From life/work balance to life’s work

In my training for ministry – which involved a complex programme of academic study, conference cycle, ministry placements, learning networks and so on – we were taught again and again about the importance of life/work balance. We were told in no uncertain terms that ministers should have two days off. I remember I was told off by a retired minister who saw the Order of Service from my church that mentioned my day off is a Friday. “You’re supposed to have two days off, not one!” he told me.

But then I was ordained and inducted to a pastoral charge, and was soon overwhelmed by the sheer volume of work that a minister in the Church of Scotland has on their plate. Two days off? You’re joking, surely! When are you supposed to do all the work that needs to be done? “Remember, the church already has a Messiah!” – we were also told towards the end of our training. Hm… so I guess if I don’t get everything done the church would not cease to exist, or be less church?

As I reflected in my last article on the Protestant Work Ethic – a term coined by Max Webber – I was challenged to see work in a different way. What is the motivation for work? Is it to prove my worth? To earn my keep? To occupy my time to keep me out of mischief? Somehow, motivation seemed to matter a lot. Do I work myself to death in the church to prove to people that I am dedicated, that I am worthy, that they need me, that I am a hero of faith, that I am respectable? All these motivations ring so hollow.

And then I thought of the ‘two days off’ myth – or what it seemed to me to be a myth. There was something I didn’t quite like about the concept of life and work balance, which is what the two days off is attempting to achieve.  I understand what it stands for, but I’m not sure it’s all that helpful. What I really don’t like about that is that it separates life from work – hence the need to balance the two. Now I have life, now I have work. Now I live, now I work. That doesn’t sound right, and it feels even worse. It feels fragmented, disjointed, disconnected.

What is the alternative? Creativity! They say the best ideas – the most outstanding breakthroughs in the creative history – did not come while sitting at a desk, working hard. No. It was while taking a walk in the woods, while taking a bath, while smelling a flower. Have you ever wondered why that is? Why is that the time allocated for that portion of our existence called ‘work’, we are actually not at our best creatively? I read an article a few months ago about a company which encouraged their employees to spend an allocated time on Facebook during work hours, because they noticed that great ideas came from that kind of networking and apparent ‘down time’. I was reading another article recently which pointed out that the most creative people in the world have empty diaries. They are not busy and they say ‘No’ a lot. They can’t meet with you, they are busy creating, thus leaving their diaries clear of clutter and busyness. What they make first and foremost is space. Creativity only comes where there is space, stillness and peace.

“But not all jobs are creative!” you may say. “Why not?” I ask. All jobs, all work should be creative. They should spring from the stillness of being, from that place where I know and trust that I am already worthy, already accepted and loved, and that I don’t have to work to prove any of that. Then, and only then, from that place of stillness, my creative power can inspire me to discover my gifts and passions, and use them creatively and enthusiastically. I don’t want an OK plumber. I want a plumber who is passionate about plumbing. I don’t want an OK builder. I want a builder who is obsessed with the beauty of his work, who wakes up in the middle of the night with a bright new idea of how to make a straight wall without interruptions and bumps.

I would say that that is what the world needs: passionate, inspired people, in all domains of life. Imagine if everyone today did their jobs with that creative passion, finding new ways of being of service to others. I can see it here and there already. Imagine governments that did their best to enable people who are passionate about something to be educated in that field, and have opportunities to use their passion for the good of society. Instead of just filling vacancies, looking for passionate people who would love to do that job. Imagine what that would do to the world economy!

“But not all jobs are desirable!” you may say. Yes, perhaps. Sometimes, the reality of life is that we have to do jobs we don’t really want to do. I’ve done that, and maybe you have too. It’s not easy. But this is where it gets tricky. We can have the wrong expectation that the job provides significance for us. We should already have that by the mere fact of being, of bearing the image of God. We are already significant and worthy. Significance and worthiness are internal, not external. This is what grace is about. If we don’t get that, we end up with a destructive relationship with work which leads to exhaustion and burnout, as we strive to prove ourselves.

I would suggest that in those transitionary periods, when we have to do a job we don’t particularly feel called to do, we could use it as an opportunity to build skills we may need in ‘the dream job’. Any job will give us some kind of opportunity: meeting people, serving, smiling, being kind, going the extra mile etc. Bringing a quality of intensity TO a job, a sense of acceptance and presence, rather than expecting it to provide significance for us can go a long way in providing quality and depth to whatever we are doing.

Following your passion is not an easy journey. Often it requires great sacrifices. Being an artist is not an easy vocation. It is a calling that rarely provides financial stability or glamour. But if you feel you are called to be an artist, make it your life’s work. Let that spring from who you are, from your passion and internal energy. Think about what motivates you to create. What is it that drives you to create? What is behind it all?

In all of this, if we were to move from a disjointed life/work polarity towards a more integrative view – what we could call ‘life’s work’ – I believe we would need to reconsider the relationship between work and identity. Who I am, my worthiness, my being should be the source of my work, not the result of my work. If at any point I feel that my work is overwhelming me, taking me over, I need to be very careful that I’m not in ‘proving myself’ mode. This is a spiritual exercise. It involves self-awareness, stillness, acceptance, inspiration and then enthusiasm. When the order of identity and work is kept in check, I believe we won’t even need to talk about life/work balance. We will only talk about our life’s work, and talk about it passionately.

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