Sunday, October 09, 2005

Work as Identity Redux

Eight months ago, I briefly explored the idea of work as identity. This morning I awoke to thoughts of a similar vein, thinking about how much my identity revolves around being "a nurse", and to a lesser extent, "a teacher". It is an idea worth exploring further. Interestingly, I was recently asked permission to be linked on a blog which studies and follows work-related blogs, and I took the time to answer a questionnaire by said Scottish blogger/researcher.

As I wrote back in February, most people respond to the question "What do you do?" by describing their work-life, as if this is their defining role/identity: "I am a teacher/doctor/programmer/consultant/etc." It is rare and unexpected that someone responds in a more creative and less acculturated way: "I am a mother/father/son/lover/gardener/reader." Is this the same in other cultures? I would love to know.

For me, I still struggle and consider what it means to be myself in the world. How do I define myself? What is my place in the world? Some would say that, at 41 years old, one should be well aware of one's place, one's significance in the larger scheme. But I would counter that an examined life involves frequent questioning and retooling of one's identity, or at least thoughtful examination of one's suppositions and assumptions about oneself. It's easy to be complacent, but the examination of oneself can be revealing (and hopefully not too disheartening, as long as one is open to needed alterations in self-perception).

At this juncture of my life, being a decade into my first real "career", my "nurseness" carries a great deal of weight in my self-identity. In my late teens and early twenties, I was an "artist"---attending (and subsequently dropping out of) both the Philadelphia College of Art and The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. With a lack of discipline and without the stucture of school, "artist" gave way to "waiter", "bookstore manager", then "massage therapist", "yoga teacher", "housecleaner", "personal care attendant", and eventually "nurse". So here I am, Nurse Carlson, or as many of my Puerto Rican patients say, "Doktor Keet" (you do the accent).

Whether I have written it here in this venue or not, I do sincerely long for a day when my identity does not revolve around work. I look forward to a day when I simply am an individual in the world, living a good life and doing good things in the world. I do not generally define myself as "an American", although I do define myself as a married forty-something man with an incredible son and wonderful wife. Even those and other labels: father, husband, heterosexual, man, homeowner, citizen--what do they describe? What do they say about me as a person? Do they describe my presence in the world, my contributions to society at large? The answer is yes and no, of course, but mostly no. Those words offer mental pictures, generalizations upon which larger suppositions can be based, but they do not define who "Keith Carlson" is, nor should they.

The next time I am at a party or social gathering, I would like to challenge myself to answer differently when questioned about "what I do". How can I finesse such a conversation? How long will it take for me to eventually blurt out, "I'm a nurse"? How long would it take for the questioner to say, "Yes, you are a husband and father and reader, but what do you DO?" How long until I give in and launch into my "tape" about my work? Can the other person be fully satisfied by our conversation without safely wrapping me in a box labeled clearly with a defined career?

There is something else to bear in mind that can easily reveal our cultural judgements about certain occupations. If someone we meet responds to the same question regarding work with a sentence that begins with, "Oh, I'm just a __________"---you fill in the blank---how do we respond to such a statement? What do we immediately think when the person says they are "just" a secretary, a janitor, a housekeeper, a clerk, a delivery person, a home health aide? What does it mean when an individual verbally apologizes for their work by preceding their title with the word "just"? Do they expect us to judge them? Do they expect pity? Do they feel less-than in the broader sense of work being intrinsically tied to identity and worth in our image-obsessed culture? They do not necessarily want pity, but they most certainly must feel afraid of being judged, and must often feel that their place in the world may be seen as less glamorous, less important, less crucial to the workings of the societal machine.

Let's be honest---an individual says that they are a mechanic or window-washer and many of us--myself included--will immediately think classist thoughts, or mentally pigeon-hole that individual as working class or under-educated. Do we know for a fact that the window-washer is uneducated? Do we know that he doesn't go home and study existentialism and publish a blog about his findings? Do we know whether he has eschewed another career for a simple life wherein he can pursue his intellectual interests without the burden of 40 hours of work and a long commute to pay for the student loans he never wanted? We must challenge our assumptions about others and their relative "value" in the world. We must try to define others by their actions, not their labels. This is a message to myself as much as to anyone reading this missive. It is a universal message, and one worthy of introspection and practice.

As for me, my identity is currently intrinsically tied to my career, my work, my self-as-nurse. Many nurses appear to feel similarly, even after retirement, perhaps because nurses are held in such high esteem in this culture. If one were asked about their instinctive desire to trust a dentist, nurse, or lawyer, I would assume most people would choose to trust the nurse, even before meeting that person. Whether that is a fair judgement or not, I believe it to be true, and our culture continually reinforces such stereotypes in myriad ways.

Thus, the challenge is to meet others and interact in the wider world with as little judgement and preconceived notions as possible, measuring others by their character and personality, not by their stated career or self-definition. The next time I speak to the janitor at the school where I teach, I will open myself to him a little more. I know his name because I asked, but what more can I know? What makes him tick? Why is he as interesting---or more interesting--than the president of the college? Yes, he is a janitor---that is how he puts food on the table---but he is so much more. And I am more than a nurse and teacher. "Human being" is a good place to start, and that definition levels the playing field for us all.
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