In my line of work as a hospice chaplain, it’s not normal to be doing what hospice staff do on a daily basis. Providing compassionate, competent, complete care to someone in the death/dying process is equally rewarding, intense, somber, and difficult.
This work affects us in two ways if we let it: it can lead us to finding greater meaning and purpose within ourselves as professional caregivers and practitioners of care, or it can lead to burnout and fatigue and lead to incredible emptiness and lack of purpose or identity.
There are many other sectors of industry and work that deal with similar concerns, and yet we in Western/American society glorify the absolute dedication to work. We praise the ones who work 24/7 for their selflessness and dedication, and yet we forget that reality is simply unsustainable.
I read an article not too long ago about Danielle Steel, the famous romance author who seemed to wear her workaholism as a badge of honor: working 22 hours a day, barely eating/drinking, and inevitably having little to no social life or purpose outside of writing books. The incredible wealth she has attained is in no doubt in part of her work ethic and in part due to her craft as a writer: but is this healthy behavior? And is this behavior something to be praised and emulated?
Now, make no mistake, work ethic is important. Doing good quality work is vital. But work should not be the defining thing in our lives. We are meant to be so much more than our work and what we do. We are beings so beautifully creative, diverse, and talented; that just to be regulated and remembered for our work seems to fall short in the grand scheme of things. Yet, at least in the United States, when we meet people for the first time; inevitably, one of the very first questions we ask someone we first meet is “Oh, so what do you do?” Yet, I’ve been rarely asked and have rarely asked “Oh, so who are you? What do you love? What moves you? What gives your life meaning, love, and joy?”
Hospice has taught me that. When I have ministered to those on their deathbed, I’ve not heard “I wish I could have worked more” or “I wish I made more money” or “I wish I was famous”; instead I’ve heard things like “I wish I spent more time with family” or “I wished I traveled more” or “I wish I did more good for others in need.”
Life is meant to be lived well. And while work is necessary to sustain our lives financially and to provide good health, meaning and purpose; it’s not the most important thing to our inner purpose. The most important thing is how much did we get to enjoy the opportunities and wonderments of this world? How much of a difference did we make in the lives of those who needed love, support, and meaning? How well did we cultivate relationships with our family, friends, neighbors and colleagues? How fulfilled did we feel physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually?
Were we able to cross off the bucket list? Can we look back and go: I’ve lived a good life? Or will we end up going: I’ve worked way too much and I missed out on those things I truly desired.
Now it might take great sacrifice to find the balance between work and life (I know it has somewhat for me), but in the end what matters is what matters most to you? And even if you like being a workaholic, take some “sober” opportunities to stop and smell the flowers, take a trip to some distant land, spend some time with family, or for goodness sake take a freaking PTO day or two and just get some rest and learn to relax.
We do ourselves no good if we work so hard to the point of burnout. We need to create space in our lives and give ourselves permission to enjoy life. If we can’t do that, no one else will do it for us, and when we get to the point when we face eternity, we will depart this life wondering what could have been.
Don’t do that. Don’t wonder. Explore. Create. Enjoy. Cultivate. Renew.