Understanding what work means for my sense of personal identity, for a basic acceptance of who I am, has been a central issue in making progress in recovery over this past year. Yet it seems strange that both my identity and feelings of self-worth should so depend on what I do.
I spent a long time during the 80s in a form of therapy that emphasized learning to accept myself “just the way I am.” But the truth is that I’ve always depended on some sort of work for a sense of identity and self-worth. A few weeks ago, I found again how true this is.
A computer meltdown made my writing and blogging tools disappear. All my notes and rough drafts were inaccessible. My days were suddenly all about computer machinery, waiting for parts, frustration with repairs and then the endless task of restoring every program and every file. I got more and more anxious about not writing and having to force my mind to focus on the invisible trolls and traps of code and software.
The anxiety and tension were tearing me apart. When things get that bad, anything I’m holding in my hands is in great danger of being strangled, torn to bits, trampled, smashed, or pounded into dust. The cats flee for their lives when my fists start hammering the desktop, and the dogs come meekly to my side to be forgiven for whatever they’ve done to push me to such fury. I feel like I’m coming apart, and something close to terror grips me.
But then it all goes away. This time it took five days of torture, but at last I could get back to work. After writing just a few pages, I could breathe more easily, an inner balance returned and I felt the beautiful restfulness of concentration on the flow of words, ideas and images.
There was no question about it – I had to be writing to feel completely myself, comfortable in my own skin, to feel right. I was doing the kind of work I felt I was made for.
What we call work is not always an external thing driven by the expectations and standards of success of the world we live in. There are goals I could set that would have nothing to do with my inmost needs. I could focus on making money or winning a prize or an election or a leadership position – and in the past I often did feel the need to set such goals – but none of them were true to what I most needed.
It’s so common to hear about the contrast between being and doing. As I learned in the 80s, we should be able to find fulfillment in being who we are, fully aware of the soundness of the inner self and not dependent on any external test of our human value. We do not need to become someone through work; we already are the person we were meant to be. As wise as that may sound, it’s missing the contribution of what we do to our sense of fulfillment. There is a connection between inner soul and outer action.
Thomas Merton is one of the writers who explores this bond quite deeply. In No Man Is an Island, he writes that it’s not a question of either/or but of balancing:
My soul does not find itself unless it acts. Therefore it must act. Stagnation and inactivity bring spiritual death. But my soul must not project itself entirely into the outward effects of its activity. I do not need to see myself, I merely need to be myself. … The soul that throws itself outdoors in order to find itself in the effects of its own work is like a fire that has no desire to burn but seeks only to go up in smoke.
I come to life most fully in the work of writing and communicating. That supports the inner harmony I’m trying to find during this process of recovery, but the work within is equally important. I’m closer now to finding the balance between the two than I have ever been before.
There is always the risk of choosing the wrong kind of work, and I have done that. I’ll take up that story in the next post in this series.
What’s the story of the choices you have made about work and career? Have you found the right balance? Does illness keep you from any kind of satisfying work? Or does work contribute to illness?