Forming character through the insights of literature, contemporary culture and Scripture.
by Arthur Paul Patterson
REMEMBER WHEN ON social occasions you responded with lightning quick accuracy to the question “What do you do?" You sat easily with family and friends in a circle of equality. That was then. Things have changed. Imagine. You are either unemployed or underemployed but you have memories of "gainful employment." Now you are increasingly angered by the embarrassing question, "...and what do you do?" The circle of equality now seems distorted by your presence. You feel unproductive and unacceptable.
"All they need are good jobs," a friend of mine once bellowed. “Work projects - that would improve their images, get them back in the mainstream." Work as an answer for human indignity seems praiseworthy, but on second thought, I've discovered the “work-to-live" policy frightfully superficial. The modern word for it is “jobism”, the belief that jobs are the only solution to poverty and other social problems. If the answer for human purposiveness can be answered by the monosyllable “work", then the question hasn't been asked deeply enough.
My mind tells me this is true, yet my heart betrays me when in casual conversation I relate my worth as a person to the job I perform. It's no wonder this happens, since as far back as we remember we've been asked to define ourselves by our future career. "What are you going to do when you grow up?" If you said you'd be a fireman they'd smile knowing that it was the loud siren and the flash of red that lured your childish eye. I once said I'd like to be a "popcorn man”. I didn't know that the occupation was on the lower end of the socio-economic ladder. No one asked me why I wanted to be a popcorn man; they just assumed it was an unworthy calling. Later, I upped my career aspirations to "being" a history teacher, a veterinary doctor, a counsellor. Finally, I settled on “being" a minister.
Since no one asked the deeper question about my motives for these selections, I came to believe that the selection itself was my most important self-defining task. My fulfilment as an individual would depend on the correct correspondence between my deepest self and the job I chose. Thinking like this, it's not surprising that I panic when the job I do is questioned or said to be only a way of getting my bread and butter. Translated in the terms of our contemporary "myth of becoming”, any negation of jobism is a direct attack on our self-concept.
Thinking of work as a means of self-actualization or self-fulfilment results in a particular perspective on our education, fellow workers and ourselves. Looked at as a "means to an end”, education is a prerequisite to a job, and a hoop to be jumped through. Letter grades with their emphasis on competitive learning devalues the intrinsic worth of the subject matter. Students ask "What did you get?” (meaning your grade) rather than "What did you learn?"
Little wonder we shyly stow away our degrees when our image replaces learning as the focal point of education. Our colleagues, whether in school or in a career, become competitors pitting their ingenuity and giftedness against our own. Other people become our rulers, our standards, by which we judge our competence. The subject or task at hand is secondary to our careerism. Relationships are substantively broken since we are not committed to the advancement of each other, only our self-advancement. We encourage and praise others with superficiality and a fair degree of envy. When we see our jobs and careers as agents of self-fulfilment, we are alienated both from our tasks and our fellow workers.
The worst result is the self-division that takes place when work becomes a means to a purely personal end. We've betrayed a genuine need for authenticity when we settle for external validation of our worth through work. We become the tired hypocrites of the workplace spending inordinate amounts of time looking over our shoulder for approval rather than focusing on the job. Aloneness is another burden we shoulder on our way to self-fulfilment. We are not participating in community when we have personal advancement as our common goal.
In whatever occupation, the primary question ought not to be "Who am I?" but "Whose am I?" With this new question, I’ve eliminated the "myth of becoming" based on self-actualization, and embraced the sense of purposeful vocation based on partnership with the Creator. When asked how to show love for our neighbour, Martin Luther responded "in community through vocation."
The language of individualism has little room for such a conception of work. The model of servanthood advances the good of the community and restores intrinsic worth to every task. Even the popcorn man is needed. He performs an invaluable service in the community; his total self is involved in serving us on the way to the zoo. Every wrinkle in his leathery face bespeaks a smile, a corny joke and a bountiful bag brimming with popcorn - given, because he gave it.
A businessperson need not work for money any more than a professor works for tenure. Both can work as servants who provide a needed service for their communities. Think of the decrease of meaningless dissertations and publications if the value to the community of learning were foremost in the scholar's mind. Quality of service and humanization of the employee would replace avarice if business people recaptured the soul of their vocation.
So far, I've spoken of the human vocation from a spiritual standpoint. Vocation as a calling within a community for the benefit of the group is the creational mandate. Creational vocation surpasses mere individualism but still falls short in grounding ourselves and our occupations in the deeper works of the Soul. A spiritual vocation takes on the form of an icon or a symbol which increasingly but never exhaustively points to the meaning of life. It is a dynamic call to participate in the covenantal history of God.
Instead of careerist questions we must ask deeper questions of our life situations. "Can I be creative, like Creation itself?” That is, is there any way I can be innovative or procreative or nurturing in my life? Our jobs may not directly leave room for experimentation but how about the way we relate to people performing mundane tasks? Soul brings order out of chaos for the purpose of justice. So can we. In many ways we can influence the environment and the workplace so that people are humanized and given a sense of meaning - even if this means merely showing personal interest in the person who pumps your gas. The creation of harmony is incarnating the Governance of the Creator. Some of our life situations afford the opportunity to restore what was once whole, or liberate from oppressive structures those in bondage. The calling to be co-liberators and co-redeemers with God is not limited to those in the caring professions. No matter what our job it's our honour to engage in these activities.
We must know the purpose God has for the Commonwealth of Humanity. We are called to align our individual stories with the deeper narrative structure of Soul. To do so is to acknowledge that vocation is to be received as a gift, a revelation of a loving God. The value of this gift is increased in faithful usage of it. The gift quite simply is God incarnating the place of occupation, any place where we are occupied with the task of being truly alive. This occupation is by no means limited to an employment setting.
In response to that embarrassing question - "And what do you do?” - we are invited to respond with the ways our lives express creativity, ordering and liberation for our fellow human beings and creation. The “popcorn man" is rarely asked the deeper question. Tell them the answer anyway. They'll be surprised when you do.