Passion vs. Duty

Should work be construed in the terms of passion or of duty? This is the question posed by a recent piece in the New York Times. The author, a philosopher by training, suggests the Stoic wisdom of Seneca as an antidote to our culture’s obsession with finding meaning through work. If we approach work in terms of duty, as Seneca advised, rather than as an expression of one’s passions, we will be less likely to fall prey to the threat of what another writer has described as “the religion of workism,” and the accompanying burn-out that could eventually develop.

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Vocation and the Realities of Burn-out

Finding a vocation in work can fulfill your life. It can also ruin it. I know this firsthand; both have happened to me. I used to be a tenured faculty member at a small Catholic college. For years, I was happy and successful by every measure. I was a respected teacher. I published. I won grants. I led committees that got things done. I was flourishing professionally.

From “Avoiding Job Burnout in Academia”

Until one year, I suddenly wasn’t. I kept doing all the things a good faculty member does, but I did them with diminishing joy and increasing resentment. I started to get furious over small slights. I gained weight. I struggled to get to class on time. I struggled to get out of bed. The only thing that saved me from deeper miseryperhaps even saved my lifewas a well-timed resignation letter.

I burned out. As I have explained in the pages of The Chronicle (“The 40-Year-Old Burn Out”) and Commonweal (“A Burnt-Out Case: Aquinas and the Way We Work Now”) that means I exhibited the three major components of occupational burnout, as defined by the psychologist Christina Maslach: exhaustion, cynicism, and a sense of inefficacy. I wasn’t simply tired. I took a semester’s unpaid leave after these symptoms became hard to bear; the time away didn’t change anything. That’s because the problem wasn’t just within me. Continue reading