The Meaning of Work

It’s been just over five weeks since I got the call that my position has been eliminated.  After almost ten years working at the company where I’ve been employed, it’s quite surreal to think that in just under a week, I’ll be shipping my computer back to the corporate office, unplugging my phone, and shutting the home office door on that part of my life.  Even five weeks after getting the news, it still feels a little raw.  And now that my last day is just days away, it feels a little unnerving, a little bitter, a little empty.  It feels like the rug has been pulled out from under me, and I’m still laying on my back on the floor looking at the ceiling wondering what happened.  In my work over the last ten years I have been fortunate to feel effective, like I know what I’m doing, like my work matters, and like I have what I need to operate in the lifestyle that I’ve chosen.  Now, as I lay here looking at the ceiling, the threads that hold my days together feel tenuous, or perhaps like it’s all been a mirage and I’m actually in the middle of the desert with no refreshment in sight.  

In mainstream America, work has a tendency to be a defining feature of how we identify ourselves and how we measure our worth and value to the world.  It tends to be a big player in how we find meaning in our lives.  Being successful at work, for better or worse, matters in our culture. And when work as we know it goes away, it’s disorienting, even for those of us who think we know how to look deeper than a job to find life’s purpose.

Krista Tippett, in an interview with the magazine The Great Discontent said,

I don’t want us to locate the meaningfulness of our lives in our work. I think that was a 20th-Century trap. I’m very committed and fond of the language of vocation, which I think became narrowly tied to our job titles in the 20th Century. Our vocations or callings as human beings may be located in our job descriptions, but they may also be located in how we are present to whatever it is we do.

As I move through these weeks of being a “person who has lost their job,” I’m trying to remind myself of Tippett’s words. I’m partially relieved to be moving into something different after years of struggling with burnout, but I’m also terrified that I will discover that I don’t know how to do anything else.  That the jig is up and I’ve been found out as a fraud, as someone who isn’t actually a valuable asset to any organization; a failed experiment.  Not successful. I’m afraid I’ll discover that all these years I have been trying to find my life’s meaning in a job — that the mirage was real and nothing is actually there when I approach the perceived oasis.  So I’m trying to remember to locate the meaningfulness of my life in my life.  And life, as much as we sometimes neglect to recognize, is much more than a job.  It’s worth saying that knowing this and living in a way that illustrates it are two different ball games.

So I need to ask myself: where do I find meaning? And then I need to really listen to my own answers.

I find meaning in listening to people, in helping others figure out how to eat food that makes them feel good, in feeding people, in baking, in moving my body outside through the natural wonder and beauty of the earth.  I find meaning in putting words together to make sense of an idea in a way that people can understand. I find meaning in sitting with someone during a challenging time and not saying anything, just bearing witness.  I find meaning in the sunrise, in the feel of the wind on my face as a storm moves in, and in the laughter of my child.  

Many of these meaning makers have been present in my job, to be sure.  As a wellness coach, I have listened to people all day long for ten years, and I’ve helped a lot of folks figure out how to take care of themselves.  I’ve spent time in silence with those who were struggling when the occasion called for such an act.  I’ve encouraged people to get outside and to cook more at home.  There has been plenty of meaning in my work, alongside the less desirable parts that tend to come with any job.  But when I take the job away, I also find meaning when I plant a seed in the garden as the ground warms in the spring, or when I hear what a friend isn’t saying through the lines of an email or across the table.  I find meaning when I cook a healthy meal for my family and when I share the harvest with someone who needs it.  

I need to remember the wisdom of Anna Quindlen:  Don’t ever confuse the two, your life and your work. That’s what I have to say. The second is only a part of the first.  Life has meaning, and my day job has been simply a slice of that life.  Any job is simply a slice of that life, even the jobs that resonate 100% with what we want to do with our days.  So even though there are feelings of anxiety, disappointment, and bitterness as my tenure comes to an end, there are also feelings of curiosity, relief, and the sweet taste of what might be next right there with them.  

And really, who doesn’t like a little good contrast to make things pop a bit?

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