On work

Have you ever wondered: What is work?

Maliesingel, Utrecht

Is work our means to earn a living –  nothing more than a job, an equal trade of one’s time and skill for a wage, all the stuff we do between 9 to 5 in order to pay the bills? Is work the tool that helps us accumulate wealth, the activity that can be steadily tracked and measured by how much the bank statement grows at the end of the month, or how much possession we have amassed? Or is work our art – how we express ourselves in this world, our attempt at making a permanent mark in this transient life?

Is work our distraction? The seemingly-urgent, yet inconsequential fire we put out every day, over and over again, the squeaking wheel we’re forced to grease, the routine we use to fill our days. We cultivate a love-hate relationship with our work. We detest & complain about it, but secretly enjoy having the constant anxiety so we don’t have to think about all the other things. Imagine if all the work-related thoughts and worries suddenly disappear from our mind, what would be there instead? Maybe work is the ever expanding foam we use to fill the void in our mind, which would otherwise be occupied by self-doubt and existential questions that are much harder to confront. That’s why work is called occupation, isn’t it? It occupies our time and our mind.

Now, do you work to live or do you live to work? Is work our identity, the label we wear, the answer we give when someone asks, “And what do you do?”. And if we’re being totally honest with ourselves, how often does this seemingly innocuous question feels like a socially-accepted method of sizing someone up, to measure someone’s worthiness and how they stack up in the socioeconomic ladder, if they’re worth our attention and our time.

In our society, work provides a sense of self that feels real, or real enough that we can use it to fend off stranger’s question about who we are, and write it down on various forms that seek to ascertain our identity. No wonder we have come to believe that one’s work is one’s worth. How often do we value others based on what they do for work?

If I’m being honest with myself, work was my identity. While work might have started off as a practical means to earn money, it took up larger and larger portion of my identity over the years. The more I do well at work, the more I attach myself to work. It felt so good to be praised at work, to be told that you’re good at what you do, that over time, my self worth & happiness was tied to my accomplishments at work. Good day at work = happy Selina. Bad day at work = unhappy Selina. My self worth, my happiness and my well-being were directly affected by my work performance.

Edinburgh, Scotland

This realization was what made me more adamant about not working during our sabbatical. We had received a lot of advice from friends and strangers on how we should try to make money during the trip: to blog, to vlog, to sell merch, to be insta celebrity, etc. Even my dad told us we should blog and get paid through click ads 😂. All these suggestions came from a good place, but I felt that it was time to do the radical thing and challenge myself to become a bum.

I read a saying somewhere. “Run towards your fear.” Well, this was me running towards my fear: to be unemployed, to have no work to occupy me daily, no steady paycheck, no profession to hang my hat on.

All to answer a simple question: am I really nothing without my work?

4 Comments

  1. “Maybe work is the ever expanding foam we use to fill the void in our mind, which would otherwise be occupied by self-doubt and existential questions that are much harder to confront.”

    Very true. I retired a couple of years ago. It’s very different not to have to go to work, have to make a living, etc. The time I spend now comes with all those self-doubt questions and, truly, without any answers. And, as I care for my 91 year old father and attend funerals of friends, it becomes very apparent that my time here is impermanent. I’ll pass on a couple of quotes for you.

    Therefore hold every hour in your grasp. Lay hold of today’s task, and you will not need to depend so much upon tomorrow’s. While we are postponing, life speeds by. Nothing is ours, except time. We were entrusted by nature with the ownership of this single thing, so fleeting and slippery that anyone who will can oust us from possession. What fools these mortals be! They allow the cheapest and most useless things, which can easily be replaced, to be charged in the reckoning, after they have acquired them; but they never regard themselves as in debt when they have received some of that precious commodity — time! And yet time is the one loan which even a grateful recipient cannot repay.” Seneca, Letters from a Stoic

    “We are so obsessed with doing that we have no time and no imagination left for being. As a result, men are valued not for what they are but for what they do or what they have — for their usefulness.” — Thomas Merton

    Thanks for your writing!

    • Thanks for sharing these thought-provoking quotes, Merle. Time is fleeting indeed, and how easy to lose sight of this.

  2. I agree… It happends to me to me… in some way… then the next question for me was: Whats the meaning of being succesfull? In my case, Do I really need more money, now that I can, do I really really need more, to be happy?
    Then i stopped looking for an office to rent. To hire people.. to be a director…

    Or..

    Keep it the way it is, just find the rhythm, enjoy eVerything, even bad or scary things…. live and love…

    Guess what I decided to do?

    Love you!!! Thank for this post!!🌻

    • Glad you found your rhythm, your groove and your courage to live & love ❤️

      Like you, for the longest time I really believed that I needed to be successful at work, have all the money in the bank to be happy. Isn’t it so liberating to realize that these are just stories we (and others) tell ourselves and there’s another version where we are still happy no matter what?

      Love you too!

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