Work, Identity and Recovery – 1


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?

Image Credit: Some Rights Reserved by Funky64( at Flickr

10 Responses to “Work, Identity and Recovery – 1”

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  1. Ellen says:

    HI John,
    Don’t technology meltdowns just make you appreciate caveman tools (paper and pencil) so much more? 🙂
    Work is a huge issue for me too. I didn’t make it into the world of work for a long time, using raising my child as a bit of an excuse actually. I was quite afraid of the world and not comfortable in it.
    But to me, work means I can live as an adult. I don’t have to depend on a really bad marriage for support. So having work has been just crucial for me, and not just psychologically. Being able to support myself was a huge struggle for me, and has made my life so much better.
    Cheers, Ellen

    • john says:

      Hi, Ellen – I’m glad you’ve gotten around that fear of being in the world to be able to support yourself. Congratulations on having met that challenge so you can be more independent.I’ve always felt a bit out of place, anxious and hyper critical of myself – none of which makes for a very comfortable time finding the right kind of work. This business about being an adult conjures up for me a mirage person with all sorts of talents and easy command of things that I’ve had a hard time with. Comparing myself to this imaginary being of full maturity has been an unfortunate hobby forever. I’m really glad your life is so much better, adult or not.

      All my best — John

  2. John,
    A very interesting and thought-provoking post! It took me years to find out what I wanted to be when I grew up (and it still comes up on occasion). But, while I used to wonder why I picked a career like writing in which rejection plays such a dominant role, ever since I started blogging, I don’t feel that way at all!


    • john says:

      Thanks, Susan – That’s great to hear that you’ve been able to do what you most want to do. I’ve been reading your new post, and I’ll be by to comment there.

      All my best to you — John

  3. Merely Me says:

    Hi John

    This is a really fascinating topic. When people first meet you…they always ask what you do. I remember in high school taking one of those vocational surveys and it said I had strong interests in teaching, writing, and music. It was pretty on the mark. I went to school to become a special ed. teacher….now I stay home to teach my son and I am a freelance writer. The music? Well…I am a secret karaoke enthusiast.

    I have found that work does stabilize me. If I have responsibilities then I do so much better with my mood. I don’t like quiet idle times that much. I do have a really hard time relaxing. There is always a struggle to maintain some sort of balance. I like to do things to “perfection” and this doesn’t exist so I am always so frustrated. And time spent upon one passion leads you to forget other elements in life.

    I am curious to see what others say. Great article as always…

    • john says:

      Merely Me – I think work is stabilizing when it’s what you really want and need to do. You are doing so much – as you put it on your blog – like a writing machine – though your work is never mechanical – quite the opposite, it’s always inventive and insightful. You clearly give a lot of yourself and that’s one of the qualities readers can sense right away.

      You say that time spent on one passion leads you to forget about other elements of your life. Well, that’s true, but the intense focus and concentration on one thing at a time isn’t bad in itself. I think that’s a lot better than scattering your energy over everything at once so that no one gets the whole you. I have a terrible time with that!

      Thanks so much for your comment – you’re always helping me see new things.

      All the best — John

  4. Evan says:

    Hi John,

    It certainly sounds like you are a writer.

    The split between doing and being isn’t a fruitful polarity in my view. Whose ever seen a being that wasn’t doing something – even if it is samadhi?

    My dilemma for the last couple of decades has been finding a way to make money by doing what I love – marrying the inner and outer in this way. One of my dilemmas is that my interests aren’t terribly mainstream. If I cared about what is mostly on TV I guess I would have an easier time of it. My hope is that with blogging I may have found a way – I’m still in the process of finding out.

    When I’m most me what I’m doing is getting to the core of something (perhaps the core idea in a philosophy or post) or being with another and getting at what is of importance for one or both of us. This certainly doesn’t fell like “work” to me even when the issues being dealt with are difficult.

    Thanks for a great post.

    • john says:

      Thanks, Evan – Very helpful ideas, as usual. I would say that the contrast between being and doing isn’t so much an absolute one (you’re right, of course, they can’t be separated) but becomes an interesting spectrum in relation to finding fulfillment in life. As Merton says, the wrong type of action in the world (focused solely on personal accomplishment and external success), taken as a means to happiness, only makes you disappear like smoke. Looking inward – where, for Merton, you may achieve a union with God – certainly can fulfill the need to affirm a stable core of belief. But union with God – or whatever form of spiritual centering you may practice – is not completed through static being, isolation and constant prayer. It happens through meaningful action in the world – and that is a part of spiritual practice. I find that a helpful way of thinking about work. God knows I’ve made enough mistakes in going after the wrong kind of work for the wrong reasons. Finding what is most natural to me is pure joy. And as you say, that doesn’t even feel like work – it’s so right.

      I am trying to do much the same thing you are in finding a way to make money online from what I love to do. It’s hard, of course, but until recently this medium wasn’t even available. The cost of entry is still low – but getting from there to a sustainable business is a different matter.

      All my best to you — John

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