Staying home with my baby has definitely made answering that post-collegiate question a little easier. But it still always feels kind of awkward. Especially when they clarify, what did you do before he was born?
I could talk about my job. Or I could talk about what I majored in. But it always feels funny and rehearsed and maybe even a little dishonest or at least incomplete– as if I’m not fully answering their question. If I wanted to answer fully I’d say I spend a lot of my time putting a pacifier back in the mouth of a sleepy baby or talking for hours with my husband. That I’ve been working on a novel for a few years and have finally finished my first draft. That I love to go outside. That I spend way too much time googling everything. But I don’t talk about those things when they ask me what I do or what I did. Instead I disguise myself as a title. And why? Because I feel, we feel, that if we claim to be more than a title, if we claim to live for more than a title, we’ll get laughed at. In fact, we’re pretty sure we’ll get laughed at. And how do we know this? Because we know how we laugh too.
We laugh, if not exteriorly, at least interiorly, when sixteen year olds say they write poetry or when twenty year olds talk about starting their own business. And we do this because we think them naive or arrogant or just plain stupid. And because we do this to them, we’re terrified of them doing it to us. So when they ask us what we do we give them the rehearsed answer. We tell them the title that makes us money, as long as that title is a normal sounding one. And we let that define their entire perception of us. And even if that feels a little bit empty or innacurate, we don’t care. Because it’s better to be taken seriously as an average than treated as a joke who thinks they’re something special.
I understand this. It’s the reason I don’t write blog posts every day. And I cringe at the thought of ever, ever calling myself “a writer.” I don’t want people to think I think I have something to say. I don’t want people to think I’m vain or arrogant or just plain stupid.
But when it comes down to it, not saying what I have to say because I’m worried what they’ll think makes me vain, arrogant, and just plain stupid. It’s selfish. I’m withholding myself from the world, however small and limited myself is meant to be. When we disguise ourselves under titles, we refuse whatever it is we have to offer the world.
And I get it. When you’re making small talk, it’s easier to give them a quick summary of what consumes most of your weekday hours. But I just wonder why whatever that is always comes before I’m a father, or, I like to fish, or I just took up cooking, or why in the world it’s so bizarre to say, I’m trying to figure it out right now and I’m not so sure what I want to do, or honestly, I kind of hate my job, but I’m thankful to have it. For some people, the thing that makes them money also happens to be the thing that they love to do and that fulfills them (a wonderful thing!) But what about for the people for whom their job is merely a temporary thing, a survival thing– how dare we expect them to define themselves by such a title?
But we still do it. We still don’t answer the classic meet-and-greet question completely honestly. And maybe it’s because we know that the question itself isn’t honest. Maybe it’s because, half the time, we don’t really mean it when we ask what do you do? Perhaps what we really mean is, how do I rank you in my system of networks? Are you above or below me and what can you do for me? Maybe we don’t want to know anything about their humanity. Maybe we don’t want to believe that they could be doing what they’re actually meant to do.
Because maybe, if we can think that nobody is really doing what they’re meant to do (even if that’s only after work hours), then we don’t have to feel the pressure to do it either. When I see awesome blog posts come up, I’m happy to see their awesomeness, but I also get this gnawing feeling inside me. The feeling of regret. Regret that I haven’t written much of anything at all. But the truth is, I need to read those blog posts. I need everybody else to keep writing. Because that regret usually turns into some kind of ambition. If somebody else can do it, then maybe I can believe I can too.
And so in the same way, we shouldn’t be afraid of unveiling humanity. We shouldn’t be afraid of the scoffs at our hobbies and interests or our dedication to family, friends, or missions. We shouldn’t be afraid to be honest, even in the small talk. Sure, the first time you answer “what do you do?” a little unconventionally, you may get laughed at. And you may indeed sound painfully naive. But is it not more naive to go along with the expected answer? Is it not more naive to assume the title could define you? You? A whole human being? It is not naive to be honest with yourself and with others about the depth of your potential and the longings of your soul. That’s why we started talking and asking in the first place. We’re meant for more. We need to start admitting that to each other.