Looking back over the past ten years, the times when I’ve been the most unhappy have also been the times when I haven’t had enough work to do. This is not a mere coincidence, but a trend that disturbs me. Writing has been a tool to help me wrestle with these type of stuck patterns, extending my understanding, and putting old stories to rest. Noticing this trend, I’ve wanted to write this piece for a while, but I’ve put it off, too busy with work and other projects to get to it.
In truth, it’s not just busy-ness. I recognize that a part of me is holding tight to an old story that how much I do is what proves my worthiness. It’s the part of me that got good grades, that wants to always do a good job, that likes being busy and moving quickly. This drive to do and accomplish has made me competent and successful, and I’m utterly terrified to loosen the grip on it.
My rational brain knows better, understands that we don’t actually need to prove our worthiness. We are each already worthy of love, belonging, and respect just for the mere reason that we are alive, human and an inseparable part of life. I know that when I pause, slow down, and give myself time to rest and be present, I am happier. I know that it is not through accomplishment that I get in touch with a part of me that is spacious, loving and connected to the divine. I feel certain that this is what matters most: not the doing and the deeds, but the intention behind it, the way that we are.
So then, why am I so afraid of letting go of the busy-ness, the work, and the responsibility? Why does the feeling of needing to do, to be productive linger and often dominate?
* * *
“Don’t get in your own way.” This advice came from my college art professor and advisor, Phyllis McGibbon, after I shared my post-graduation plans to move to San Francisco and get a job in the environmental field. She meant that regardless of my paid work I should make it easy for myself to keep creating, like always having a sketchbook handy.
It was good advice that I didn’t follow. I got in my own way. In the years after college, I stopped creating art. I got serious about my career and didn’t see the value in drawing or printmaking if it didn’t feed into my profession. I dabbled in more “productive” creative things. I made things that could be worn and used, a knit scarf for my dad, a printed onesie for a baby. I took classes in graphic design and html, and built a website for my sister. Eventually even these fell away, and work became my primary identity, crowding out other creative endeavors.
Looking back now, it seems obvious that losing an important piece of myself is a part of why I felt a sense of unease and discontent in my mid-twenties. Art was a source of inspiration, play, and a place to use different parts of me: my hands, my intuition, my right brain. But at the time, I thought the problem was that I had the wrong job and that a masters degree would help me sort this out. My masters degree was hard, but it bolstered my ego to go to a top school — that is, until I graduated without a job. I spent a year working part-time on a few projects. Instead of enjoying the time, I was miserable. It boiled over into a full blown identity crisis. Who was I without a job? I felt lost, diminished, and angry that this path of accomplishment had left me so dissatisfied.
After about a year, I got a full-time position doing what I had studied in grad school, but the career and identity crisis wasn’t over. There is nothing like getting what you think you want to help you realize that you’ve been looking in the wrong place the whole time. I was now employed and had regained my identity as a working person only to find it to be a hollow answer to the question of who I really was and what I truly wanted to do. I didn’t have enough to do in this job, and found myself spending substantial amounts of time at my desk secretly doodling and looking at inspirational quotes. A favorite was Mary Oliver’s poem, The Summer Day, which ends with: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
I posted the quote up at my desk, but slightly hidden. I didn’t want coworkers to know that this job was not what I wanted to do. It was not wild nor precious to me, but I stayed there three years to figure out what might be. During this time, I read a lot of self-help books, I wrote, we started Small Answers and a women’s career group, I volunteered for different organizations. I looked back over my grad school experience asking myself: when I had the chance to pick whatever classes I wanted, what was it that I loved most? It was a mediation training, something I’d done just for fun, not part of my masters at all, but I had absolutely loved it.
I figured out some things: that I want to work with people. That I want work to feel more like love. That I wanted to switch fields from something that I care a lot about intellectually in the big picture (the environment) to something that I care a lot about emotionally in the moment (helping people). When I took my current job, I accepted a demotion in title and pay, and thought of it as stepping off the career ladder in order for work to feel more like love, more like caring for people. I made myself a card that says: “From Ladder to Love” to remind myself of the reasoning behind this choice, and stuck it in my pen holder on my desk.
Fast forward four years and I’m at the same organization, but I’ve moved through several different roles, a promotion, increasing responsibilities, and I have accidentally climbed back up the ladder I thought I’d hopped off. This time, it wasn’t an assumption that success meant more responsibility and a bigger title and paycheck, but nor was it truly fueled by love. It was just me, my habits, my addiction to work. When I started, I didn’t have enough to do every day and quickly found more projects to take on, from redesigning our logo to taking on an extra part-time coaching role on the side. All good projects, except that underneath was still a sense of needing to do, fix and accomplish. I simply wasn’t able to just do less. The more I love what I do, the harder for me to distinguish between work as love and work as addiction.
* * *
My aunt tells me sometimes that she regrets not having kids of her own. This is a loving statement about how much my sister and I mean to her. She was a very involved aunt; growing up, she lived 10 short blocks away and joined us weekly for dinner. She took us to museums and dance performances. But it’s also a real statement of regret. Specifically, she wishes she’d had kids partially as a balance to work. She was an accomplished business woman, a success story of second wave feminism (math major at Harvard, senior consultant at a big firm, paving the way for other women). She worked long hours, she traveled for work and lived abroad several times. Work was both meaningful and disruptive for her.
I have always sworn (seeing my aunt and dad, both cut from the same cloth) that I would not be a workaholic. I want work that is meaningful and contributes to the world, but I’ve never wanted to work long hours, or for work to take up such a huge part of my life and identity. Yet I now regularly read books, watch videos, take on new projects, and attend retreats and trainings that relate to both work and my own personal development and pleasure. As my work has moved more and more towards my personal interests, as it has become more engaging and fulfilling, it has also become easier to work a lot, and for the line between work and pleasure, between engaged and workaholic, to blur to indistinguishable.
So I come back to this question: what role do I want work to play in my life? My therapist once told me that, for her, work is about feeling closer to God. She told me this years ago, when I had just started working through my work-identity issues and was not comfortable with the notion of God or any connection of God to work. I think I get it now, and I feel it too in my work sometimes. For me, it’s a feeling of witnessing and supporting people around me, an ultimate feeling of love and interconnection, of oneness. It’s the space I want to live in always, and I feel lucky that I get to have work that feeds me in this way. It feels worth devoting my wild and precious life to.
And yet, it’s still so hard to break the habit of work filling in for God. I let work and being busy fill in for the fear of whether or not my life matters, whether my efforts add up to anything. The truth that I find hard to remember is that I don’t matter, not on a cosmic scale. One of the hardest things for me is to keep myself the right size: totally insignificant in the scope of the world, and yet having an impact in my immediate surroundings.
* * *
This piece has several beginnings and no ending. I’m still very much in the middle of figuring his out. I still hate having my time and effort wasted. I hate redoing work, I hate waiting for things, I hate it when people cancel on me last minute. It immediately evokes a feeling of “I could have done more with this time if only I could have planned for this!” Time and effort are my precious resources to build the monument of success, and wasting them means I’ve squandered an opportunity to prove my value. This habit is strong even though I know that nothing is wasted. Like in nature, everything is recycled, waste becoming food in a closed loop. A canceled plan becomes space for something new. Redoing is a time to learn a deeper lesson.
I don’t believe that there will ever be a moment when we are asked to account for ourselves and will need to point to something and say: “I did this. This is how I spent my time. This is what makes me worthy.” On my deathbed, I hope to think of Raymond Carver’s Late Fragment:
And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.
With other pieces, like writing about kids or becoming woo woo, by the time I finished, I surprised myself. Working and reworking drafts, I’ve come to new conclusions. But this piece leaves me with a different sensation. I’ve not learned anything new; I’ve only reminded myself that I know the answer to this question about work, identity and worthiness, I just find it so hard to remember. The answer is that it’s the motivation that matters. I want to move away from doing fueled from a place of lack, of needing to prove, to fix, or to cover over. I still might end up with a life that is full, that looks busy and work-laden, but if it’s because there is just so much that inspires me, so much to love and to be grateful for, perhaps that’s a well-spent life.
Image: “Lucky Charms” by Lisa Congdon