Shauna Niequist is asking some big questions.
That’s not exactly new. If you’ve been following her for any amount of time, that’s part of what people like about her. In her writing and speaking, she’s attracted attention for a rare courage when it comes to grappling with touchy subjects. That’s part of the appeal. But, of course, it’s also a liability. You start asking too many big questions, people start to get uneasy.
“Bootstrapping and meritocracy and all of those deeply American ideas, they’re essentially myths we tell ourselves to keep people working, right?” she says. “Like, what if our cultural messaging said: You’re valuable even if you didn’t produce anything today.”
“Uh-oh!” She says, smiling. “Then do people stop going to work?”
Well, that is a big question. It’s not the sort of thing you can regulate to a hypothetical in a “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” way. It takes on some foundational assumptions we have about the way society ought to work, and if it goes away, then who knows what other assumptions might fall down with it?
There was a time when Niequist might have left such questions alone. But the last few years have been illuminating. She’s learned a lot.
“Things were sort of on autopilot for a long time,” she says. “But I do think the pandemic forced us all to grapple with our lifestyles and specifically our time. All of a sudden, we had to ask questions.”
“What does matter to me? Is the way that I’m working, the way that I want to live? Am I parenting in a way I believe in? What’s working? What’s not? What do I want to put back into my life? If there is an ‘after’ to this season, what are the things I’m happy to leave behind in it?”
The thing about asking questions is that, sooner or later, you start getting answers. This is what Shauna Niequist has learned so far.
In some ways, these questions aren’t exactly new. Many of them linger at the edges of our subconscious throughout our personal and professional lives. “Issues of workaholism, being too busy, finding your identity or your worth in something outside of yourself, these are perennial issues,” Niequist says.
But it’s easy enough to keep those at bay as long as things go more or less according to plan. Even if we dimly felt that we were spending a little too much time at work or found a little too much of our identity in our job, it was easy enough to ignore that sense — like a low buzz you learn to tune out over time. It’s one way to live, until everything else is stripped away.
“Most of the people I have talked with over the last couple years have found that if it’s at all up to them, they won’t go back to the pace at which they were living pre-pandemic,” Niequist says. “They won’t work as much, if at all possible. They won’t have such a wide social circle, but will focus a little bit more narrowly.”
“Those feel like healthy changes to me.”
Working less, focusing more intently on a smaller group of deeper relationships — goals like this certainly pre-date the COVID-19 pandemic. But ask anyone who’s ever made a New Year’s Resolution to spend more time with friends and less time at the office how well that’s gone. It’s one thing to feel the need to make some changes or even make an attempt. But Niequist says real change starts when we address those foundational assumptions at the root of our discontent. When we change those, the rest of the transformation happens naturally.
“Some of it is that addiction to quick wins as opposed to playing the long game,” she says. “It feels really, really lovely to do something and then have someone either congratulate you for it or give you money for it.”
“A lot of us have become stuck in an addiction to, like, ‘I want someone to tell me I’m doing a good job’ or ‘I want someone to compensate me for it,’” she says. “As opposed to, ‘I want to do quiet, unglamorous things that no one will congratulate me for.’”
Niequist was raised in what she calls a “Midwestern, Dutch, productivity-based culture.” She says “you are what you do” was baked into her head from an early age. “I was just raised in a world that said ‘Usefulness is what makes you valuable.’”
Think she’s alone? How early into meeting a new person do you ask “What do you do?” How much does your opinion of that person change based on the answer?
“What if we said: Your value is inherent, not based on your productivity or your appearance or how much money you have?” she muses. “Wait a minute. Then we wouldn’t buy things and we wouldn’t show up to things. When we start to push on those myths, we realize they’re very flimsy. My usefulness is not what makes me value. My productivity is not what makes me valuable. And all of a sudden, a lot of the most deeply held tenants of our culture start to falter.”
She pauses a little, smiling dreamily at the idea of a cultural collapse.
“I think that’s a really exciting idea.”
Watching her talk about it, it’s hard to disagree.
A Mini Revolution
Here’s the trouble though. Challenging these fundamental building blocks of productivity might sound nice, but very few of us have the leverage to really enact a major change on that front. We have bosses making big demands and communities with big expectations and not a lot of leeway to push back without facing some pretty serious repercussions. A tough boss isn’t likely to be swayed by your decision to not find your identity in your job any longer.
But Niequist says change has to start somewhere. “I’m not saying we should all quit our jobs or we should stop being good neighbors or we should stop volunteering or providing services to people in need,” she says. “What I’m saying is: we unhook our worth from our work.”
“It’s not all or nothing. It’s not an overnight change,” she says. “It’s so much more of an internal posture.”
She compares two different friends. One is a retiree. The other is a surgeon. Their professional demands are, clearly, very different, but Niequist says you wouldn’t know it from their attitudes.
The retiree, she says, “lives with an internal sense of hustle and pressure everywhere. She is competing and working for some imaginary boss in the sky every day of her life with no job.”
Meanwhile, her surgeon friend “lives with a sense of groundedness and identity unattached to work, that allows her to work in what I would call a clean and healthy way.”
“She believes in her work. She does it really well,” Niequist explains. “But it’s not the defining mark of who she is. And she doesn’t hustle for her work worth in the same way that my retired friend does.”
This is what Niequist has learned is where the true revolution will begin: inside of us. If we can shift our relationship to work, who knows how complete the full societal transformation can end up being.
For Christians, Niequist says, the transformation might even extend to our spiritual lives.
A New Kind of Calling
For people who’ve spent time in Christian circles, you might be familiar with the spiritual blend of professional work and spiritual calling. The idea, as Niequist puts it, is that we get “this deep sense of duty that you owe it to God and to the Church and to the people that might be helped and it doesn’t matter what cost it inflicts on you.”
Many of us start to think of this as a very biblical idea of work — so much so that we feel guilty if we’re not doing enough. This just so happens to dovetail neatly with the American idea of productivity, that you’re only as valuable as what you accomplish. Niequist says that’s not an accident, but it becomes even more sinister because the Church can end up spiritualizing it.
“People talk about the crucifixion a lot, right?” she says. “Like, if Jesus was willing to die cross aren’t you willing to dot dot dot?”
“I think that’s extremely toxic and very poor exegesis,” she says, firmly. “I don’t think that’s the call for all of us. I think love is the call. I think grace is the call. I think meaningful, healthy sacrifice is the call. I think a deep morality and truthfulness is the call. But I think it’s a rather un-nuanced way to look at the story to say that crucifixion is the right, ongoing way to live for all of us. That seems like a bad reading of that story.”
Niequist says she’s still working on this. In some ways, she says, she still identifies difficulty as a necessary part of doing the right thing.
“One of the things that I’m trying to figure out right now in my life is, would it be OK to make my next couple career steps based on delight or curiosity or joy, or does it have to hurt and that’s the only way it counts?” she says. “And I know the answer to that, but it’s still pretty deep in me that if you’re doing the right thing, it should really hurt.”
“I think that’s a bad reality that I picked up along the way that I really want to help all of us to leave behind,” she continues. “I don’t think that was the intention of God’s heart by any means.”
So these are things Niequist has learned. Or, more appropriately, is learning. Asking some of those lessons have required some pretty serious pivots from the accepted way of doing things but, well, that’s the thing about asking questions: you’ve got to be willing to go where the answers take you. And for Niequist, that has led to a place of finding her worth somewhere else. Somewhere better.