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Work Addiction


On the (risky) assumption that "that which is most personal is most universal," today I'd like to share some personal observations and insights about work, tiredness, and rest.

First, work.

Work is addictive.  

Especially if, like me, you like and enjoy your work, and find it meaningful and rewarding, it can be addictive.
 
We tend to think of "addicts" as people who are addicted to drugs or alcohol. And while those are serious addictions, I'll bet they are not as common an addiction as work is.

However, many of us are "addicted to work" to such a degree that if that same addiction were to drugs or alcohol, our families, friends, and work colleagues would not tolerate it. They'd insist we seek help and get into recovery.

But those kinds of interventions don't often happen with our addiction to work. I suspect that's mostly because our addiction to work (at least now, in the United States) is not only socially acceptable, it is socially (and financially, and prestige-wise) downright rewarded. This, I understand, was not so strongly the case in previous generations here and is still today not so strongly the case in other parts of the world. 

Photo credit: Casey Quinn

Photo credit: Casey Quinn
 So when I catch myself slipping into work addiction, I find it's helpful to step back and recall that what I'm doing to myself/what we are doing to ourselves is not (historically or worldwide) "normal." More importantly, when I find myself slipping into work addiction, I find it's helpful to recall that work without adequate rest is not how we are hard-wired: We are created (hard-wired) in the image, or likeness of God. And remember, God's resting is 1/7 of the creation story.  

How do I know when I am slipping into work addiction? That brings me to my second point: tiredness.

Here's a helpful distinction I heard about tiredness: There's nothing wrong with putting in long, hard days, and as a result being tired IN the work we're doing. (I'm that kind of tired most of the year, and I only get over that kind of tiredness if I take a true vacation.) But there is something wrong when we get tired OF work we're doing. Assuming we generally like our work, being tired OF it is a symptom of work addiction. When we get that kind of tired, it should act as a little warning bell in our Spirit: ding-ding!

Another warning sign, for me, of work addiction tiredness is that I get brittle. Ding, a warning bell. I get snappy. Ding, another warning bell. I'll get impatient in traffic. (Ding-ding!)
 
Ignore those warning bells enough, and things get worse: I find myself getting grumpy at otherwise lovely people (and pets), not to mention downright judgmental toward less lovely people (and pets). Ding, ding, ding! 

Keep ignoring those warning bells, keep doubling down on my work effort despite diminishing returns, keep running away from my need for solitude and rest and then what? A sense of ennui sets in. Synonyms for ennui are boredom... languor...tedium...world-weariness...dissatisfaction. Sense any of those emotions starting to creep in - none of which are from God - and it's DING-DONG-CODE-RED-ALERT. We never solve a problem well when we are in a dark and discouraged place.  

We seldom solve a problem well when we are on one of these, either.
Which brings me to third point: hopefully, when we first hear the warning bells, we need to withdraw, and rest.

Jesus - who, remember is "the pioneer and perfecter of our faith" (Hebrews 12:2) - was able to withdraw. He frequently went off alone for times of solitude. (Interestingly, it was in such a time of solitude and rest that he encountered the Samaritan woman at the well, one of his most powerful ministry moments. Had he been "at work" or with his disciples, and not alone, that conversation would never have taken place.)

And when his first followers went off to work and came back full of excitement about all they had accomplished, what was the first thing Jesus told them? "Get back out there"? "Capitalize on your momentum"? "Come Labor On, Who Dares Stand Idle"?

No.

He said "Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place. And get some rest."

Photo credit: Graham Ohmer

Rest - getting away, stepping back and withdrawing from the thousand things that call for our attention - is our primary weapon against the enemy of tiredness.

Rest - getting away, stepping back and withdrawing - is the primary recovery tool for work addiction.

Ah...but here's the thing, here's the catch: Rest - getting away, stepping back and withdrawing - takes humility.  

It takes humility to not over-identify with our work - to realize there is a difference between "what we do," and "who we are."  

It takes humility to realize that the world (and even our work!) will go on without us. Often quite happily.

It takes humility to realize that It - whatever "it" is - Does Not All Depend On Me.

And the beautiful irony is, what happens when we do take regular times to withdraw and rest?

Upon our return - precisely because we have stepped away for a while and rested - not only our attitude will be improved, but so will our work.

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