“What do you do?” is one of the most common questions we answer when meeting someone new.
When we’re young, this question might frighten us because what we actually do might not match our aspirations. Our job title is unimpressive, and it it might be difficult to categorize all that we do and aspire to do in one neat elevator speech.
And if we have picked a container, that precise title to explain what we bring to the world, we certainly haven’t filled it yet. We may aspire to be X, but we definitely don’t embody the title yet.
Richard Rohr uses the vocabulary of creating and filling containers to describe two halves of life in his book Falling Upward. In the first half of life, he says, we create our container, and in the second we fill it.
For those who feel insecure about their current container, or might even feel like the title (or lack thereof) their business card fails to describe what they give to the world, Krista Tippett of On Being, in her recent interview in The Great Discontent, brings a refreshing perspective.
I worry about our focus on meaningful work. I think that’s possible for some of us, but I don’t want us to locate the meaningfulness of our lives in our work. I think that was a 20th-Century trap. I’m very committed and fond of the language of vocation, which I think became narrowly tied to our job titles in the 20th Century. Our vocations or callings as human beings may be located in our job descriptions, but they may also be located in how we are present to whatever it is we do. It may be that your job at any given point is to make the income to feed your family. That is noble, too.
Ironically, I think the jobs that look most overtly meaningful have as much drama and exhaustion and risk of betraying the essence of the thing as anything else. I also think our vocations shift across time. For many of us, there’s a time in our lives where our parenting is more essential to our humanity than what we are doing between 9am and 5pm. I realize I’m in a privileged position to say these things, but I really do believe them. I want your readers who are asking these questions to take a serious sweep of their lives and not only what they’re doing, but how they’re doing it as they work out that question.
What if, rather than our obsession with what we do, we started asking each other about how we work, play and interact with those close to us? What if our business cards (or Twitter profiles, or Insta bios) included how we move through our day, rather than simply what we occupy ourselves with? I wonder how this change in values might affect our shcedules and relationships, as well as our own self-worth.
To borrow Rohr’s term, we might begin to focus, not on the containers, but on how we’re filling them. And if we focus on their contents, the containers might lose some of their importance as well.
The question that might remain, then, is, “How do you do?”