Before the pandemic, I was invited to a two-day energy conference at the University of Texas. Various experts in energy spoke to a large audience of energy professionals. I was retired and enjoyed getting reacquainted with energy supply/demand projections, technological advancements, and governmental policies. There was a dinner at an Austin hotel after the first day of presentations where the participants gathered for a good meal, an awards presentation, and a speech.
The dinner was preceded by an hour of socializing over drinks in the hotel’s foyer. Men were dressed in dark business suits and women wore dinner dresses. I knew only a few of the participants since I was never employed in Austin. My only relationships were with several Southwestern University Board of Trustee members who also worked in energy. I am not a good ‘mingler’ at large social events, so this happy hour put me out of my comfort zone. I saw a few people I knew and gracefully joined their discussion group.
After listening for a few minutes to the conversation, one of the men turned towards me and asked, “What do you do?” I replied, “I am retired from energy trading.” My answer was not what he had anticipated since my age did not normally place me in the retired category. The gentleman did not know how to respond, so he turned away and rejoined the group’s conversation. I then realized how much the world defined me through my job. In that moment, I felt unworthy without a job title. As I looked around the large room with people chatting about the energy business, I felt out of place. Just a few years ago, I contently attended these types of professional functions as a recognized full participant. Did my work define my identity?
Dr. Russell Muirhead, the Robert Clements Professor of Democracy and Politics at Dartmouth University, wrote Just Work (“Democracy and the Value of Work”), published in Leading Lives that Matter: What We Should Do and Who We Should Be (Mark R. Schwehn and Dorothy C. Bass, Editors, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI, 2006, pages 188–91). Muirhead examined work from a secular, political view. Workers mainly determine their occupations based on their gifts and values. But while we are working, the work can shape our identity and character. This trait is a circuitous cycle that runs throughout our working lives. “The way we spend the bulk of our waking energy can even come to inform our larger posture toward the world, depending on whether work prods us to experience the world as hostile or alien, compliant or beneficent. This is why for many work cannot be merely another of life’s routines but is rather a key source of their identity.”
In a practical way, I can relate to Muirhead’s thesis. My character was shaped by my work, in both good and bad ways. I lived in the suburbs of a major energy city where many of my neighbors worked in energy. My community was an escape from the problems outside our comfortable surroundings: low crime, good schools, and primarily Christian neighbors. We discussed the church’s next capital project, how to invest our 401k money, and the direction of oil prices. We knew who was ascending the corporate ladder and who changed jobs. Most people voted their pocketbooks and were conservative. My choice as to where I lived and worked shaped my views and somewhat, my identity.
This changed when I lived overseas and worked in countries where hydrocarbon was negatively viewed. I vividly remember protesters outside our corporate building during the Brent Spar incident. I shied away from telling people where I worked. I intensely absorbed international history, cultures, and politics to make sense of my new environment. I was again shaped by my foreign work experiences and while I loved my energy friends, I struggled with reconciling my energy world with the world beyond my profession. It is a struggle that continues in retirement. But without my career path, I doubt I would have wrestled with these issues.
Muirhead writes that “along with family and religion, work remains one of the central activities constituting everyday life. Work is instrumental (we work to earn and spend), but is rarely only that: it is also formative. Devoting the bulk of our waking hours to a particular activity over many years has an effect on who we are, whether we like it or not. In a limited but crucial way, we are what we do (‘What do you do?’ is a kind of shorthand for ‘Who are you?’).”
As a Christian, I know that I am a child of God and loved, no matter where I work or how successful I am in the eyes of the world. My self-worth and identity are not defined by my job or others. Our choices expand our perceptions and understanding, but our character and identity are shaped through Scripture, prayer, discipleship, and service. Work is an important part of our vocation but needs to be placed relative to our call by God to obedience and love of neighbor.