Who am I? Life and Self after work

One of the toughest things to deal with after you stop full-time work is how you define yourself and how you describe yourself to people you meet.

Previously, your profession or occupation worked as a kind of passport that helped you across the “borders” of human interaction, particularly with new people. Rightly or wrongly, people tend to ask what you do when they meet you – it’s a way of accessing your world, finding ways to engage with you – and yes of course, to define and categorise you.

But when you stop full-time work, you become a stateless person. You no longer belong to an identifiable tribe of engineers, public servants, builders, factory workers, creatives, academics etc.

You enter a zombie zone, caught in limbo, a condition that a good and smart friend of mine has dubbed RDS – Relevance Deprivation Syndrome.

What he means is that without a full-time job you can lose your public identity and your sense of purpose and self-worth.

Not working is a double-edged sword, cutting you both ways: not only do you lose the passport that allows you introduce yourself and move comfortably between different social and professional environments; but you also lose that important sense of achievement that marks out your existence. Most of us get our sense of identity, purpose and self-worth from our jobs, however frustrating they may be. Whether it’s working hard and earning money to improve our lives, producing measurable gains for our employers, clients, families or ourselves, meeting targets, creating objects or ideas – each day we do something that adds to life. That allows us to feel we are achieving something relevant, identifiable and hopefully worthwhile.

Take work away and you can suffer from RDS, your relevance previously asserted through your job disappears. Like a politician losing power, you lose your raison-d’être, and that’s tough.

However, like any challenging situation that confronts you, it can also be an opportunity.

In a sense, many of us take the easier road in life, allowing our jobs and our achievements to define us. The harder road is to ask yourself the toughest question of all: who are you? Who are you – really?

I stopped working last year so I have been confronting this dilemma for the past eighteen months and mostly fudging it. When meeting people, I quickly mention my “projects”, my actions, my achievements, seeking to fill the vacuum created by the absence of work. I can’t help trying to generate a new passport, something people will recognise and accept. I avoid the word retirement because it feels like a definition of a negative condition, as if you’ve entered some ethereal, otherworldly state that’s neither life nor death (see my reflections on retirement).

This hit me forcefully just recently when I attended the 40th “birthday party” of the company where I spent the last 16 years of my career. It was wonderful seeing a host of friends and colleagues, catching up, reminiscing, having laughs and sharing memories. I found I wasn’t ready to say I’d ‘hung my hat on a pension’. But what was I ready to say?

Speaking to one former colleague who had re-invented himself earlier in his career, successfully creating a new profession, a new passport, it came to me that not being able to define yourself in terms of what you do, meant you had to define yourself in terms of who you are.

And that, as they say, is a very different kettle of fish.

Strip away the accoutrements, titles and achievements that we dress and surround ourselves with to create and project a sense of self, and you are left a bit like mad King Lear, a king without a throne.

It takes courage and honesty to turn the mirror of reflection on the inner self at the age of three score and seven. I have no clear answers yet, but I have decided to ask the question.

I suspect it will be a journey that tunnels back in time, that explores roots and origins, memories and formative experiences. I also suspect that at the heart of the matter lie one’s values, the intrinsic beliefs and qualities that help define who we are, our conscience, how we behave and who we make friends with and partner. Knowing whether I have been true to those values will be important, as that will influence how I see myself and how I commit to my life ahead.

If I were disposed to be a Buddhist or a philosopher, doubtless I would meditate at length and dive into a larger pool of reflection in which one loses the sense of self altogether; but I don’t think that I am ready for that. Maybe that’s the next stage.

Meanwhile, I am on a journey of self-discovery – not I hope in a self-obsessed act of introspection, but in the spirit of the ancient Greeks.  “Know Thyself” was written on the forecourt of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi – perhaps as a precaution to would-be truth seekers that the oracle’s answers would only make sense if you knew who you were and why you’d come to ask for their prophesies.

It is something of a conundrum: how to know yourself when you are still searching for answers. Perhaps that search for understanding needs to be undertaken in the way Carl Jung approaches the I Ching, the Chinese Book of Changes, described as the world’s oldest oracle. In consulting the I Ching, there is no logical causality in the relationship between the question and the answer; instead, the relationship is more complex and nuanced. Who asks the question, at what time and in what way determines the answer. It is what Jung calls synchronicity. A word he coined, he defines synchronicity thus: “synchronicity takes the coincidence of events in space and time as meaning something more than mere chance, namely, a peculiar interdependence of objective events among themselves as well as with the subjective (psychic) states of the observer or observers.”

It is an intriguing, and to a western mind, a counterintuitive and possibly unsatisfying way to look for self-knowledge; but then the human mind, as we increasingly discover is far more complex, unpredictable and multi-dimensional than western science has considered.

Choosing a time in one’s life to ask the question: ‘Who am I?’, may be as important as the question itself. The answer too may be variable – appropriate to the time and reason for the question.

The advantage of no longer being employed means I have the time and state of mind that allows me to ask such questions, and that is immensely valuable and opportune, a chance not to be squandered.

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