God has named us and claimed us as God’s own. But almost immediately, other things try to tell us who we are and to whom we belong….We are tempted to doubt our innate value precisely to the degree that we are insecure about our identity from, and our relationship to, God.
-Nadia Bolz-Weber, Pastrix, 139
Back when I used to go to bars (not something I enjoy anymore) and my job title was “staff writer,” I met a guy in a bar who asked what I did.
“I’m a writer,” I told him.
“No, no,” he said. “I mean what’s your actual job? Like, how do you pay the bills?”
There are so many problematic assumptions there — that being a writer isn’t an actual job (my boss and I had a good laugh over that one), that what you do is defined by how you pay the bills — but underlying all of it is the belief that who you are depends on and is validated by what you do.
That’s a hard truth for those of us whose careers haven’t gone the way we hoped they would. For those who have gone through periods of under- or unemployment, it’s even more brutal. How do you introduce yourself to new acquaintances when the first question they ask is what you do? How do you explain why you’re working at a bookstore for minimum wage when the classmates you graduated with are moving into corner offices? How do you comfort yourself when you scroll through your social media feed and see friends receiving promotions or transitioning to new jobs or buying bigger houses, and you feel like the little mouse who’s destined to be dinner for someone’s pet snake no matter how fast you run on the damned wheel?
I can’t speak to the experience of American men, but as a woman, I grew up thinking I would have it all: a satisfying career, a solid income, a storybook marriage, and a gorgeous family. I majored in what I loved, because that’s what everyone except my parents advised. I didn’t make many intentional career decisions because I was going to marry a man who supported my dreams and had a good enough job to provide health insurance (and/or was a fabulously wealthy Finnish metal singer) while I wrote my first book, which of course would skyrocket to the top of the New York Times bestseller list, and we and our adorable Addams Family children would live in quirky Gothic bliss forever after, dividing our time between New Orleans and Salem and Helsinki.
Instead of having all that, I have none of it. I found myself with a graduate degree in literature, no novel, no husband, no kids, and no specific career preparation or goals beyond keeping myself afloat long enough to get the book written. Which I finally managed to do, but I never found an agent or a publisher, and self-publishing only works when you also self-promote. I have a better job now than I used to, but if I stay in it I’ll be doing the same work for the same pay for the rest of my career, which isn’t a particularly appealing prospect. As far as the storybook romance, my relationships have all been the kind with expiration dates — usually more akin to the smell of a lit match near spilled gasoline than week-old milk. And in fairness, for most of my adult life I haven’t been the kind of person to attract the kind of man I’d actually want to marry.
But eighteen months ago I thought I had a clear sense of myself, and I was starting to feel solid in my life. It was different than what I’d always wanted, less than I’d dreamed, but not as bad as it had been for awhile.
And then everything was shaken up, and I found myself stripped down to the basic truth of who I was. And that didn’t come just from what happened at church and in other areas of my life, but from hard truths I had to face about myself, and I had to face them in a space of loss, of nakedness, a space that was mostly empty of other people and of the relationships and roles that I thought I needed in order to know who I was.