We can’t help it, but in our society we are what we do.
When you meet a new person – at least in the circles I run in, it seems – the first question that gets asked is, “What do you do?”
And in response, free-flowing answers are something like, “I am a lawyer,” “I teach school,” “I work for the government” or “I direct an organization.”
Hearing these responses and others similar to them, our heads nod in approval and, with our body language and sometimes our words, we say: “Oh, good. That sounds interesting. How long have you been doing that?”
But then there are those responses, such as “I consult,” “I’m a stay-at-home mom” or “I’m a writer” that usually seem to evoke less than energetic responses.
Some don’t understand how a person could “just” consult or stay at home with their kids. “Aren’t they wasting their talents by not pursuing traditional full-time work?”
Others might think, “Isn’t saying you are a writer code for you don’t know how to get a real job and that you sit in your bathrobe and eat chocolate all day?”
But what if you are called to be a consultant, stay-at-home-mom or dad or, heaven forbid, even a writer?
I sat at a coffee meeting with a new colleague on Monday. Catherine is a social media consultant (something I’m doing more and more of these days) and self-employed, too.
We talked about the frustrations of being in an office of one, doing helping work through writing and social media for nonprofits (and folks not wanting to pay for our services!), and how easily our value in the society in which we live is tied to what we do.
In response, Catherine offered this nugget of wisdom that she’s known to share with groups during one of her training sessions: “Don’t worry about being something. This will get you nowhere.”
“The someone who you think you are because of a job could change at any moment,” she said. “The title you have on your business card will not be with you forever. Instead, put your energy into being someone. This is who you are that will never change.”
I was struck by the simplicity and depth of her words. I may not be the something that I once was, but I am a somebody.
A friend and I were talking about this very thing a few night before, and I was bemoaning the fact that I often feel like a “nobody” since I left the church and don’t have an official title of “I pastor ____ church” to add to my name.
My friend pushed back, saying: “You are a somebody. And you are doing important work. You just don’t see it like the rest of us do.”
It’s a hard road, and most certainly the path less traveled, to find yourself outside of the confines of a role or a particular job. Ask someone who has recently started a new business or retired early how they’re feeling about the transition, and you’ll know I’m speaking truth here.
You don’t win the “most impressive” award when you meet new people with a nontraditional “what I do” response. Instead, you have to brace yourself for the stares and the strange tones of folks’ reactions.
But, I am a someone and so are you – in whatever you do.
A few nights after these conversations, I was talking to a few friends about vocation and what it means to enjoy life at the fullness that life can really be. One of them chimed in saying, “I’ve always thought about life like this: Who you really are is what you do when you aren’t at work.”
I think my friend is right. We have clues to the someones that we truly are if we notice what we are naturally drawn to in our free time.
It is not that we become these things, but the character qualities that motivate us to do these things shine through and we see more clearly our souls.
We are challengers – or not. We are contemplative – or not. We are relational – or not. And these things do not change. We simply are.
We were created with value and purpose and uniqueness. We can be a someone no matter if our work is validated, paid for or even appreciated. We can find fulfillment in simply being.
I’m not there yet. I really like being a something better than someone. But I’m on my way and I wonder if others of you out there are, too.
Elizabeth Evans Hagan is a freelance writer and minister dividing her time between Arlington, Va., and Oklahoma City. She regularly blogs about the art of pastoring at Preacher on the Plaza, where a version of this column first appeared.
Elizabeth Hagan is senior minister of The Palisades Community Church in Washington, D.C. Other hats she wears are as a preacher, author and executive director of Our Courageous Kids, a foundation dedicated to orphan care.