What to say you do, when you don’t…

Almost the first phrase that people greet you with when they first meet you is “What do you do?”. Your answer and vocation will in most cases slot you into a category for them, and yield a predefined level of respect and associated attitude toward you. Breaking out of that box once it is assigned to you is often not easy. As such, your initial presentation, irrespective of who you really are or your value, is important. That may be unfortunate and sound superficial, but it is often simple reality in our society. For many people with career and/or professional employment, this plays in their favour.

But what about when you retire? You are not ‘that’ any more. You may be in the process of becoming something else, but since the something else may not have significant monetary value presently it is of little social value in the eyes of many others. What do you do, and how do you adjust?

One strategy is to say you are whateveryouwere-retired. If your previous vocational title had some sort of medical, academic, military or similar status, then you likely can carry that on, garnering whatever social usefulness or advantage it might have. And don’t be fooled, it usually has quite a bit. Position is a tool that will gain advantage or preferential treatment. If that aura of position remains intact in some form, people will most likely treat you as if you were still in the position or close to it. This likely also applies to any person who has had a socially recognized professional designation of some type (eg. engineers, chartered accountants, etc.)

On the other hand, simply ‘retired’ doesn’t cut it in the redeeming social value category. The only exception is in the eyes of those who are drawing close to (or wish they were drawing close to) retirement themselves. If you are well retired financially and health wise, this often accrues great amounts of envy and a certainly related status. Outside of these exceptions, the retired person is viewed by many as doing nothing, and therefor of having no status. This is true even if they are pursuing interesting avenues for themselves. The fact that they are not using whatever skills they have to make money or accrue status of some sort is often viewed as almost unethical.

All this is an interesting backdrop for those who are contemplating retirement or some sort of self-directed period of leave without a finite end date. It says a lot about what modern society values (activities which have income as a goal) and what it does not value (activities for which the primary goal is not income), irrespective of what altruistic words may be offered.

Christian certainly face this directly in contemplating a retirement or extended leave period in which to seek and follow the leading of the Lord. Successfully growing past this hurdle to follow the direction of the Lord, even possibly allowing oneself to “not seek gainful activity” and allow life or direction to unfold, effectively thumbs the nose that the whole societal affair. But from the reports of those treading it, this road has more potholes than one might think.

A Christian brother took early retirement just over a year ago. With a timely set of skills, he went on to establish an relaxed and effective consulting practice which brought satisfaction and remuneration without most of the previous organizational grief. After a year, however, he related that he had finally realized that he was still performing the same old same’old. He had gone back to a form of work based upon programmed expectations. He had not been able to, in fact had not even seen the possibility to, allow himself to simply let things unfold without creating them. Even thought and research into identifying and using his gifts had still fallen into his pre-programming until he realized what was actually going on. With that humongous hurdle at least partially understood, he could finally see meaning in giving himself permission to stop striving in the old way and possibly allow a new direction to emerge. Doing that, however, involved both seeing through and stepping back from a lifelong socially accepted paradigm that also had great emotional value as a undercurrent.

Bravo!!! I applaud his bold realization and his desire to look beyond the world to the Lord’s direction. And more than that, the realization (instructive for us all) of the requirement to stop one paradigm in order to be able to see other possibilities – realizing that without stopping the other possibilities can not appear.

T’would that we all can do precisely that in due time, allowing the space for a new direction  to unfold, irrespective of the expectations of others, the world, and most significantly, ourselves…


2 thoughts on “What to say you do, when you don’t…

  1. Andrew

    When being introduced to people and when the question is asked “And what do you do?” I’ve always thought of it as a way of directing conversation to an area where people are usually somewhat comfortable rather than a status-seeking question. It’s a topic of small-talk.

    I do see your point, and a couple of years ago I learned to not ask “What do you do for a living” but rather “And how do you spend your time?” This gives the person the opportunity to talk about work, if they wish, or their hobbies, passions, endeavors, etc. A variation on the question is “How do you like to spend your time?”

    This question does not, in anyway exclude retired people, unemployed people, stay-at-home parents, people who are not proud of their jobs, etc. It is also not a status-seeking question. The question is designed to allow you to get to know the other person, find some common ground perhaps, allow for other avenues of conversation to start, and it allows someone to talk about their favorite subject, on which they’re an expert, themselves!

    Well, that’s just my $0.02.

  2. kwilson Post author

    I think that your approach is great, but it is uncommon. Just as a sociological exercise, the next time you are introduced to someone (or even better if you can observe a few exchanges of that sort quietly from the sidelines), watch what they say and how they react – verbal, body language, etc. It seldom gets past the person’s vocation or lack thereof before you see a clear reaction. The immediate placement of them in a pigeon hole is often quite clear in the ensuing conversation (or lack thereof). It is also interesting to see if the scenario changes perceptibly when they mention other interests. The change is often only marginal, implying that the classification has not changed.

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