Dear Johanna: Thoughts on Work and Worth

Dear Johanna,

I want to talk to you about work. I realize this is not your favorite subject, but I hope you will hear me out anyhow. (To “hear someone out” means to listen to them without interrupting—like you want to catch all of the words that the other person has to say. I know that right now that is a struggle for you, but I believe you can do it if you try).

Though much of the “work” that takes place in your day-to-day life is what adults more often classify as “play,” there are still chores to be done and tasks to accomplish—taking your dirty clothes down to the laundry, making your bed, tidying the playroom, etc. These assigned tasks are meant to empower and train you, to teach you the value of independence and also the importance of contributing to a family and a team. And yet you—fiercely strong and independent as you are—grow remarkably weary, develop a stomachache or mysteriously disappear when there is work to be done (not unlike another little Kuehn girl when she was asked to help out around the house).

It is a bit amazing, but not terribly surprising, that you are so reluctant to do what you’re told and so experienced at getting out of it. I realize you might not have “been in the mood,” to empty the dishwasher the other morning, but that handful of clean silverware that you spent three minutes carrying around like bouquets of flowers takes no longer to put away than they did to extract from its carrier. Your desire to do only what you want is one with which you and your parents will likely tussle for a number of years. It is one that I still struggle with myself, especially as someone who works on her own schedule.

For as long as you believe that work=bad and play=good, you will choose magnet dolls over window washing and reading books over emptying the trashcan. You will see work as something you must finish (or avoid) in order to do the things you really want to do (like setting up your nativity, watching Wild Krats, or telling your little brother what to do).

You may not believe this, Jo, but there may come a time in your life when the work=bad, play=good dichotomy shifts: When work becomes good because it is how you prove yourself and make money and when play—unstructured, spontaneous, no one wins or loses play—is discarded because it seems inefficient and silly. You might spend so much of your life trying to figure out “what you do” and “who you are” that you forget what you love and why you exist. I know that must sound ridiculous (“ridiculous” is a fancy word for crazy and unbelievable), but it is something that happens to adults all the time.

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Maybe someday you will be a food writer like Auntie Amanda.

Your Auntie Amanda is a freelance writer. Freelance means that she does not have an office or a boss. While Daddy goes to church every day to do his work as a pastor, Auntie Amanda can go wherever she wants, or nowhere at all (there are actually days that she spends the whole day in her pajamas and does all of her work from her bedroom). Many people think that this is very exciting, and sometimes, Johanna, it is. Sometimes Auntie Amanda gets to eat at fancy restaurants and go to the theater and talk to very special people who have very exciting stories. She gets to learn about their families and ask them about their favorite things and hardest struggles. She loves this about her job.

But Auntie Amanda also has to find and make her own work. This must strike you as terribly perplexing—why would anyone look for more work? The answer is, because she has to. Auntie Amanda spends many, many hours looking for people who will read what she writes and publish it in magazines and newspapers and pay her enough money so that she can buy groceries and drive her car and use her computer day by day. She spends an equal number of hours looking for a new job that is more like Daddy’s—a job where she will have a job and be a part of a team and go to an office every day.

Auntie Amanda hears the word “no” a lot. Every day. Many times. I know you know what that is like. But she keeps trying. Sometimes Jo, she tries so hard and works for so long that she forgets how to play. She forgets what delights her heart most, like writing letters to you. (Sometimes Auntie Amanda’s work does delight her and that overlap of work and play is exciting and confusing).

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Do you see how delighted you are in the picture? I want you to remember that feeling when you are older and more grown up. Always know delight.

It must be hard to believe that anyone could forget to play, but it happens all the time, and here is one reason why. From the time that you are very young, many people (usually older people) will ask you a single question:

What do you want to be when you grow up?

(Once you are older, this will change to the question of “What do you do?” which can be equally challenging).

This business of asking what one does (or what one wants to do) has become so automatic that we often do not realize how dangerous it can be. We do not mean for the question to be dangerous, but sometimes the words that we use and the questions we ask begin to tell stories that may not be true.

There are a few not-quite-true stories, which I will call “myths,” that I want to share with you now and that I hope we can change by the time you are an auntie.

Myth #1. You must wait until you grow up before you can be something.

You, Johanna, do not need me to tell you that you are something already. A big something. A beautiful something. A force to be reckoned with who has plenty of agency and more than enough feelings. You are a singer, a storyteller, a comedian, and a dancer. You are a sister, a daughter, a niece. You are a maker of beds and a sorter of dishes, a wiper of windows, a reader of words, and most recently a barber (though we’re discouraging that at the moment). You may not yet be all of the things that you want to be or will become, but you are something right now, and that something is important.

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You are already a great waitress. Maybe you will someday serve real food.

Myth #2. You can be whatever you want to be.

I believe in you, Jo. I believe in your dreams and your spirit and your potential to impact others. But I do not believe that the world is your oyster. There are a great many things that you could be and a great many things you might try. Trying is good. Trying often leads to success and that is something we celebrate. But sometimes when we try, we fail. Failing is ok too. We do not really celebrate it, but maybe we should. You and I can learn this lesson together: Just because we fail it does not mean we have lost. It does not mean we are over. It might mean that your dream did not succeed, but this doesn’t mean that you do not succeed. You have the option to get up and try again, and that is what we must do.

I want you to dream, Jo. If you want to be a singer or a dancer, an archaeologist or an astronaut, I want you to get curious, to explore those subjects and develop those skills, but I don’t want you to live under the assumption that your skills and opportunities will always be equal to your aspirations. Sometimes when we follow a dream with all of our hearts, the world conspires to help it come true. But sometimes (maybe even most times) when we set out on a journey with a destination in mind we end up in a place we couldn’t have imagined and would not have chosen.

Myth #3. You must know what it is that you want to be.

There is some truth to the belief that if you do not have a destination in mind you cannot know where you are going. This is why Mommy checks her phone before pulling the van out of the garage and why Daddy looks at maps on the computer, otherwise they might go for hours and hours with no answer to the question of “Where are we going?” or “How long till we get there?”

It is good to have goals. It is excellent to have interests. But it is also important to be open to redirection, and perfectly fine to have more than one answer to the question of what you will be. Sometimes it is okay to have no answer at all. This leaves you open to opportunity. It makes you flexible and alert. It is entirely possible, Jo, that what you will do or be 10 years from today may not even be feasible in the world as it is now, so really it is not that important to know.

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Maybe you will design robots, Jo. You are very good with the iPad.

Myth #4. Someday you will be grown up and will stop asking this question.

For some people, Jo, this is true. Some people have one dream from the time they are very small until the time they are very old and they follow that dream their whole lives. This takes a lot of dedication and it is an admirable thing to do. But it is also good to keep asking the question. I have yet to meet a grown up who says that they are actually grown up. We may look or act like we are. Even Auntie Amanda has moments when she feels very mature and adult-like, but deep in our hearts we are all still children, and that is not a bad thing. I still do not know what I want to be when I grow up. I don’t think I ever will. Right now I want to be a writer. Right now I hope to be an author. Right now I dream of being a mother. But even if all of those come to pass there will be other thing to be and other dreams to have.

Myth #5. What you want to be (and what you eventually become) is more important that who you are.

This is the most dangerous of the five stories, and it is one of the reasons that so many adults forget how to play and stop asking themselves what it is that delights their hearts. What you do—the things that you create, the actions you take, the choices you make, and the service you perform—is very important. But it is not as important as who you are and who you are becoming. That blueprint has been in you since the day you were born. It is the one that all of us wait and watch as God brings it into completion, as you continue to grow into yourself.

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Mostly importantly, I hope you will always keep being who you are.

Recently Johanna, you’ve begun using “specialness” as a way to get what you want. You tell me, “Josiah is more special than me because he has two cars and I have one,” and even though the cars were Josiah’s in the first place and it was actually very nice of him to share any of them with you at all, what has become a new stratagem (that’s a fancy word for “trick”) is rooted in a sliver of truth—that when we play games of comparison and striving, when we try to hustle for our worth or base our sense of importance on our position, we never feel special enough. The number of cars that you have does not make you special. The number of belts you own or puzzles you fix does not make you special. You are what makes you special. You are what makes you worthy.

Someday Johanna, you will be tempted to equate work with worthiness. You will be told that your value is calculated based on your appearance and your accomplishments, the success of your relationships and the number of digits that show up on your paycheck (that is how you get money). It is easy to believe, but I promise it isn’t true. What you do may be an important part of who you are, but it is not all of who you are. You are uniquely, invaluably, and irreplaceably you—Johanna Ruth Kuehn, the world’s one and only (Praise be to God).

All my deepest love and solidarity,

Auntie Amanda

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