Ego is not a dirty word. Or so the Skyhooks song would have us believe. Ego is related to identity and sense of self, but in contemporary usage has connotations of an exaggerated sense of self-worth; being big-headed. Yet a healthy ego can be of value in enabling us to work towards goals, to care for others, and to accept responsibility for our actions whilst seeking to make a difference in the world.
I have been shocked recently at the depth of my feelings as I loosen connections to regular employment. Moving on from conventional notions of paid work has exposed the somewhat vulnerable nature of my ego and sense of worth. One question facing me as I enter retirement is: Who am I – when not an academic, a researcher or a professional?
We all have some sense of our self as having continuity over time; and on reflection may glimpse a certain coherence that gives shape to our life. We may see our lives as a narrative, especially when looking back from a distance of 60 years. Although we change as we grow, threads that continue through our lives weave and hold our stories together. One of my stronger threads has been that of professional work. The role of work in my life over the past 40 years has sustained my ego/identity/sense of self in profound ways that I’m only just becoming aware of fully.
Last week was busy in academia with many projects coming to fruition in public acknowledgement and celebration. My research and ideas have contributed in a substantial way to a few of these projects. Although I have been explicit about plans to move on and actively handed over my involvement, to hear excitement about future plans left me feeling surprisingly sad – sidelined and discarded. I felt like the little girl on the edge of the playground who isn’t asked to join in the skipping (obviously a few touchy memories there!). I was amazed by my feelings of exclusion and loss. It seemed my sense of self was surprisingly fragile without its professional scaffolding.
Obviously this has called for serious reflection. Who am I if no-one turns to me for advice or values my ideas – and why on earth does it matter? I am fortunate to know that I am loved and my work is valued by some people at least. It feels pathetic that my sense of self should be related to such feedback – or is this a shared human need – to feel of some worth? I am reminded through interest in Buddhism that everything changes. Finishing paid regular work is an ending, but also – hopefully – a beginning. Following Jung, I need to reevaluate my assumptions about who I am, what I value, and what I can contribute in the afternoon of my life.
I turn again to gratitude – for my life and work experiences – the good and bad. It has certainly been rich and varied. I describe my working life as horizontal maneuvering between ladders against different walls, rather than vertical climbing of the single ladder of a career; looking for new views rather than a higher view. I suppose this is a shared experience at retirement – evaluating the value of 40 odd years of work – the blood sweat and tears, joys and shared successes, sleepless nights and deadlines, collaborations and celebrations. Was it worth doing? What have I contributed? What have I learnt? What will hold me in good stead for the stage ahead should I be fortunate enough to stay in reasonable health? I am grateful for all these experiences – multiple careers , multiple relationships. They certainly provide ample writing fodder. I am also grateful for the Jacarandas in flower at work now. Although they signal exam time for students, their abundant yearly display represents the cycle of life continuing.