On Attending a Biotech Company's Off-Site Event

An Essay By Hannah D. // 9/19/2019

I climb out of my car and into a dusky morning peppered with bickering crows. Ah, so the crows are back. When I started working here I noticed them, perched and crackling to each other incessantly every morning when I arrived. Then they left with the summer - but now they've returned again, along with the darker mornings and windier chills.

Start-ups certainly have their own unique atmosphere. The Silicon Valley has its own infective optimism in human prowess. And the Bay Area is, historically as well as currently, a biotech hub of the world. PCR was invented here, for example (by someone who accredits this work to his use of hallucinogens - what could be more Bay-Area-esque than that?)

At a company at the crux of all three of these uniquely energized themes, one can only expect a flavor almost religious in nature. I should've expected it, really. For heaven's sake, every month we have company-wide meetings in which the CEO lists all new employees and asks them to stand amid applause. "Be sure to introduce yourself, ask where they came from and what brought them here," he encourages us.

But we recently had an off-site. In an old auditorium overlooking a scenic lake, the company shuffled together for a day of all-fun-no-work. There were opening presentations from executives, a Q&A session with the leadership team, and "TED talks" from employees. The CEO decided to, early on in his opening talk, give the following encouragement. "In fact, turn to the person sitting next to you - preferably someone you don't know - and ask, 'What do you bring to this company?'"

"And I don't mean, 'Oh, I know Python,' or stuff like that," he added. "Each person here is exceptional in a unique way and brings something to this company. We work with some incredible people. Let's take 20-30 seconds to get to know each other."

And then he was quiet. And the chatter started. And it hit me like a bat.

"Is it Sunday morning?" I sat there thinking. "Am I in church right now? What is this?"

There was plenty of talk about the successes of the company. Of what we've accomplished. We have very high goals here at ------ and it is certainly exciting to hear about steps we've taken in that direction.

But the CEO spent his talk not going over these, but focusing on a concept: Joy. Citing a book written by a Dalai Lama and Archbishop, he shared how joy is found in rising to challenges, engaging with people in relationship, and delving into meaningful work. Work that has purpose and makes the world a better place.

Hey, I love my job. It's an incredibly exciting place to work. And the people I work with are amazing. If I wasn't a Christian, I think working here could easily substitute as the primary source of meaning in my life.

Then came the TED talks. Employees got up and discussed shared values. Things like empathy ("Because if you're anything like me, you spend more time at work than you do with your significant other, friends, or family"), assuming goodwill ("We used to talk about this a lot. Let's bring it back into the conversation"), and uplifting personal accounts of individual triumph amid adversity (even if that 'adversity' was a personal mountain one wanted to climb).

The churchiness of all this was tangible. I could smell it in the air: Shared sense of purpose. We are in this together. Together we can change the world. Shared sense of values. These are the ethics and attitudes we want to encourage while working together. Shared holidays, even - not longer before this was Pride Month, and the chatter around Pride culminated in a company event with rainbow play-dough available and post-its tacked up on the wall where employees could answer the prompt, "What does Pride mean to you?" Is it just me, or is this a secular version of the holiday season, culminating in Christmas Day?

The off-site was about success as a company, but it was more about making its employees feel appreciated. And it left a bigger impact, too - it made me feel like part of a team. Part of an incredibly meaningful group of amazing people, intent on making the world a better place. It's a noble goal, for sure, and encouraging common values and shared sense of mutual appreciation throughout the company are all certainly good things.

But there was no denying it - the off-site was a distinctly religious experience.

We're reading Cultural Liturgies: Desiring the Kingdom by James K. A. Smith right now at my church's book club. Smith presents the case that humans are inherently religious creatures. But he doesn't argue this by saying "We all crave meaning" or "We all desire to know God," although those things are true. He argues that we are wired for love, and our habits reflect what we love - what we value - what we desire - most of all. A fancy word for meaningful habits is "liturgies" - the devout will recognize these in their worship services, communion with the saints, baptism, and tithing. But everyone, Smith says, practices liturgical rituals.

To make this case, Smith paints a striking portrait of the mall. Just an everyday mall one goes to to browse or shop. The ceilings are high and the windows let light in from the sky. Storefronts are plastered with religious icons that tell us, "This is the good life. This is what you can aspire to be." Enter into one such store, and an usher will greet you: "Hi, how are you today? Can I help you with anything?" Even the purchasing of goods is a liturgy, Smith argues, where the devout pay their tithes and are promised joy and purpose in a materialistic, consumeristic religion.

I can't get Smith's images out of my head.

Another member of the book club is a middle school teacher. He says his public school is a very liturgical, very religious institution - and I'm sure his isn't the only one. My Silicon Valley start-up is a liturgical institution, with our "say hi to the new guys!" and liturgies of meetings and purpose in work and created ethical vision.

America is a secular culture, but we have elected gods of our liking. Of course, one can engage in malls or work or school without bending knee to them. The Christian operates like Daniel, glorifying God first while still operating - even excelling - under the standards that are idolized where God is absent.

Comments

Interesting read. I admire

Interesting read. I admire your succinctness in sharing your ideas and experiences. (As you see, I'm not about to be succinct.)

It is so exhilarating to love your work and your comrades in arms -- to feel that together you're doing something with weight and meaning. But I definitely think your essay carries a tension between that and a wise cautiousness about it.

For instance -- How many of the millions of Americans who are supporting the moral vision of the LesbianGayBiTrans movement had an articulated philosophy on the human body and gender which led them to support it, versus how many were just swept along in affirming it in the context of some form of "us"?

Of course a big part of any "us" is shared rituals. But I have to say -- going door to door singing Christmas carols to your neighbours, wishing all and sundry "Merry Christmas", hanging stockings by the fire-place to be mysteriously filled with chocolates, wrapping books and toys in shiny paper to give to each other, feasting with your family, and reading the gospel accounts of Jesus' birth has rainbow play-dough licked. (So hopefully the uninspiring-ness of the pride liturgy will make people a little less likely to cave on God's truth.)

In truth, I really like a lot of the pageant of life that's been carved out for us. (I think in our age's focus on individual determination we sometimes don't realize how much of our lives are pre-laid out -- from the scripts for our quotidian interactions, to the broad contours of our life.) I particularly like a lot of the choreography and "lines" that our ancestors bequeathed us for weddings and holidays. We can honour God participating in much of it (much of it was built out of faith in Jesus), but we should never let such shared liturgy with any culture make us forget we're pilgrims and strangers here.

Ultimately when we come to face to face with dying alone, neither secular liturgies nor even religious liturgies or community are support enough.

On that note, I don't think you really need to tie the crows in.

P.S.
Aside from an association with death, one thing the return of the crows makes me think of is how you're seeing your job now in the light of the cycle of time. A big part of liturgy is the Liturgical year, repetition, the way the sun shines into the cathedral at Epiphany, the way the daffodils come up at Lent over and over again through the years.

Caleb | Mon, 10/28/2019

And he was just wondering, for he was a severe critic of his own work, whether that last line couldn't be polished up a bit...
~P.G. Wodehouse

Thanks so much for sharing

Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts & engaging with the ideas I (perhaps clumsily) presented here. :)

Aw the Christmas traditions are so warm and fun and cozy. I didn't attend any Pride events aside from that one at work (well actually, I was stuck on a robot during said event caught, between deadlines & inexplicable biological observations, and on the verge of tears, but that's another story) - but the Pride Parade events in San Francisco were supposed to be absolutely stellar. Lots of friends attended, partied, I have no idea what it was like (other than being ridiculously crowded) but I'm sure it competes - especially for those who take offense to warm family traditions with religious overtones.

I agree, lots of traditions and lines are quite enjoyable, especially considering the participation in liturgies established by the faithful centuries ago. :)

Hmm, I like your take on the crows. Maybe they're not as odd as I originally thought . . . and I certainly take delight in them these brisk Autumn mornings.

I'm curious, where do you point people who are coming face to face with dying alone? Community, secular, religious, or otherwise, seems to be a common place for people to turn to, or want to turn to. Of course our comfort comes in Christ. I just tend to see love of Christ reflected in our communities and religious liturgies that accompany it. The community/liturgies aren't comforting by themselves, but because they're infused with the common belief "these are the sacraments." "This is how we show our honor and love and allegiance to Christ." Would you like to expand your thoughts on the subject? :)

Hannah D. | Sat, 11/09/2019

"Reason itself is a matter of faith. It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all." - G. K. Chesterton

Your question put me in mind

Your question put me in mind of words the puritan Thomas Goodwin said on his deathbed. Mentioning the line in Hebrews 11 "All these died in faith " he said:

"I could not have imagined that I should ever have had such a measure of faith in this hour. No, I could never have imagined it. My bow abides in strength. Is Christ divided? No, I have the whole of his righteousness. I am found in Him, not in my own righteousness which is of the law, but in the righteousness which is of God, which is by faith of Jesus Christ, who loved me, and gave himself for me. Christ cannot love me better than he doth; I think I cannot love Christ better than I do. I am swallowed up in God."

In my comment, I was thinking of the end of life as the old Morality Play Everyman shows it -- when Death summons the character Everyman, the characters Goods, and Kindred, and Fellowship and, in the end, Beauty, Strength, and Discretion, all forsake him. At the very last, only his Good Deeds (particularly strengthened by his performance of the Sacrament of Penance) can accompany him to his reckoning with God.

I think it simply and profoundly shows a picture of how every friend and all things here fall away, and we die alone. The play misleads though, about the efficacy of Good Deeds and the Sacraments to build for us a firm foundation to step out on to beyond this world.

When all things fade and fall away there is only one possible help -- it is Christ, and no one and nothing but Christ. And Christ will not be summoned to us by a Sacrament; He cannot be conjured up by a liturgy, He can only be fastened upon by faith.

I'm not saying all this because I think that you disagree with it.

I agree, our comfort is in Christ and that a Christian is comforted in whatever points us to Him. I remember a member of my church telling us from his hospital bed that he sang the hymn "I am his and he is mine" every day.

O this full and precious peace
From His presence all divine;
In a love that cannot cease,
I am His and He is mine.

And I agree that we should take joy in other people and in our "meaningful habits" even as we know we'll part from them soon. The thought of any person having to spend their final days in lonely isolation is so sad!

As for the message and the meaning we find in secular liturgies and social connections -- they are horrible at bearing the load of our cognizance of mortality, but they're often forced to try to bear it. (Related -- I've never taken much comfort in the phrase "He died doing what he loved." Who cares?)

The messages behind religious liturgies are a much better psychological support, but at the very end, the terrors of death fall upon you, every friend must be left behind, liturgy ends, psychological supports are irrelevant — there is only Christ to meet you or not. The question is not "Did the soldier feel better repeating to himself "Reinforcements are coming"?" but "Did reinforcements come?""

You could have been the most dutiful Benedictine, rising at all hours to repeat the psalms and prayers of the Breviary (ignore for the moment Marian prayers contained in a Catholic Book of Hours and only think about the Psalms); you could have had the habit of repeating the very best words, but for you it was no more than breath and when you die, nothing — UNLESS at some point you caught the message of Christ and followed the road sign of the Bible to the man Jesus and closed with Christ. Did your habit reflect a love of Christ or a love of the habit and yourself?

But speaking of habits and monks -- I'm wary of using the word liturgy really broadly in regard to religious activity.

When we talk about the liturgy of the mall, or the school, (or the ted talk), all of those are examples of something more than a habit, but a kind of form that one can step into -- they have a kind of script. So one could use this word for them that in religion has meant a form and a script and choreography, not just for the ever repeating ordinary of the Mass, but for what to pray every hour, and what the readings are for every day of the year in the church calendar.

Real love, real faith grasps the real Jesus. That love relationship can express itself through forms, but surely a real lover shows spontaneous outpourings of love. What kind of lover only ever sends the letter copied from that day's page in "365 days of Love Letters"?

In "low-church," "non-liturgical" Christian life, we *could* call a lot of our recurring meaningful habits liturgies but it might cause confusion. However even if we did so, not everything could be called liturgy. I really do not think that Thomas Goodwin's expression of love and faith for God or his comfort in being "swallowed up in God" on his death bed could be classed under liturgy without torturing the definition, nor what Stephen said or his comfort when the murderous world faded away and all he saw was Christ standing to welcome him.

~

All that being said, I think we should try to cultivate habits by which we can live out our love to God, and contexts where our faith will flourish.

I think you should prayerfully consider whether you should stay at the bay-area bio-tech company, putting all the usual career considerations beneath the value of thriving in faith, and fruitfulness and love for Jesus.

Caleb | Sun, 11/17/2019

And he was just wondering, for he was a severe critic of his own work, whether that last line couldn't be polished up a bit...
~P.G. Wodehouse

Yes, totally agree! The

Yes, totally agree! The sacraments (liturgies, traditions, or whatever we choose to call them - or not call them) are certainly not sufficient by themselves for salvation. They are not mystical rites that guarantee communion between Jesus Christ and an individual distracted by his own perfection of the rituals. But God has certainly made us individuals who gravitate strongly towards such sacraments, and they hold powerful emotional sway over us. Thinking about Darlene Deibler in Evidence Not Seen , singing the old hymns she had learned and sung with the saints in her church was a powerful liturgy to point her back Christ, even as she suffered under her captors. Both spontaneity and cultivating spiritual habits are healthy for our faith.

I was a little surprised by your final exhortation, as far as context goes. Have I given the impression that my faith is wavering? (I assure you, it is not. :) Or are you of the opinion that faith cannot flourish in a secular or otherwise non-Christian environment (Daniel, Joseph, and the church in China come to mind, as well as my own gem of a church back in grad school, in a town otherwise almost hostile to Christianity). I'm sure you agree, God can and does work powerfully in His people no matter where they are.

Hannah D. | Mon, 12/02/2019

"Reason itself is a matter of faith. It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all." - G. K. Chesterton

I didn't forget this thread

I didn't forget this thread though, as you could guess, I was very caught up in the extensive pageantry of Christmas :)

I hope you had a deeply happy Christmas & New Years.

As for my exhortation, the context is surprising in that I'm just an internet acquaintance. But I don't think it's strange in the context of the tension you were writing about.

Joseph and Daniel are people who held firm in faith (in temptation God always provides a way out!), but they are NOT examples of people who chose where to work. I was talking about wisdom (as young Americans) where we choose to 'join the team’ (and not just in jobs).

Daniel and his friends had to break from the shared liturgy, shared sense of values, shared holidays (worship-the-image day and pray-only-to-the-king month), and shared meals with their fellow courtiers. And their faithfulness brought persecution.

Here in my hometown of Portland, there was a math teacher who was fired from a public high school because he wouldn't let Planned Parenthood do a presentation in his math class. Aren't you glad he didn't buckle under their pressure? I think it's glorious.

At the same time I think it can be wise to try cut out a niche for ourselves in this crooked, and perverse nation (Philippians 2:15) where the constant (every day in a thousand ways) pressure to shut-up and get with the program is somewhat mitigated.

Caleb | Fri, 01/03/2020

And he was just wondering, for he was a severe critic of his own work, whether that last line couldn't be polished up a bit...
~P.G. Wodehouse

Hi Caleb, thank you and hope

Hi Caleb, thank you and hope you had a wonderful Christmas & New Years too! :)

Thanks for the clarification, I see what you're saying now. Your comment brings up a lot of topics in my mind, as I've heard a few dialogues lately among Christians on the practical theology of work and life in a secular nation. It brings up questions like:
1. How do I balance being a light to others and needing a community of believers to strengthen me?
2. How do I stand up for my faith when persecution threatens?
3. How vocal should I be about my beliefs at work or any secular context?
4. Is silence ever warranted or does it signal fear of retribution on my part?
In a world where the non-religious, LGBTQ-affirming J. K. Rowling can face hostility and social downfall after tweeting that a woman shouldn’t lose her job after expressing doubt in trans ideology, it can be downright terrifying for a Christian to speak up at all (I certainly stand in awe of your local math teacher's faith and fortitude!) At the same time, we are not called to hide our candles under bushels, and Paul repeatedly prays for churchmembers to pray for him to proclaim the Gospel boldly. What does this look like in the average Christian's life, the Christian who's not a courageous Paul? What does it look like for the everyday worker who's living for Jesus but also wants a job to pay the bills and keep his family fed?

I don't have answers to these issues, but in my own experience, I think my job has provided many incredibly faith-affirming experiences for me (anyone here at AP can email me if they'd like to hear more, I've reached the limit as to what I'm willing to say online lol). I also think that silence can be a strategic offense; I've built up solid friendships with people at work who are more or less firmly not religious, and you know what? Once you've built up a relationship of trust and respect with someone, they are much less likely to hate/destroy/shun you in an honest conversation about differing sexual ethics. And that's been really cool to see. (I don't mean to imply that we should evangelize our sexual ethics while being quiet about the Gospel, if this comes off that way. But a lot of good can be done by clarifying what Christians believe and how they treat people they disagree with. Christians have a bad rap with this subject, for example, and there is a lot of bitterness people hold against Christians on LGBTQ & other sexual/gender issues, so addressing it can be a form of apologetics and soften people to the Gospel.)

This is all of course my own ramblings/thoughts based on personal experience. And perhaps we still choose our jobs, but we do not choose the sociopolitical climate saturated in the culture all around us. Can we really avoid persecution/pressure by switching to different a different career? A different town? I'm a biotech researcher in the very woke California, but not long ago a firefighter in Georgia was fired for writing a Bible study at his church that addressed homosexuality.

Sorry for the long comment, I may as well write another essay on this topic, it's too thought-provoking for me lol. Thanks again for your thoughtful dialogue with the subject! :)

Hannah D. | Sun, 01/05/2020

"Reason itself is a matter of faith. It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all." - G. K. Chesterton