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Many of you may know the cartoon series “For Better of Worse” by Lynn Johnston that appears in the Sunday Enquirer. It’s about two parents of young children trying to manage the challenges of career and everyday home life. One of Johnston’s cartoons that appeared a few years ago, at the height of the recession, showed the mom having just lost her job. She plaintively asks, “Without a job, who am I?” Her husband looks at her stunned and without an answer – perplexed as many of us are at how to support those who lose their jobs. In the final frame we see the couple’s toddler child wrapping his arms around the woman and simply answering who she is to him, “Mum” the boy says.
I shared in last week’s message the idea that we choose how we define ourselves by our beliefs about the world and about ourselves. And this self definition has a profound impact on our actions, emotions and sense of self-worth. While society tries to define who we are by its set of standards, we can choose to accept or reject that. It is our definition of ourselves that matters and that dilemma is perfectly captured in the cartoon I just described.
As all of us know, when we meet someone for the first time, one of the first questions asked is “What do you do?” or “What did you do?” Unfortunately, we and others use career and work life to define us. We make assumptions about others based on their work – how smart they are, their work ethic, their education, their wealth, and their importance. Too often we assume someone is either worthy or not based solely on their present or past job.
We also define our own sense of self-worth by our work. Many of us are caught in the cultural stereotype that persons holding jobs with lots of power, high income and high prestige somehow have greater value. We are caught in standards that tell us, for instance, that a movie star is of more value to society than is a teacher, social worker or homemaker. My mom is someone who repeatedly told others she was of no use to the world since she did not work outside the home.
Today’s fluid economy also takes its toll on how we define ourselves by work. No longer do most people remain in the same job at the same organization for a lifetime. Who are we if our jobs continually change? Added to that is how technology affects work and thus one’s self-definition. Fifty years ago, people could usually leave their work behind at the office and have separate lives at home. They had distinct identities that went beyond one’s job. Technology, however, has tied people to their work 24 hours a day. It is increasingly difficult to define ourselves outside of our work life.
Finally, changing work standards for women and men are also harmful to how we define ourselves. 70% of women with children under seventeen now work outside the home. Young women say they WANT a career and actively pursue them. But the demands of work and the desire to advance in a career mean that many women no longer define themselves as “mum”, “wife”, “partner” or complete person irregardless of career.
And the same pressure exists for men. Many working men today want to define themselves by more than their job – by working significantly less hours, by being better partners, active and involved dads, sons, and friends – but they are finding that if they do so, their paychecks and possibility for promotion are limited. In today’s fragile economy, the pressure to work harder both at home and at the workplace is intense. Who is a woman with children if she is does not define herself as a mother or as a job title? Who is a man caught in the same dilemma? How can we define ourselves in a meaningful way that somehow moves beyond this problem?
Experts assert that no longer can we define ourselves by what we do. Increasingly, defining who we are must be holistic and span across the range of activities in which we are involved. What is our one true self? Who am I both at work, at home and at play? What are my transcendent beliefs and universal values that define me no matter what I do or where I am?
Importantly, we must move away from calling people by their job titles, by defining who they are by what they do for a living, by stereotyping human value by the supposed prestige of a particular career. For one, I do not wish to be addressed in person as “Pastor Doug”. I understand this is a title of respect and affection, but why are not others addressed in a similar manner using their job title and name? My job is no more special than any other. This kind of paradigm shift away from using work as a person’s status level will not be easy. An athlete, actor or doctor will too often earn instant status over a teacher, nurse, social worker or homemaker. To change this thinking will involve changing the culture. But as we often say, we must be the change we want to see.
I often ask myself and others what it is we want to remember and cherish as we near the last days of our lives. What memories will we hold dear? What relationships will matter? What accomplishments will provide meaning and perspective to our lives? What legacies do we wish to leave behind? We have the ability right now to shape our meaning and purpose. Do we live to work or do we work in order to really live – to care, love, learn, listen and share? Ultimately, the entry in the dictionary of life under our particular names must be written by us.
When I am talked about after my death, I do not want any of the jobs I have held to be used to describe who I am. They are tasks that I performed. They are not who I am at my core. I want meaning and intrinsic values to define me. Those will hopefully reflect, however imperfectly, the things I practice and do. Neither saint nor sinner, I want to be understood by what I choose to believe.
My hopes about how I want to be remembered are consistent with modern ideas about human cognitive abilities. How we think about life and how we define ourselves need not be determined by outside factors. We choose what we think and believe. We choose to feel or not the whole range of emotions and attitudes we adopt. That includes how we think about and define who we are. While circumstances and forces beyond our control can influence us, ultimately we decide what to think and feel and thus how we act. This speaks both to the power and difficulty of cognitive change. It is quite easy to tell someone to positively change their thinking and how they see themselves. It is quite another matter to actually do so. Far be it for me or anyone else to trivialize the process. From personal experience, I understand how difficult cognitive change can be.
So, how we define ourselves is under our direct control. Instead of allowing work to define us, we must first begin to change our thinking – about others and about ourselves. We can begin by not asking soon after meeting other people what they do or have done for work. We might, instead, seek a better understanding of others by asking about relationships, hobbies, books they read, and things that give them meaning. We can better understand people in ways beyond stereotyping their intelligence, status and value by their career.
Men and women who choose to work within the home as a parent, homemaker and care giver, as one example, can no longer be demeaned. We can begin by fully honoring what they do. As we do so, others will too. The hands that rock the cradle, as the old adage goes, change the world.
We must respect any honest labor that is diligently performed. People whom we manage must be given opportunities for self-growth outside of the workplace. Their families and home life must matter. Longer maternity leave must be given. Childcare should be provided. Mandatory limits on hours worked – not by governments but by employers – must be set. No employee should wrestle with competing demands of workplace and home. Both are important but family and home life must always come first. People are far more valuable than money.
Trust of an employer is the number one factor people site in whether or not they are happy at work. As a part of trusting an employer, people say they want to be respected for their work, they want reasonable work hours and duties, they seek ample vacation time and personal rest, and they desire salaries that are fair. Only by doing such things can we elevate work beyond its use as way to define people. If all feel respected in their work, nobody need feel superior or inferior. Certain jobs will lose their function as a means for status.
We must offer the same respect to ourselves. No longer can we define ourselves by our work. That means we no longer give it the highest priority in our lives. No longer do we put it first and the well-being of families, partners, friends and our inner peace second. Once again, this is a choice we must make.
Some of you know I was on vacation for ten days last month. To my shame, I failed to let many of you know that in advance. I failed to gently set boundaries on my work while I was on vacation by asking for time off for everything but congregation emergencies. That is something I never do. Even when technically off, I don’t actually turn myself off. But I should have for at least this one vacation time.
I don’t say this as a complaint but as an admonishment and as an example of how I and others stay connected to technology and the constant demands of work and time. I took time away from relationships that matter most to me in order to answer emails, make phone calls and deal with matters that could have waited. I failed myself and others by not carving out just ten days of uninterrupted disconnection. I allowed my own ideas about self definition to control me. “I’m a Pastor whose work is just too important”, I implicitly told myself. Instead, I need to define myself in broader terms as someone with more more important values.
Beyond refusing to define others by their work, beyond defining ourselves by our work, we can also ask that our culture and society do the same. The United States ranks well behind other developed nations in the amount of benefits given to workers. Paid time-off, provision of childcare and paid maternity leave are all much higher in most other developed nations. As I’ve said earlier, this democratizes work. It establishes that all who work have dignity and worth beyond job title and economic value to the employer. Workers have value as human beings.
While it can be argued some nations have pushed the limit in granting greater benefits and that their economies suffer in lower productivity and gross domestic product, the question must be asked: what is it we really value? People or commodities? Relationships or wealth? We cannot have it all and I am not so utopian as to believe we can have unlimited benefits. Work has value and economies that are not based on diligent labor cannot thrive and thus cannot create jobs that allow more people to eat, live and find happiness. But there is a reasonable balance and our culture is out of balance. We worship at the false gods of wealth, power and status as the standards that both define people and that truly matter.
What must truly define us are the universal values to which we each aspire. How large are our hearts? How selfless are we? How are we helping to change the world for the better? How gentle are we when we speak? How humble do we interact with others? How diligently do we work to understand the needs, thoughts, dreams, hurts and fears of others? How are we a force for good?
While we all want to be appreciated for skills and talents, it is our larger values that ought to define us. Do we give to, reach out to, listen to and serve people at work and at home? Do all who know us define us by our hearts and not our jobs? Are we the same person no matter where we are?
These are questions we can aspire to answer affirmatively. These are questions that will move us beyond seeing work as a means to status and definition. Yes, we work to eat, clothe and shelter ourselves while enjoying modest pleasures. But, we do not live to work as the only task set before us. Who we are, at our deepest inner selves, is so much richer, complex and beautiful than our jobs.