You’d never think that such a simple question would instil such terror. It’s the standard question when meeting someone new; it proliferates at parties, weddings, reunions. It’s what we say – the place we peg our identities. Or perhaps it’s only small talk, to fill a gap in conversation.
So…what do you do?
It’s all very well when you have an easy job description, an occupational title. I’m a nurse. A shop assistant. A taxi driver.
Once at a funeral someone walked up to me and asked, with great enthusiasm, “Are you the architect?” After a startled pause I told him that I was not, in fact, ‘the architect’. My new acquaintance, abashed, went on to explain that apparently the niece of the deceased was an architect. All this confusion meant he never got round asking what I did do, which was something of a relief – at that time it was hard to explain. I was exploring new possibilities after a difficult time of struggling with my identity.
It’s not always easy to answer. We don’t all fit the same mould; for some of us our lives are in flux whether we wish it or not.
Some of us may relish our occupation and feel it expresses our identity – but for others it is only a stopgap or a necessity. We don’t want it to be a stamp, a label. For those who are unemployed through no desire of their own, the sense of uselessness can be overpowering. The question of ‘what do you do?’ becomes something of dread.
Usually it is just a small talk, a filler, a way of introducing ourselves. It’s not an unreasonable question. What we do with our days forms a significant part of our lives.
But, without meaning to, we can buy into a sense that our value is found in our employment. That we are only worthwhile if we have an answer to the question. If circumstance has made it a difficult question, we can feel anxious and defensive when faced with a new situation.
But where does our anxiety come from? What is it, exactly, that we have bought into? What are our expectations of ourselves? Often it’s hard to pin down, but we do live in an achievement-more accurately, a success-oriented culture. A culture where if you don’t make the grade, you’re fired! or you feel inferior for not being cream of the crop. ‘High achiever’ is a phrase worthy of praise.
Is that so bad? You may wish to ask. Isn’t it good to achieve?
But the question is not whether achievement is good, but whether it is where we find our value. If we place our value on what we achieve, then stripping away our achievements and our ‘doings’ will also strip away our sense of worth. Without these props for our identity, we struggle to fit. We feel useless, inferior, even panicked. If we can’t tick something off our list each day, we feel like failures. We are robbed of peace.
We have made our to-do lists our masters. Achievement subtly becomes an idol. Because of this, questions such as ‘what do you do?’ become threatening. Not only are we weary of explaining ourselves, we are troubled by a sense of inadequacy. This is made even worse if the person asking has also bought into the ‘achievement equals value’ culture, and appears confused if you stumble to answer.
But a person is known by their fruits! You may say.
But what are the fruits in question? Did Jesus really mean how many jobs you’ve ticked off your to-do list? Or was he more concerned with how we treat the poor, show kindness to friend and neighbour, take time to listen and provide for someone in need? And these are things we’re supposed to do quietly, not drawing attention to ourselves! The fruit we produce – the works that express our faith – is very different from the job we feel defined by, the lists that make us feel wanting.
Am I advocating throwing out our to-do lists and not getting the job done? No. I just don’t believe it’s where we should place our value.
Our value – our worth – comes from the fact that we are made in the image of God and that we are called to reflect that image to the world. When that image got muddied and stained, Jesus came to mend it. He repairs us, recreates us. Both our identity and our value are in Jesus Christ, who, through the Holy Spirit, makes us more and more like him in who we are and what we do.
We may still not have a pat answer to the original question – so…what do you do? But by remembering the true source of our worth, and recognising the value of the unseen acts of our lives, it no longer needs to terrify us.
We are children of God, and we live for his glory.
This post might be relevant: A prayer for the pigeon-holed