According to Elms (2001), Sigmond Freud never said that love and work are the cornerstones of what makes us human or that the ability to love and work is the hallmark of a healthy life. However, the idea that to love and to work were key to mental health or normality were not foreign to Freud and could be seen to be the point of psychoanalysis. The idea has moved way beyond psychoanalytical thinking and permeates much psychological thinking, popular culture, and self-help movements. Even the early social model of disability movement placed great emphasis on work as a core concept. There is undoubtedly some truth to these ideas. However, there are critiques of the idea that work makes us human and linking humanness or worthiness to work (productivity) reeks of ableist and capitalistic ideologies. We are more than what we do. I know many people who do not currently work and some who have never worked who are very human, have meaning and purpose and have contributed to my growth and development. Still, there is something important about the place of love and work in psychological health, and I have thought a lot about the apocryphal saying of Freud since I retired one month ago yesterday.
I know for myself that I need to feel a sense of productivity, getting things done, making a contribution to others and society. Every job I had as part of my social work and academic career was an embodiment of that need. As the comments people made at my virtual leaving gathering evidenced for me, I did make a difference and contributed to the development of others. In my own way I have helped make the world a little bit better. But now that I am no longer working, what happens to that need to feel productive, to contribute, to get things done?
On a very micro level getting things done can include activities like those that took up yesterday: completing a long list of household chores, baking some bread, doing some needed shopping, cooking a healthy dinner, exercising and meditating. I hate those days when I footer about and get nothing done or accomplished, and yesterday was definitely NOT one of those days. I crossed off most of the items on my to do list and that kind of productivity feels good. However, that type of productivity will not sustain me over time. It’s not enough.
A lot of the chores I did yesterday also fall into the “to love” category as they were things I need/want to do in my role as a caregiver. Caregiving considerations did play an important part in my deliberations to retire early, so my balance of to love and to work have shifted. But as important as the caring and the loving are, being focused on only that ‘side’ of Freud’s apocryphal love and work equation would be bad for my mental health.
The initial shape to my retirement life I’m creating does support the sense of accomplishment I need to feel each day on the micro level. I’m still finding my feet regarding the larger sense of feeling productive/contributing to society. So far in my 1st month of retirement I have engaged in doctoral supervision, blogging, reviewing manuscripts for journals, beginning reading for an article I am writing, and beginning to do a small piece of work for Irish Social Work professional and regulatory body. I’m also exploring doing a very small amount of volunteering with an LGBT+ organisation. Time will tell if these activities help me to feel productive and to feel like I’m contributing to the greater good. I also wonder if my need to feel productive will wax and wane as I continue this journey into retirement. I have been reflecting on my sense of doing versus my sense of being, so who knows. But I am pretty certain I will always want to find a way to contribute to my community and my society. Just what that shape will be is anyone’s guess at the moment. For the time being, I am content to continue exploring and see what happens next.
Elms, A. C (2001). Apocryphal Freud: Sigmund Freud’s most famous “quotations” and their actual sources. In Annual of Psychoanalysis, XXIX, pp 83-104. Hillsdale, NJ: Analytic Press.