“I’m Guy, and I’m a workaholic.”
That’s the way I’d introduce myself if there were a W.A. 12-Step Group (maybe there is!).
I’ve written and talked about the amazing gift of Sabbath, about the importance of a sustaining rhythm of engagement and disengagement, about the delights of playing and praying, and about how we’re human beings and not human doings.
I’ve encouraged, counseled, and coached people to “put on their own oxygen masks first,” to realize that they are, by grace and not by achievement, children of God in whom God takes great delight, and to rest in the assurance that they are loved.
I’ve asked people to listen and respond to this tender invitation of Jesus: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
In other words, I’ve said what I longed to hear and written what I ached to read.
Across the last 20 years of ministry, I had one six-week sabbatical in 2007. It got cut-short about midway through when my father died from complications of cancer and its treatment. From that summer, until I left the pastorate in January 2015, I worked steadily with few breaks of more than a handful of consecutive days.
No one but me forced me to stay in harness as I did. The church made generous provisions for vacation and study-leave, so it’s mostly my fault that I didn’t take them. Imperceptibly (to me, not to people who cared for me) being responsible and responsive—good things—devolved into a warped sense of duty and a prideful illusion of indispensability.
I had become a workaholic.
It is capitalism’s most-favored addiction, one which weary leaders wear like a tarnished badge of honor—an ersatz purple heart we give ourselves for self-inflicted wounds.
In a particular way, addiction to work is like addiction to food: you can’t just quit cold-turkey and abstain. The nourishment of food is necessary for physical survival, and I think that work is crucial for emotional-spiritual flourishing.
The vocabulary for talking about this dimension of life includes not just work, but calling, vocation, profession, and job. The meanings of these words are imprecise and depend on who uses them and how.
For now, I’m using “job” to mean what we get paid to do, and “work, calling, vocation, and profession” as more or less synonymous for what we most want and need to do with our gifts and opportunities to serve in ways that make the world a beloved community.
For many of us, “work, calling, vocation, and profession” are responses to a divine summons and—or—to the deep sacredness of creation. “Work” can be a gift we receive as well as a gift we give.
It’s good, of course, when there is some interconnection between “work” and “job.” Sometimes, though, a “job” is mostly about making a living; “work” is about making a life. There’s a certain dignity in the things we do to put a roof over our heads, food on the table, and our kids though school. A mere job might not mean a lot to us, but it can be part of a meaningful life.
I know very few people who are tempted to become “job-a-holics.” The more distant what we do to earn money is from the work of our lives, the less likely it is that that we’ll let it become all-consuming. We’ll do our jobs well, serve customers or clients, care for our coworkers, and make creative contributions when possible; but we’re not likely to ask a job to do more for us than it can do.
It’s when there’s significant synergy between our work our jobs that then we’re more susceptible to lure of workaholism.
At the core of most addictions is idolatry. With workaholism, the idolatry is often straightforward: success is a way of putting one’s ego in the place where only God belongs.
Or, the idolatry can be subtler: the attempt to gain from work what only God’s love and grace can give. If we’re doing worthwhile things, we might think those things can ensure our core worthiness. If our work is making a significant difference in people’s lives, we might come to trust that it will make us more significant. If it matters, we might hope that it will convince us that we matter after all. If we love our work, we have a kind of faith that our work will earn love for us.
I left the pastorate in January of 2015, because cancer and its treatment were making it impossible for me to handle the complexities and demands of the church I served. I’ve spent the last 2½ years trying to find a reasonable mix of “work” and “job” for this season of my life. As most readers of this blog already know, I’m teaching at Mars Hill University, doing what I can to help churches, and trying to write.
I begin my third academic year at MHU in a month or so. For the first couple of years, I scrambled to prepare: every class I taught was new to me, as was the entire experience of teaching undergraduates. It was a lot, and it threatened to be too much.
Three years ago this summer (at this time of year), I was at Duke Med for a stem-cell transplant. I nearly died, twice. I also experienced a kind of rebirth into a new life that I’m still learning how to live in the presence of cancer but, even more, in the presence of Wonder and Love.
My work, as best I know it now, is to help people discover or remember that God is like Jesus, filled with mercy and love, that they are children of God, and that this world is a gift, our home, for us to nurture with justice and peace.
And my work is to trust what I’m helping other people to discover and remember. It is to be able to say: “I’m Guy, and I’m a recovering workaholic.”