You are what you do and other untruths
Early in my grandparents’ marriage, my grandfather returned from his service as an air traffic controller in World War II and needed a job. The employment agency offered him the role of ramp agent (in charge of pushing stairs up to planes at the terminal), which didn’t pay much, but Granddad thought it was a decent job and went home excited. When he told Grandmom his news, she responded, “No, Bob. You’re not going to take that job. It’s not good enough for you.” He returned to the employment agency the next day, took a sales job, and went on to become a very successful salesman who provided for his eight children.
I just love this story. I love that her belief in him helped to increase his confidence in himself. I love that she challenged him as she did, knowing all he needed was some encouragement from his wife. I love that he had the courage to go back the next day and seek a better opportunity. And I love that that simple moment helped to shape Granddad into the man he would become, the pillar of strength and virtue and faithfulness whom I loved and admired and respected so deeply.
This story illustrates something important, I think, about the dignity of work. As John Paul II writes in Laborem Exercens, through our work, we must “elevate unceasingly the cultural and moral level of the society within which we live.” But like all things given to us by God for our good, we sinners have tainted this goodness of the nature of work, and so often we find our worth or very identity in what we do. What do you do? is one of the commonest first questions we ask upon meeting someone new, and the answer to that question often leads us to assume, label, or sum the person up. Conversely, when we share our profession, we may feel boastful if we have a particularly impressive, well-paying job, or embarrassed if our job is insignificant and dull.
The truth is, we are not what we do. The level of our job or the size of our paycheck does not correspond with our dignity, our value, our degree of deserving respect or attention or love. Of course, it would be ideal if all of us had jobs about which we were passionate, jobs that corresponded perfectly with our God-given gifts and continually challenged us to grow, jobs that made us leap out of bed in the morning. The reality is, for many or most of us, that is not the case.
Perhaps it’s silly for this to be coming from me, seeing as I am currently unemployed and preparing to enter a convent in four days. But I’ve had my fair share of jobs, and struggles with defining myself by them, and there’s nothing like being removed from the workforce altogether to gain a refreshing perspective. I’ve been a swim teacher and camp counselor, a research assistant and development intern, a missionary and program director, a department coordinator and nanny. I’ve never had a particularly remarkable job description, I’ve never been anyone’s boss, and I’ve never earned a very large salary. There have been conversations where I’ve thought, Yes, that’s my job, but don’t think less of me! I have lots of gifts and talents I use in other ways! I could get a cooler-sounding job if I wanted to! Who knows if the person on the other side even cared about that detail of my life, and even if they did, if they did think less of me, or feel superior to me, or sum me up without knowing me, does it even matter?
There’s a tension here, for virtue is always found in the middle of two extremes. It’s not enough to say, Work doesn’t matter! Take whatever job you can get! It doesn’t have any consequence anyway! No, there is a dignity to work. But our work must be properly ordered within the larger context of our lives. We are beloved children of God, we are spouses and parents and brothers and sisters and friends, we have passions and skills and hobbies, and we cultivate rich interior lives as we worship and ponder and love. If only What do you do? weren’t always the first question we ask after we learn someone’s name, and if only we could see each other and ourselves as whole people, not just titles on a business card. What we do is important to an extent, but far more important is who we are. Let us not forget that we are unique and unrepeatable, that we have infinite worth, that we are deeply and unconditionally loved, unimpressive jobs and all.