encounter another 'harold'! ;)