Jeff Haanen

Articles Tagged with

anxiety

""/
Work

Resetting Your Career in Midlife

“Midway upon the journey of our life,” writes Dante in the first lines of his Inferno, “I had found myself in the dark wilderness, for I had wandered from the straight and true.”

I wonder if Dante was making a comment on the crafty nature of sin, creeping up from behind like a silent fog when we least expect it…or just the bewildering challenges of being middle-aged.

Several weeks ago, I called Dan, one of my friends, who’s nearly forty. “How are you?” I asked. “Well, nothing new,” he said with sigh. “Same job. Same family. Same house.”

He went on to explain that nothing was wrong, per say, other than feeling the reality set in that he was no longer in his twenties, filled with notions of changing the world. He wasn’t depressed, but aspiration had slowly given way to some combination of responsibility and reality, seeing in one hand a mortgage statement and in the other the scars of a thousand tiny disappointments after almost two decades on the job.    

“Midlife, especially for middle-class American men,” wrote Robert Bellah, American sociologist and author of Habits of the Heart, “often marks the end of a dream of a utilitarian self established by ‘becoming one’s own man’ and then ‘settling down’ to progress in a career.” Bellah says that around midlife, many realize that they’ll never be “number one” — senior partner, Nobel laureate, principal, CEO. As these dreams die, finding one’s identity in work dissipates and career trajectories flatten. “For many in middle age, the world of work then dims, and by extension so does the public world at large.”

For years in my own work at DIFW we have seen a trend: young professionals in their twenties and thirties come to our events, press into big social issues, and become Fellows, but participation in our programming drops off in one’s forties and fifties. What’s happening here?

Both my friend Dan and Robert Bellah explain what’s happening. First, in middle age, we must reckon with the crushing loss of professional dreams. You have a job, but the idea that you were going to “change the world” is shown for what it is: a postmodern mirage, built around the slippery, individualistic notion we had believed since we were teenagers: “you can be whatever you want to be.” A cloud of grief, loss, and disillusionment fills our horizon — one we’re quick to push back with entertainment, busyness, or consumerism.

The second reason: golden handcuffs. We reach the midpoint of our careers and we find we’re better paid now than we were in our twenties, but our expenses have grown as well. Mortgage payments, grocery bills, and kid’s activity fees all tamper down our desire to risk building something new, step out on a limb at work, or start a new career. Better to play it safe, even if we feel something inside of us crumbling.

Yet not all submit to the resignation of our hopes in midlife.

I’ve observed that some take an alternative path in midlife that acknowledges our limitations, pursues interior freedom, and embraces failure as the only pathway to growth.

Acknowledge Our Limitations

Gordon Smith, author of Courage and Calling, writes, “To embrace our vocations in midlife means that we accept two distinct but inseparable realities. First, we accept with grace our limitations and move as quickly as we can beyond illusion about who we are. Second, it means, positively, that we accept responsibility for our gifts, and acknowledge with grace what we can do.”

Bishop Ken Untener makes a similar point, very applicable to life at midcareer, “We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.”

Our individualistic society is built around “your success.” And most weeks I see people who mistakenly believe that they can find their life’s purpose in their job. When this illusion dies, they often become disengaged — both from their job and the broader culture. And for those who do make it to the top, often they’ve done so by making work their religion.

But some take a humbler path. They take stock of what they are, and what they’re not. They look squarely at their talents and their limitations. They realize that won’t change culture. But they also realize that they can change the world right around them — co-workers, community, church, and family.

And perhaps even more importantly, they become ok with knowing people who are richer, smarter, better looking, and more talented. Seeking approval for performance is calmed by the steady, lasting approval of God.  

Pursue Interior Freedom

When New York Times columnist David Brooks set out to explore his own road to character growth, he realized there are two sets of virtues: résumé virtues and eulogy virtues. Résumé virtues are those you bring to the marketplace and post on LinkedIn — degrees, job accomplishments, accolades. Eulogy virtues are virtues people will talk about at your funeral — humility, kindness, courage.

Our careers tend to compensate and reward us for résumé virtues, but at some point, we realize these goals are thin, and we’ll have to decide whether we’ll make the journey into the interior world.

Rev. Jacques Philippe, author of Interior Freedom,says that if we’re continually looking to the external world for our approval, we’ll never be happy because our circumstances are constantly changing. However, he says we can cultivate deep interior freedom by practicing the virtues of faith, hope and love and by connecting deeply to the source of inner freedom — God himself — which no external power can take away.

Philippe and Brooks both are calling us to making a momentous shift in our lives: from exterior success to interior depth.

In this way of thinking, work becomes not just a way to achieve, but the primary context for our spiritual formation and interior growth. When we’re passed over for a promotion, slighted by a prospective client, or enduring a toxic workplace culture, the question becomes not one of escape to a better job, but instead: who am I becoming?

When the journey toward success in midlife lost its luster, a few decided to take a new, and much more exciting journey, toward whole-heartedness and deep emotional and spiritual health.

Embrace Failure as the Only Pathway to Growth

Winston Churchill once said, “Success is going from failure to failure without loss of determination.” Commenting on this paradox, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes, “It is not their victories that make people leaders; it is the way they cope with their defeats — their ability to learn, to recover, and to grow.”

Most people move into middle age with a growing set of disappoints and failures that lead to resignation. “I’ll never get the job.” “I’ll never make a big impact. That was just the naivety of my twenties.”

Yet there are a few who experience the same set of consistent failures and they learn from them. They adopt a growth mindset. They don’t let their ego get in the way and they instead welcome feedback from family, friends, and co-workers. In the process, they ask questions like: What did I learn from that situation? How did I react? And what does this mean for me and for those around me?

The path to leadership is narrow because the majority want to blame others for their problems. The few decide to take ownership over what they can and let the harsh lessons of life refine them like a fire.

Dante had to make the journey first into the inferno before he made his way to purgatory and then ultimately to paradise.

Perhaps the only way out of the dark wilderness of midlife is first to go further in.

""/
Work

Responding to the Changing World of Work (Part 2)

“God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble,” writes the author of Psalm 46. “Therefore, we will not fear, though the earth gives way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging…. Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall; he lifts his voice, the earth melts…. The Lord Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.”

The changes to the world of work since the pandemic began feel like this psalm: waters roar, mountains quake, nations are in uproar, and my daily work rhythms just got blown up.  

Yet in this cultural context of change, Christians bring a unique perspective: the unchanging reality of God. If you’re a secular person, focused just on the individual and your ability to control your own destiny, the storyline is actually chaos. Each day is a grasping attempt to bring security and stability in a world being tossed by the fierce winds of an economic, social, and cultural storm.

In contrast, the Christian can breathe. “The Lord Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.”

She believes Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Hebrews 13:8). God is a rock and a fortress, an anchor that allows for stability, resolve, and peace even amidst turmoil (Psalm 18:2, Hebrews 6:19). It’s this foundation that both brings down the decibel level around current debates and allows people of faith to be reformers as citizens of another kingdom.

Following up on my first article, here I will suggest three macro changes to our world as a result of the pandemic, as well as how Christians might understand those changes and what practices we might consider in light of those truths.

Systemic Change #1: The tech sector will continue its pervasive growth into the economy.

Eventually we will go back to in-person gatherings and offices, but digital connectivity is speeding up. The world’s most powerful companies (Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook, and Google) are all in the tech sector and during the pandemic, each saw record stock prices. Zoom (and dozens of other video chat services) are here to stay.

Former Fed Chair Jerome Powell said that the pandemic accelerated technology trends that were already there, and many workers (especially women) lost competitive ground on their peers in 2020.  

Theological Frame: Vocation. How should we think about the pervasiveness of digital technology in our lives? Vocation isn’t first about job choice or “meaningful” work. Vocation calls us first to love God, and then our neighbor. It is a summons to offer ourselves completely to God in all areas of life, including our hearts, our family lives, and our work.

I believe vocation also puts a certain priority onproximity and place. When God speaks, He wakes us up from being connected to everyone and everywhere, and reconnects us to our real, daily lives. “I have a spouse and children. I have neighbors. I have family. I have co-workers.” Vocation pushes back on the “everything, anywhere, right now” culture of tech.  

There are positives and negatives to the tech sector and its growing influence on our work. But vocation reminds us first to be present to God and to our actual, embodied lives.

Practice: “Identity, Context, Practice.” Here’s a simple practice you might consider to interrupt the domination of screens over your working life. Close your laptop, find a notebook, and write down answers to three questions:

  • Who am I? (Identity)
  • Where am I? (Context)
  • Based on my answers to these two questions, how should I respond? (Practices)

Putting limits on tech resituates us back into our real, embodied lives, and can reattune the heart to hear the voice of God.

Systemic Change #2: Everything is politicized and workplace culture is anxious.

We’ve been on this train for a while, but the pandemic accelerated this trend. We also feel it at work. CEOs make statements on nearly every new social issue. We find it difficult to have a conversation with coworkers about issues we disagree on. People come to work on pins and needles, caught in an anxious cycle of news, performance, loneliness, and more news.

Theological Frame: Reconciliation. In such a tense environment, God calls his people to a message of reconciliation, as if “God were making his appeal through us,” (2 Corinthians 5:20). The New Testament idea of reconciliation conjures images of making peace between two warring parties — an image we’re not unfamiliar with in a culture of deep divisions that find their way into homes, churches, hospitals, schools, and workplaces. 

Practice: Spheres of Influence. How do we really become people of reconciliation in a hyper-politicized environment? How can we model gentleness, conviction, and real love for others as we seek to live out our faith amongst our coworkers and our areas of influence?

Part of the answer is to think through what we can control, what we can influence, and what we cannot control.

The temptation is to think that the news and the thick anxiety of our culture is something that we can and must change right now. But the constant influx of media fools us and fuels the workplace and personal anxiety that acts like an acid, burning through our most precious relationships and most important tasks.

With what we can control (attitudes, motivations, behaviors, use of our time), let’s offer them in worship, surrendering to God and living life “with God” at work. With what we can influence (other people), let’s witness, demonstrating the reconciling love of God to others through our work and with our words. And finally — this is important — what we can’t control, we release. Don’t hang on to the news and global events, believing you can control more than you can. Pray and release those things to God and ask him to do the cosmic work of reconciliation that only he can do (2 Corinthians 5:19).

Systemic Change #3: Social and economic disparities are vast — and growing.

You’ve probably heard the term a K-shaped recovery. It comes from looking at a graph: as we recover from the pandemic, those connected to education, technology, and financial capital will come out ahead. Those with less education, less connection to tech, and in a lower income bracket are bearing the brunt of the negative impact of the pandemic.

The pandemic didn’t cause these macro trends, but again, it is accelerating trends that sociologists like Robert Putnam at Harvard University have seen growing since the mid-1960s. Inequality is now as vast as the Gilded Age (the late 1800s).

Theological Frame: Shalom. Shalom is a word that encompasses ideas of both peace and justice. It is about right relationship with God, with ourselves, and with others in our community. Shalom is about wholeness spreading from peace with God to restoration in our cities. The prophet Jeremiah insists that there can be no shalom until there is an end to oppression, greed, and violence in our social relationships (Jeremiah 6:1-9; 8:11). In an age of vast disparities, which the pandemic has made worse, the call of God is to “establish justice in the gate” (Amos 5:15).

Practice: Creation and Compassion.If you’re one of the lower- to middle-income workers, let me say this to you: God is with you. Feel his hope and his power. He has called you to himself and sent you to serve him with the talents he’s entrusted to you (1 Peter 4:10). You may be serving him in a job you don’t like, or you may be struggling to find a job. Either way, God is with you. Your secular counterpoints may cheer you on, too — but it’s just cheerleading. As a Christian, you actually have the Triune God at your side. He is with you and calling you to create (Genesis 2:15).

If you’re a higher-income worker who hasn’t been very affected by the pandemic, now’s the time to get in the game. You’re called to love and serve those with less power than you. There are so many opportunities to get involved: through your church, by offering opportunity to an entry-level employee, by getting involved with charities serving low-income communities. God is calling you to compassion (1 John 3:17).  

The world of work has changed. Yet Christians have a unique foundation and calling to rest in God’s character, listen to his voice, seek reconciliation, and work for justice through our work.

“The Lord Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our Fortress.”


The first article of this series took a look at three macro trends and how the pandemic changed our work. For more resources on faith and work, subscribe to the Faith & Work Podcast or sign up for a free account on the Faith & Work Classroom