Tuesday, November 05, 2013

What Do You Do?

Listening to part of the TED Hour on NPR over the weekend I was a little confused. It was a session on "success" and jobs and the speaker talked about how we often ask others the question of this post:

What do you do?
I wasn't following the whole idea of the talk but he seemed to be saying that this idea that our identity is found in what we do is a modern idea. He talked about how it used to be that you were identified by where you were from.

My first reaction was:
Hmmm. That's interesting.
Then I stopped. I remembered people I've known with names like:
  • Miller
  • Cooper
  • Farmer
  • Smith
These are a few of the ones we know from English. My last name is an occupational one from German- a feudal serf or tenant farmer.

Yes, there are also many surnames for places. There are also others that were adopted for different reasons. Many names are simply John's son, etc. One of the dangers in making the kind of all-encompassing statements the speaker made is that they are often wrong.

The differences today, I think, include the fact that we have "free-time" or leisure to do more than just be a miller or farmer. Today we can be more than what we do. We also have the physical ability to live beyond the years of "work" or occupation.

Perhaps today we have to ask what others do because they don't carry it in their name or clothing or the condition of their hands. Perhaps we are now in a post-occupational world where what we do is only part of who we are and in reality no longer defines us.

Which can get confusing.

I have felt that before. First when I went on leave of absence from the church's pastoral ministry and then "retired" from the pastoral ministry. That which defined me for 30 years was done.

Now, 10 years later I am again leaving a full-time occupation behind as I near retirement. As I commented the other day, the grief of that is real. Again, some of my personal definition is changing.

On the other hand I am not sure what it means to answer the title question, What do you do? with:
Nothing. I'm retired.
I find that as incongruous as the old question of asking a "housewife" whether she worked or not? But at the same time answering with some Zen-like comment:
I'm a human being, not a human doing.
is also pretty silly. What do I do? What will I do? As an occupation? As a way of life? As a lifestyle? As a mission? As a vocation? An avocation?

Sure, in the end I am me, but that is also a cop-out for I am me in relation to my family and friends, co-workers and what I do. These all define me. I am not defined in a vacuum. My name, inherited through the centuries from some unknown German serf who needed a last name, does not describe me. Never did.

In the end I guess we each have to make our own name and see where it goes.

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