Uncomfortable Answers

I was on the phone with my friend Nick as his six-year-old daughter clambered through the backyard with her friend. Suddenly, mid-sentence, she interrupted him with a breathless question. “Samantha asked me what you do for work during the day and I don’ t know what to tell her!”

It had only been two weeks since Nick had unexpectedly lost his job, and the news had already spread through the neighborhood. 

“Well that’s a good question,” he said. And then he took a long pause. “I’m not sure. You can tell her that I’m looking for a job right now.”

His answer certainly wasn’t wrong. But in listening to obvious panic in his daughter’s voice, and the still fresh grief in his, I felt like I had once again come across that pernicious fable that continues to do more harm than good: the American Dream. 

I felt like I had once again come across that pernicious fable that continues to do more harm than good: the American Dream.

What I mean by this is that in the West, but the United States specifically, we’ve built pathological fantasies around what work and labor “mean”as both tokens of social standing, but also, more importantly, as proof of inherent value. We believe that labor is virtuous. But we also admit to the reverse: that being without work means that you’re a loser, or worse. 

Friends from Europe have noted to me how odd it is that Americans immediately ask a new acquaintance what they “do” for a living, only seconds after first meeting them. While it might seem like simply idle talk, it also exposes a warrant—or presupposition—that many in the U.S. continue to cling to: namely that your identity and value is staked upon your career. It’s a historical artifact that’s rooted in 20th century working-class habits. 

Inherent in this is the belief that your value as a person depends on your market orientation. How many of us have rolled around titles and roles in our heads, idly dreaming about impressing new friends with our particularly important-sounding position? And how many companies have followed suit—proliferating an alphabet soup of increasingly ridiculous management and C-suite designations. (If there is a Chief Value Officer, does that mean no other leaders need to worry about value?)

The hollowness of these titles is, in a way, purposefully designed. It not only confers authority to an employee, but offers the promise of raising your self-esteem at the cocktail party. That’s because in the U.S., we are still attached to finding easy, market-approved ways to ascribe value to others and ourselves. That’s because economic logic pervades so much of our intimate interactions. “There’s no time to waste on delving into the needless minutiae of your personality or values or perspective,” it claims. What matters is what we are, but not, of course, who we are. After all, what could your innermost self have anything to do with this? We want practical answers, we say. We want categories and boxes. The rest is trivial. 

Of course, it’s not Samantha’s fault that she wants to know. After all, she is learning how to evaluate the status and worth of others from the culture around: through attitudes inherited from her family and peers, from children’s stories where unrewarding work is both obviously virtuous and patently uncomplicated, and from the classroom where curricula continue to ignorantly ask children what they want to be when they grow up. The answers are common archetypes: fireman, lawyer, doctor, President of the United States, and never more difficult to imagine things.

We could ask instead “who do you want to be?” The right answers lie in all the significant, innate, and life-giving qualities that we search for and praise in this world: the same kinds of attributes that are so conspicuously absent from the evening news or political roundtables–courage, humility, compassion, grace, patience, generosity, and rigor.

We could ask instead 'who do you want to be?' The right answers lie in all the significant, innate, and life-giving qualities that we search for and praise in this world

I had to hold my tongue. Because I knew, as a matter of fact, that Nick had many worthy, essential answers to the question. He looks after his wife and three growing children, breaks icicles from the roof, plants hostas for the spring, calls his father every day,  makes small and large gestures of gratitude to the world around him. 

In fact all of those things—the ones that I can see—point to the unheralded courage of building and keeping a life for you and the ones you love. Why is that not a valid answer? “I’m ministering to the continued growth of my family.” “I’m proving the importance of responsibility.” “I’m sewing new seeds of selfhood deep inside and giving them the space to grow.”

Nick’s daughter would’ve surely been confused given these answers. But that might actually be a good thing. We’ve inherited a retrograde logic that has already determined the language with which we imagine our selfhood to others. Or, to put it more plainly, we’ve learned to name ourselves by our roles and not our habits or our values. There is no other way to begin to question that than to give yourself, and your children, the uncomfortable answer that begs more questions. 

“What is a space to grow?” To answer that, you’ll have to put in some practice. 


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