Today is the 120th anniversary since Labor Day was officially declared a U.S. federal holiday (it is also observed today in Canada). It is also viewed as the last weekend of Summer. Since I live in Phoenix we will still enjoy 100+ degree weather for another month so be careful of your definition of Summer being “over.” And it signals the beginning of the football season!
Since this is supposed to be a holiday, or a break from work, it is a good idea to define the concept of work so we can know what it is we are getting away from. On the surface it seems fairly simple. Work is the activity you do as a profession and for which you are paid. But if you are a writer the latter half of that formula isn’t always a guaranteed proposition!
Thus for the writer we are left with a definition of work as being what you do. But that can be a dangerous thing because we tend to let what we do define who we are. I can speak to this first hand.
Over 20 years ago I lost my job. I won’t go into the gory details, suffice it to say it was a surprise and came without warning. Since I had some time on my hands I thought I would take a night class on the Old Testament prophets at a local seminary. During the first session the professor had us go around the room, say our name, and what we did for a living. When it came my turn I flushed with embarrassment and said “My name is Steve Laube and I am no longer encumbered by employment.” I felt so humiliated I left the building during the first break and never returned.
Why did I react that way? Because I defined myself by my work. And since I no longer had “work” I no longer had a purpose. A ridiculous reaction? Maybe. But it was very real at that moment.
I wrestled during those months of unemployment with my own sense of identity and purpose. Ironically my work became the job of finding a job. Eventually through God’s mercy I received a phone call from Carol Johnson at Bethany House Publishers wanting to talk about my becoming an editor. And a new life chapter began.
I learned some valuable lessons during those dry times. Some of them may apply to your situation.
1) I am not what I do. While it is so easy to fall into this trap, it is actually a sinkhole without a bottom. You are not a writer. I am not a literary agent. What we do is not our identity. I have to trust what God says in Philippians 3:20 and Colossians 1:13-14 and 1 Peter 2:9. If we believe in Christ our identity is in Him.
2) Waiting is hard. Need I say more?
3) Success is impossible to define. We all struggle with this but writers in particular. We drink up numbers and rankings and other author’s successes like water in a parched desert. When our numbers are not what we had anticipated we get depressed. Since writing is solitary and time consuming there is a desire to have some criteria by which we can judge whether the effort is “worth it.” But that definition is incredibly subjective. No two authors define success the same way. I talked to a writer who was stunned that their latest book did not sell the usual 50,000 copies, but only sold 40,000. And another author who was mortified that their book sold only 1,200 copies over a two year period. Publishers can also define success differently. One may sell 5,000 copies and celebrate. Another publisher may sell 5,000 copies and someone’s job is on the line.
Let’s return to number one on the list above and think about it for a moment. Aren’t numbers two and three solved by grasping the import of number one?
It is simplicity itself. Instead of searching for identity, success and gratification we already have everything we need.
Work no longer is something we have to do. As if it were a chore based on a deadline, a financial necessity, or on an employer’s assignment.
Work is something we get to do.
Work is something we are called to do.
In that there is purpose. In that there is success.
Always good wisdom.
This can be a huge struggle of mine, especially when I start playing the stats and ranking game. Thanks for sharing, Steve.
Thanks, Steve, for this good reminder. God’s timing is impeccable. I needed to hear this.
Agreed. A timely message for me as well. It’s such a wormhole when we allow the decisions and actions of other humans to define ourselves. So much of what we do is in reaction to circumstances and necessity. Having said that, I believe Jung meant that our morality can be seen through our actions in many situations. Our choices can define us when they are dramatic enough to wound our psyches. A clear reason to return to understanding that our identity lies in Christ, where there is continuous redemptive power.
We are His. Created for His purposes and our mission in life is to glorify Him forever. With a commission like that from a gracious God who died to set us free, our identities are established. Thank you for reminding me, Steve.
Great post, Steve. I’ve contemplated identity for a long time. You’re right that it’s easy to wrap our identities in what we do rather than Whose we are. I’ve been learning to live this out, especially now that I’m walking on the writing journey! Remembering Whose I am, that I am identified with Jesus, helps me to trust God’s timing more for His plans to be carried out in my life.
I love your reminder that work/writing is something I GET to do, and it’s something I’m called to do. Thanks for that!
I appreciate your sensitivity to a writer’s frustrations of defining success and needing to play the waiting game. Isn’t it something how God uses pain (you losing your job) to teach us important concepts, like finding identity in Him. Thank you. I will remember this.
Steve, that is a very meaningful insight from a deep guy, whose depth was seemingly plumbed during his own wilderness years. I am comforted by this, having spent 10 years in my own wilderness writing many words as I wrestled with God’s take on it all. I have used this metaphor before, but it fits here. Mandela spiritually and mentally cast off his chains and left his cell long before they freed him, but in opening the cell door he freed his prisoners. True victory over what we face will never be found in defining ourselves by our circumstances. Whatever applied to Mandela is one thing, but this is what Paul said as he reclaimed his life, “I live, yet not I but Christ lives in”, whilst David said, “my cup runs over”. Thank you for a very poignant message and thank you identifying with the real-world struggles of others.
Great wisdom, Steve. As a retired engineer, I will reiterate the importance of keeping who you are separate from what you do. All retirees face an enormous identity crisis if their self perception is based on a career they no longer have.
I thank the Lord that He taught me years ago this distinction. I was an engineer, but I am (and always will be) a child of the King.
Sandy Faye Mauck
I wonder if John the Baptist felt like he was something very important but he was a very important part of the plan.
Hebrews 11 comes to mind.
Thanks for making me think about this today—it applies to our whole life.
It is not what we can do for God—it is what He can do with us.
Excellent post, Steve. Thank you.
Steve, this is a thought-provoking piece.
I don’t have a good answer to “What do you do for a living?” and it’s many variations. My attempts to answer wisely usually come off as trite or snarky.
How do you respond to that question?
I gladly answer that I am a Literary Agent when asked the question of what I do for a living. Because that is the truth. And because that is the question I’m being asked in normal conversation. Giving a theological answer may come across as pretentious.
However, I do not wrap up my Identity (with a capital “I”) in my job. That lesson was learned.
I have found myself in conversation and if I’m mindful, I pause before asking a question like “what do you do?” It is fun to ask “what do you do to fill your average day?” or “What do you do by day?” (suggesting that eating cake at a reception was not what they would normally do) or some variation. It revealed one person who was unemployed but who gladly answered the question.
Important things to think about. I spent a lot of years trying to reach the point of “being an author”. Now I am one, and yet it seems like an odd definition of who I am. The novelty and excitement of that first published book fades and most folks don’t really think about it after that. So if I hinge my identity on that, I will fade away as well. I will continue writing, since it is a God led aspect of my life, but it’s not who I am. My identity is in Christ. And Christ alone. Thanks for the reminder Steve.
Rebecca Barlow Jordan
Steve, I couldn’t agree with you more. Thanks for the important reminder!
I found it helpful when once a counselor remarked, reminded:
We are human BEings, not human DOings.
I love this post! Thanks!
Thank you for that great reminder. I retired from my position as a counselor last year, yet I still counsel people. It is in my blood. I write now and have been published, yet I still don’t see myself as a writer. Identity is a funny thing! One thing I know. I am a child of the King, therefore, I am a princess.
Jean, yeah, girl, shout it! Love that title! I was listening to Brit Nicole’s song Gold this morning and she sings about that very thing 🙂
Elise, your comment is right on. Thank you for sharing it. In a bible study I did a few years ago, the author talked about God’s will and how we usually associate that with ‘what’ we do. In truth, when God speaks about His will in the bible it’s in how we are to live. But our society focuses so much on what. Steve’s statement about being asked in his class what he did for a living happens all the time. When meeting someone for the first time, that topic usually comes up within the first 5 seconds. So when the author of the bible study said, “While you’re waiting for the ‘what’ of your life focus on the ‘who’ God wants you to be”. I nodded in agreement and share her wonderful words to my friends who are trippin about the ‘what’ of their life.
Janelle…these word from your comment ,“While you’re waiting for the ‘what’ of your life, focus on the ‘who’ God wants you to be”, brought to mind the words of God himself at Jesus’ baptism: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”
My point? God was pleased with who Jesus was BEFORE Jesus began his ministry. In the same way, I like to think that God is way more pleased with who we are in Him than what we do for Him.
Joe, well said, thank you! My husband and I are reading the book of Mark to our two boys and every time I read the line you quoted, I get emotional by the phrase “well pleased.” Can you imagine God looking at you in Eternity and saying that He’s “well pleased” with you?
Thanks, Steve. When we grasp that first truth, we find rest. Your post hits home to the heart and I want to stand up in the coffee shop and say, “Amen.” But that’s too extroverted for an introvert like me!
Lancia E. Smith
Thank you, Steve, for this. I really needed to read this today. You are such a blessing.
I never knew this, but am all the more a fan and a friend now that I do. Great encouragement for me today. Thank you.
Steve, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: You need to write a book.
Let me know if you need an agent!
Thanks so much for a great reminder. I’ve been a stay-at-home mom for years and am getting back into “whatever lies ahead”, which will hopefully involve writing in some capacity. It’s easy to think of what I used to do, and what I do now, and get depressed! God has been reminding me that my bigger purpose is His, regardless of what I do each day to work that out.
great article. thank you for the reminder.
That quote doesn’t refer to your occupation, but to your actions. Emotions are self-indulgent nonsense, words lie, actions reveal the truth about you. Hence, you are what you do
I think we may be coming at the subject from different directions. My point was to say that my Identity, as in who I am at the core, should not be defined by my occupation.
You are correct that how we act is a reflection of our inner self. “You will recognize them by their fruits.” (Matthew 7:16) “Faith apart from works is useless.” (James 2:20) And yet at the same time 2 Corinthians 5:17 reads, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.”
By the way, I’ve been a fan of your writing since I read The Peshawar Lancers in a Science Fiction Book Club edition a long time ago.
I’m so impressed with the depth of thought and feeling in all these replies. I came across this thread completely at random this morning when searching for something else. In Steve’s article and especially in the responses evoked, I find both inspiration and solace. The replies are astute and sincere. On this Thanksgiving weekend 4 years after the thread was created I found the content and timing of it extremely beneficial to me at this particular moment in my life and am very thankful for it. I’d gladly read more from all these writers.
This is simply not true. Not completely false but not true. You are exactly what you do. You might not be what you do for a living, but the totality of your actions are exactly who you are. To think otherwise is nonsense and a lie.
The world is based on one rule cause and effect. The sum of your actions is your identity. Perhaps everyone does not know all that you do, but you know what you do because you’re with yourself every second of your life.
If you want to kid yourself in thinking that fact is false, then your reality is fiction. Nothing wrong with that either.