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What are you?

October 22, 2009

Recently I read an article about a young mother raising two children while working on her dissertation. As an aside she said, ‘Yes I still work 2 days a week  so I have something to say when people ask me what I do’.

That got me thinking about how deeply identified this society is with roles and status. The next day, someone asked me quite innocently at an artist’s gathering, ‘What are you?’  Meaning: artist, poet, musician, etc.  In the context of the above, I resented having to put myself in a box in order to be able to have a discussion with someone. Anyway, I don’t know ‘what’ I am yet, I’m only 59 and haven’t decided what I’m going to be when I grow up.

I told him that I didn’t want to answer the question and asked him instead,’What are you really excited about at this point in your life?’ And lo and behold we had a perfectly pleasant and inspiring discussion about the ‘new art’, basically all the things I”m also interested in, edgy art being made in homes on the streets and in the margins.

And all this without ever once mentioning ‘what we do’.

My heart often falls when people ask me to respond to ‘What do you do’?’. It limits the discussion right away.  And it makes me wonder why we feel so insecure  when we don’t have a conventionally accepted answer to that question. Have we accepted so completely that our sole value is in what we do? Is that our only basis for establishing a context to talk with new people?

I think I’d rather be asked what excites me, what inspires me, what issue am I wrestling with at the moment, what progress have I made in realizing some of my goals, what  are some of the nicest moments I’ve had with friends lately, in what areas of my life  do I feel connected and passionate, etc.

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5 Responses to “What are you?”

  1. Catherine Says:

    I love your question – “what excites you right now?”
    I once read an article which set out to “prove” that stay at home mothers were still intelligent, interesting people. It featured several women, and in each case, gave examples of the community groups and other activities that they were involved in. I felt that this worked against their case, rather than for it. An article on lawyers for example would surely focus on their legal careers – but an article on mothers had to “prove” their worth by writing about the things they did outside mothering. I often felt I wasn’t taken seriously as a full time mother, for instance I once ventured an opinion on education, and was asked if I was a teacher. As if a parent wouldn’t be interested in education.

  2. m Says:

    I totally agree ! and what we do hardly ever encompasses all of us anyway. I make sure when I am teaching that people speak to each other as people when the introductions are done. I’m quite structured about this -to prevent people giving the usual meaningless information about themselves.

  3. szoutewelle Says:

    thanks Catherine. What a good point about mothers.
    I feel artists too are judged according to whether they are earning. As if that is the only valid measure of worth.

  4. szoutewelle Says:

    m, I agree with your approach on intros. In a workshop I gave to a group of international women who were aspiring entrepreneurs, they had to introduce themselves without mentioning what they did for work.
    It completely set the tone into one of deep sharing rather than the competitive posturing that sometimes happens in business type settings.

  5. Claudia ;D Says:

    Great point Sarah and Catherine. I am always baffled about this too, and never sure how to answer the question what I am (doing). It is sad that our society does seem to value “work” in terms of how much we earn or what our status is. And even more sad is that the status of a mother is that low even though she is the one that raises a new generation.


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