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Working It Out

“So… what do you do?” When we ask this question, we are often asking what someone “does for a living,” but it means so much more than that. Yes, we do locate our position in an economy, so responding with a job title is often the quickest and easiest response to this question. “I’m a mechanic,” or “I’m a teacher,” or “I’m a stay-at-home mom,” or even “I’m between jobs” are all appropriate responses to this question, as a role implies the kind of work you do. In some sense they do answer the question of “what you are.” Presumably what you do in these roles is defined by the job title: Fixing cars, educating youth, taking care of children, or looking for a job are all things one can be “doing,” since even if they aren’t specific “occupations,” they can certainly occupy your time. These don’t all involve providing services for payment, and one could clearly answer, and provide a nice conversational opening with “I’m a civil war reenactor,” or “I collect musical instruments,” or even “I love surfing,” even if these are not for a living.

“I write” is a little more problematic. This may be an accurate description of what I now do, but no more than “I talk” would have been during my career as a college professor. But the follow-up is as likely to be “what have you published?” as “what do you write?” From non-writers, the former may merely be an attempt to find out what one might get hold of to read this writer, or what you might already have read, or what for which this person might be famous. At a writer’s conference, “what have you published?” can be a less-than-subtle put-down, or it might be a genuine question which might be followed up with particulars, not only about titles, genres and publishers, but about agents, or any of a number of things about the “other half” of a professional writer’s career. I was a scholar, and published at least enough in professional journals to get tenure, promotions, fellowships, and other academic awards, but most of this stuff is a very peculiar kind of writing inaccessible to non-specialists and probably actually read, at least in any depth, by very few. It also requires documenting everything, which is a perfectly healthy practice, but the reason that I always loved having written, especially if a paper was published, but really did not much like the actual process of writing. Except for rare moments when I really was on a roll thinking through or figuring something out. But much of that, except in disguised form, was not so much figuring out the meaning of my life or those of particular others, but making some broad claims about the species, at least in our culturally and historically limited circumstances. As part of a campus writer’s group, I discovered that I rather enjoyed writing that was more a product of my memory, and imagination. So yes, I write. I write this blog,, which allows me to give people my card and invite them to check these out, and often allows me to elaborate on what neuromythology is, until I see eyes starting to glaze over, though specific topics can be intriguing, and I probably should develop some short sound-bites, or little pitches to trot out at the appropriate moments, and see which ones hook which people. I’m also working on a memoir Son of a Preacher Man that can be intriguing to some people, but it helps if I can pitch it as an account of the life of a baby-boomer, through the civil rights era, Vietnam, Watergate, and the development of a career that would carry on the inheritance of a father, and make me a “second generation” worker in what I sometimes claimed was a Science-and-Religion project with an impact that could potentially rival the Reformation. But that’s a bit grandiose, unless I provide some justification for how such a project doesn’t just lead to a naturalistic account of religion, or a religious naturalism, but some actual change in the substance or direction of science itself. But that’s way beyond my present scope, despite the synthetic aspects of neuromythology. “Writing my memoirs” is also producing some shorter pieces, several of which I have also shared in this blog, as illustrative.

We also do distinguish, when we can, between what is merely a “job,” perhaps amongst a sequence of them, and what is an “occupation,” or a “profession,” or even a “calling.” Our understanding of what we do for a living as any of these is also on a sliding scale. The generation I spent as a professor I would happily refer to as a “calling,” even though, after being denied tenure once thirty years ago, the saving grace of my daughter’s birth enabled me to see things in perspective: “It’s just a job; you’ll get another,” and I did. “Calling” also has a kind of spiritual significance, as well as, perhaps, a rather literal metaphysical interpretation, as in “I was called to the ministry.” Certainly it is appropriate to understand many, even if low-paying occupations “callings” if they imbue a life with meaning, or provide a substantial contribution to the world, like most teaching positions. Never mind that the word “vocation,” which means the same, has been appropriated to refer to rather more technical kinds of skill-building, though I am not wont to forget that such training may actually be far more appropriate, and, indeed, lead to far more productive and happy, and even intellectually invigorating lives than do the cognitive pretenses of the over-educated. “I’m retired” is also an appropriate, if open-ended answer to the question “what do you do?” as is “I’m financially independent,” which I prefer. Someone can then ask what you did, presumably to enable you to retire without employment, or to become financially independent, but it wouldn’t be inappropriate to follow-up such an answer with, “so what do you do with your time, what do you do to occupy yourself?” But the question “What do you do?” is not really about what you do for entertainment, or how you fill the time, as “financially independent” Scottie (Jimmy Stewart) did in Hitchcock’s Vertigo, when he said he “wandered about,” while he was obsessively stalking Madeleine (Kim Novak), or at least someone pretending to be her. No doubt all who wander are not lost, but we still would like to know what they are actually up to, or it can be even creepier.

“What do you do?” is often an easy, conventional start to the process of acquaintance, just as “What do you think you are doing?” is often an accusation, or at least a request for justification. Part of becoming a responsible adult, at least in contemporary western civilization, is being able to provide reasons for one’s actions, even if they are rationalizations after the fact, which all too often they probably are. Still, this is a pretty basic criterion of intelligibility, and maybe as important for ascertaining adult brain function as knowing your name, where you are, and what year it is. I love Gandhi’s response to the question of what he thought about western civilization, when he said “I think it would be a good idea.” But certainly one of the questions of identity is one’s place and role in an economy, just as is one’s place in a sequence of generations, or one’s sexual preferences, as well as what one does.

Sigmund Freud famously said that the most important issues in human life are Lieben und Arbeiten, love and work. We need both, and too many sacrifice one for the other, sacrificing the happiness that love makes possible for work, or the sense of meaning, value, and even self-esteem that productive work can provide by who or how we choose to love, or find ourselves loving. I’ve had scholarly friends tell me that they were most “productive” when their personal lives were in shambles, and did poorer work when they were happily involved with someone. I finished my undergraduate senior thesis, my master’s thesis, and my doctoral dissertation each in the wake of a hea