Friday, March 06, 2009

Keeping Ourselves Alive

At the end of last summer, I could have been convinced, somewhat easily, to abandon the academic life. It had been an enjoyable few months with family and friends and if someone had offered me a moderately well-paying job, that was at least moderately interesting, and that would have allowed us to live close to those family and friends, I would have thought long and hard about taking it. The academic grind had taken its toll and I was kind of done with it.

The disinterested pursuit of knowledge is fine. But you still have to feed your family. And if there are sources of happiness outside of work--work which, regardless of one's field, always involves a fair bit of BS anyway--then perhaps trading academic BS for some other BS would be a net gain: BS for BS plus some money and a modicum of security. I came to the conclusion that I didn't need to be a professor to be happy and entered the fall semester with more than a little ambivalence about what I was doing.

A funny thing happened through the course of that semester, though. The scales didn't fall immediately from my eyes. But I slowly began to realize that the academic life is far more deeply ingrained into who I am than I had thought. I realized that even though I have a lot of growing to do as a teacher, I am a good one who could one day be a great one. And I realized that while I may never write anything that radically alters the intellectual development of mankind, I have some interesting (and maybe important) things to say. Leaving all that aside for a steadier and larger paycheck wouldn't just be shifting jobs. It would be to fundamentally reconfigure who I am.

People are wary of identifying "who you are" with "what you do." Insofar as this wariness is the result of an effort to remind us that our worth as individuals is not a function of what we do, I couldn't agree more. Your worth as an individual--as a human being--emphatically does not depend on how you earn your living.

At the same time, there is a perfectly legitimate sense in which our identities can be bound up with what we do. They certainly don't have to be and there is absolutely nothing wrong with having a job that allows you to pursue other things that you care about. But sometimes one's identity is tied up with what one does in a way that need not be lamented. Your neighbor may just happen to be an accountant. But does Tiger Woods "just happen" to play golf? Or does Yo-Yo Ma "just happen" to be a cellist? Thinking in that way does violence to the relationship between their jobs and who they are and I have no doubt they would tell you the same. For Woods to contemplate life without golf or Ma to envision life without music would be, I think quite literally, to envision life as different people.

I'm certainly not trying to put myself in the same breath as Woods or Ma. Rather, I raise the issue because jobs are on a lot of our minds lately. If we aren't concerned about our personal economic futures, we certainly know people who are and those concerns are as real as you can get. Joblessness is not a philosophical problem. It stares us in the face when we get up in the morning and looks over our shoulder when we go to bed at night and directly affects our ability to achieve any kind of happiness. But it is worth noting--because no one on CNBC or FoxNews ever will--that in addition to trying to keep their families fed, clothed, and sheltered, some people are currently fighting to keep their identities as well. Getting a different job isn't always just getting a different job. Sometimes it involves quite a bit more.

1 comment:

JAK said...

Excellent point that you come to. I couldn't agree with you more. I really think the media should start examining this additional, very human, very real aspect of job difficulties for some people.