You’re standing awkwardly with a drink in hand. Maybe it’s coffee hour at a new church or maybe it’s at a a friend’s party. You’re introduced to a stranger. You exchange names. Next question? Without a doubt it will be: “what do you do?”. What do you do? What do you do? Our society is obsessed with doing. And not just any doing. Paid doing. Or at least doing that will lead to getting paid.
When a stranger asks you what you do, they expect a reply like “I’m a teacher,” or “I work in retail.” Even “I’m a student”is acceptable so long as you look young enough to fit the part. And for some of us, those who are employed in roles that we are proud of, roles that fit with our self identity, “What do you do?” is a simple enough question, and maybe even a welcome one.
But for all of us who have ever experienced unemployment, those of us who have had jobs that don’t match with who we see ourselves as, those of us who have stepped aside from careers to stay home with our kids, or those of us who simply don’t want to be narrowly defined by the thing we happen to be paid for, “what do you do?” can quickly become the question we’d most like to avoid.
Whoever you are, and whatever your relationship to work, finding all of your meaning and value in the things you do can lead you down a precarious spiritual path. Growing up in the Mennonite faith tradition, I was taught that faith must be demonstrated through action. This teaching has woven the fabric of my life. As an outpouring of this, however, there was a point in my spiritual journey when I felt that I needed to earn God’s love through my actions. Acts of peace. Acts of justice. Acts of love. But the limitation to this way of thinking is that I did not feel loved when I was not doing these actions.
For all of us, there comes a point when doing stops. Because we are resting. Because we have lost a job. Because our bodies or our minds are wearing out. Who are we when stop doing?
I came face to face with this question during the year I spent as a chaplaincy intern in a Long Term Care Home. I think of one woman in particular who needed assistance in all the daily tasks of living. Lifting a spoon. Combing her hair. Taking a bath. Very little doing was happening. But when I sat with her and held her hand, I felt a love for her own life radiant through her. When she stopped doing she was still herself. Still a loveable, wonderful, beautiful child of God.
For me, it is a spiritual practice to love myself and feel God’s love when I am lying on the couch doing absolutely nothing. Slowly I am beginning to feel that I am deeply loveable even when I am doing nothing at all.
Doing stops, but Her love for me does not. I am more than what I do.
So I propose we need to creatively craft some new questions to pose in our first interactions with a stranger. Lately I’ve been experimenting with the question “what are you passionate about?”. How about you? How do you creatively answer the question “what do you do?” and/or what creative alternatives to this question have you dreamed up?
I’m not a big fan of the “So, what do you do?” question, mainly because it seems to expect a one-part answer, as if any one of the things I do can define me as a person. I’m a part-time self-employed graphic designer and website designer; a part-time student; a spouse and person-who-lives-in-a-house, which for me comes with a variety of cooking- and cleaning-related duties; a church member sitting on two committees; a transportational and recreational cyclist and cycling advocate. All of these are things I do, and since I don’t have a single thing that takes up the vast majority of my waking hours (and I like it that way), there isn’t a simple answer for me to “what do you do?”, even though it seems to expect one.
I like “how do you spend your time?” as an alternative — it’s asking more or less the same thing, but doesn’t have as much associated baggage of whether that’s paid doing or hobbies and interests, and seems to me that it can prompt a longer, more thought-out answer.
“how do you spend your time?” I like that question Sylvia!
I also have changed my questioning to “What are you currently most passionate about?” or “What is occupying your passion?” It allows someone to say “Jesus and biking” (which is my current favorite recent response) but also opens the door to “I’m not feeling passionate” or “I don’t know” as a very valid response. Sometimes they do talk about their job or say “at work… but at home…” I find I get to know people in a much different, deeper way.
Very important points Ben! Not everyone will be feeling passionate about anything at a particular point in time.
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