In considering what makes life distinctly human and meaningful, Freud famously wrote: “Love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness.” And indeed they are. They are the very foundation on which we build a meaningful life. Think about it, our lives revolve, hour after hour on our relationships with others, and they are organized and structured by our work. This is so whether our work and our relationships are enjoyable or not. At the end of the day we have constructed something, some meaning from interactions with others and in interacting with what we do. The balance between love and work in our lives has a direct impact on our experience of ourselves in the context of our lives.
So let us start with some thoughts about work. For many, work is simply the means of providing for oneself and earning money. Yet work serves other important functions for all of us. Regardless of the type of work that one is engaged in, work provides structure and meaning, it giving us a sense of purpose. It connects us to the larger societal group and involves us within it. Work provides a purposeful activity through which we enter the world, create new relationships and develop a sense of belonging. Furthermore, all of us have a need to use our mind, our physicality, our skill set and talent, in order to express ourselves and create something. Work is a critical activity that is vital for us in maintaining our connection to who we are and who we want to be, it is a crucial source of personal identity and self-esteem. For Freud, and many other psychoanalysts, work is analogous with the motivation to leave one’s footprint in the world and transcend our temporality.
Work is important, and perhaps that explains some of the reasons why it can take over our lives crowding out other things. Perhaps. But all of us know that there is more to life than work, no matter how meaningful; there is also love, and our need to be in relationship with others. I will not attempt to define love, as many poets have done that much better than I could. I will limit my comments on love to say that, as Freud highlighted, love is a motivational force for all of us. It is the glue that holds relationships together, makes us feel alive and connects us to our emotions, feelings and passions. I believe that when Freud spoke about work and love, he intended to address our motivation for being. So love, as the feeling that fuels connections with others, meaningful attachments, interpersonal negotiations, and intimacy, serves as a motivational force to impact others and help us to experience ourselves through them and with them.
Some contemporary psychoanalysts view the capacity to love and work as arising out of our early relationship to our caretakers. Specifically, as related to the way we experienced parental love as infants and children, and to the expectations that we developed (as internal representations of those relationships) regarding what being loved means. In other words, our early attachment patterns establish our experience of being loved and our ability to love others, as well as our expectations of what love feels and looks like. It establishes how we love. This is because our neural structure is wired in during critical periods of development and in direct response to how we are cared for. Yes, there is a link between our relationship to love and our relationship to work, and it has to do with our individual early history. And it very likely has to do with how we approach and deal with both.
Bear with me here. Within a good enough caretaking environment we establish the ability to feel safe while we explore our surroundings. This is usually accomplished through our relationship to our caretakers, who allow early environmental exploration (play) while supervising us without too much interference – their presence provides the security. This allows us to develop a sense of competence and a healthy curiosity. As adults, our tendency to master the environment while moving in and out of our relationship to an attachment figure is expressed through our ability to love and work. The adult equivalent of the early phase of exploration that all children go through is work. As for love, the mature expression of love constitutes the ability to negotiate an intimacy that facilitates closeness while allowing for separateness.
Might this have anything to do with how we go about working and loving? Yes. To my mind it also has to do with whether we are able to achieve a balance of both in our lives. Love and work are indeed two important components of a meaningful life, two areas which help us to express our subjectivity and individuality in constant interaction with others. Balance is something that we all strive for, and much like a pendulum it may require swinging back and forth before it can be arrived at, and then, only to swing again.