I am what I do? (Part 1)

When Australian basketballer Lauren Jackson retired from the sport earlier this year she made a remarkable comment: “To say goodbye to my love – what was my life, my identity – this hurts”. [1] A remarkable comment, not in the sense of it expressing an uncommon experience. Rather, remarkable in the sense that Jackson articulated, perhaps better than many of us, what is a defining, yet often unnoticed, feature of work today. That is, I am what I do. [2]

When we meet someone one of the first questions we often ask is, “What do you do for work?” And based on their answer we form an opinion of them; their financial worth, their value in society, their degree of competency…or lack thereof. I am what I do.

 

A feature of individualism

However this attaching of our value and worth to our work is a relatively recent phenomenon; a feature of living in an individualistic age. In previous generations, my identity (and my work) was determined much more by my family. Family names reflected the line of work that my whole family undertook, for example Smith and Baker. Similarly, the community that I was a part of was a key feature in deriving my identity. These factors still contribute in some ways to our identity, however in an age of individualism, who I am, my identity, ultimately starts and ends with me. As philosopher Luc Ferry puts it, in our world today each human is, “an end in himself”. [3]

Ferry concludes then, that it is what I accomplish and achieve for myself that determines whether I matter or not. And what is the chief arena for accomplishing in our world today? The workplace. Work then “becomes the defining activity of man: a human being who does not work is not merely poor – without income – but impoverished, in that he cannot realise his potential and his purpose on Earth…In the [traditional] worldview, work was considered to be a defect, a servile activity…In the modern world-view, it becomes an arena for self-realisation, a means not merely of educating oneself but also of fulfilment and improvement”. [4] Our work is the source of our identity.

 

A crushing burden

In this paradigm, work takes on monumental significance. If it is the chief means by which we achieve our value and worth, it becomes everything. And that is a crushing burden to place yourself under, a burden which tragically crushes many people today.

In the film The Company Men senior executive Phil is made redundant. As he reflects on his redundancy he laments, “You know the worst part…the world didn’t stop; the newspaper still came every morning; the automatic sprinkler still shut off at six; Jeff next door still washes his car every Sunday…my life ended and nobody noticed”. And so overcome with this loss of identity Phil takes his own life.

And yet this tragedy is not just being played out on the big screen. This is art imitating life. Today in Australia there is a tragic statistical connection between loss of work and suicide. When our work becomes the means of our value, glory and worth, if it disappoints – when it disappoints – it’s crushing.

But this burden we place ourselves under can reveal itself in other smaller, but still debilitating, ways. I recall receiving an email from someone who’d been sick for a while which contained the words “I’m useless”. Not simply, “I am being useless”, but this woman’s sickness that had prevented her from working meant she considered herself useless. And what about when work comes to an end, through a loss of job, or finally retirement? Graham Hooper tells the story in his book Undivided of meeting a man at a party. “He introduced himself with the words: ‘Hello, I’m Bill. I used to be somebody’. He was half-joking but, in the way he said it, he was unintentionally revealing his struggle with the loss of the position of power and respect he had once held”. [5]

However on the flipside if our work goes well, if we enjoy success and accomplish great things through our work, this only leads to pride. For if I am “an end in myself” then any success I enjoy is entirely my own. And yet the Christian knows that in the end such pride only ever leads to destruction and harm, if not in this lifetime then in the one to come (Proverbs 3:34; James 4:6). Tim Keller summarises these two-pronged dangers of attaching our worth and value to our work perfectly: “When work is your identity, success goes to your head, and your failure goes to your heart”. [6]

 

Four diagnostic questions

How do you know if you’ve succumbed to this temptation of attaching your value and worth to your work? Here are four diagnostic questions. Firstly, how do you respond when your work is criticised? No criticism is nice, but the depth to which it affects you exposes the extent to which you are finding your identity in your accomplishments. If criticism defeats you, or makes your furious then that may be an indication that you’ve attached your value and worth to your work. For it is not simply your work being criticised; its you.

Secondly, on the flipside, how do you respond when people praise your work? Do you receive that praise as something that you are due? Do you embrace it as all yours to enjoy? If, as we suggested a moment ago, you are “an end in yourself” then you won’t consider acknowledging the contribution of others for any workplace “success” you receive and enjoy.

Thirdly, can you celebrate the success of others in your same field? How do you feel when someone in your industry is kicking more goals, attracting more customers, receiving more recognition? The extent to which you can celebrate their success, or the extent to which it angers you, exposes the degree to which you’ve attached your identity to your work. For if your workplace success defines you then the success of others is a missed opportunity for you, and that’s something that you can never celebrate.

Fourthly, why are you working so hard? Why can’t you say no to work? Is it merely because you love to serve and bless and minister to others through your work? Or are you unable to turn down a task, an opportunity, a request because it’s turning down a chance to further your reputation, value and worth through your work?

To some degree, we are all affected by this; it is the air we breathe. But more than simply reflecting on the degree to which we’ve attached our value and worth to our work there is something more we need. We need the Gospel to speak afresh to this aspect of our hearts. And it is to that we will turn in PART TWO.

 


[2] My thinking on this topic has been heavily influenced by Timothy Keller who has addressed this issue on a variety of occasions, such that it is now hard for me to tell where his thinking ends and mine begins. I acknowledge his significant influence on my thinking, perhaps drawn most extensively from his books Every Good Endeavour and The freedom of self-forgetfulness.

[3] Luc Ferry, A brief history of thought, 122.

[4] Ferry, ibid, 126-127.

[5] Graham Hooper, Undivided: Closing the faith-life gap, 91.

[6] https://twitter.com/timkellernyc/status/510539614818680832

Image courtesy: karengately.files.wordpress.com/2013/06/who-am-i.jpg

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