Who You are Defines What You Do

I love the movie Across the Universe. It touched me somewhere deep inside. I grew up listening to The Beatles. I walked down the aisle to All You Need Is Love. I often feel like I was born in the wrong era. I was surely meant to be a 60s flower child! Yet here I am, in 2013, and I cry every time I watch this film.

Across the Universe covers a wide array of topics I believe are blog-worthy, but the one I’d like to focus on today is from the scene depicted above. Here’s the relevant dialogue (thank you IMDB):

Max’s Father: Goddammit, Max! Get serious, for once! What are you going to DO with your life?
Max: Why is it always what will I do? “What will he do”, “What will he do,” “Oh, my god what will he do”, Do, do, do, do, do. Why isn’t the issue here who I am?
Uncle Teddy: Because, Maxwell, what you do defines who you are.
Max: No, Uncle Teddy. Who you are defines what you do. Right Jude?
Jude: [awkward] … Well, surely it’s not what you do, but the, uh… the way that you do it.

How do we feel about this fellow humans? Are Jude and Max right? At what point does what you do become who you are? That’s easy to answer if you are a sales clerk or customer service representative. Of course those jobs don’t define us.

But watch what happens when we exchange those somewhat commonplace and conventional professions for something more prestigious. Doctors and CEOs for example tend to over identify with their roles. Why not? They are “successful” by our society’s standards because they make loads of money and have lots of power. It makes sense for them to ally their identity with their professions.

It gets more interesting when you think about jobs that are considered taboo or downright undesirable by society’s standards. Prostitution is the oldest profession in the world, and throughout history women who sell their bodies for money have been regarded as social pariah. Again, we can see how the chosen profession in this case would cause an over-identification with what we do. The title “whore” goes much deeper than how they earn their living. Imagine calling someone a “salesman” with the same contempt as people sometimes use the word whore. Kind of silly, isn’t it?

I realize I’m playing devil’s advocate here. I should mention that another one of my favorite films was Pretty Woman. The “hooker with the heart of gold” story really connected with me, even at a very young age. I like the idea that people are just people, and just because she earned her living doing something other people deem unworthy, didn’t make her a “bad” person. Imagine how different the subtext of that movie would be if it were titled Fallen Woman, which, by the way, is the exact term that comes up in the online thesaurus when you search the word “whore.”

So ultimately, when I think about this issue, I guess I do agree with Jude when he says surely it’s not what you do but the way you do it. The fourth Reiki precept is “earn your living honestly.” I think that can be done whether you’re a doctor, a teacher, a lawyer or a prostitute.

What’s more important than what you do to earn money is how you treat people while doing it.


6 responses to “Who You are Defines What You Do

  1. Apparently, I need to watch Across the Universe. Can you believe I’ve never seen it?! Putting it on the list.

    The week before we graduated college, I remember being so very stressed trying to finish the year, exams, Nicaragua trip and starting TFA. I was at Michelle and Steve’s house frantically packing so I was moved out before graduation and Jo Cecilio was there. She told me something that really struck me. She said, “Mal, you are a human being. Not a human doing.” Be. It was such a new concept to me. No, no I needed to do something. Get a job. Accomplish something. But no, no I actually don’t. I need to be. I want to be. Be a friend, sister, daughter, auntie, a human. You can just be. Be who you are without fear of judgement. But you have to make the decision to do so.

    I’m not a fan of being defined by what I do is something. There is such a huge difference in the perception of answering “I’m in med school” vs “I don’t know what I’m going to do.” Since I’ve became aware of being a human being, I’ve put an emphasis on being and I’ve slowly became very comfortable with not knowing exactly what I’m going to do and in fact find something very liberating about it. However, I can see the uncomfortableness of the person posing the question when I reply without a certain answer. It’s easy to say, “Oh that’s great you’re going to be a doctor.” People are less comfortable figuring out what to say to someone without a job. Or a less desirable job. It doesn’t bug me to answer the “what do you do?” question, but I just wish the question was “who are you?” But that could seem strange (although I wish it wasn’t), so maybe “tell me about yourself” or as Jo Cecilio poses it, “tell me your story.” I love that because it is so open ended. I want to know what matters to people, who they’re trying to be, what they love, those types of things. While traveling, I have stopped asking people what they do. No one should be defined only by what they do. Even if it is a good, wonderful thing they “do” for a job for example, finding out what that person holds to be important in life can tell you way more than a job title.

    • Oh Mallory I just read Kaycie’s blog post and then your comment and just burst into tears. I just drove home from my friends’ home where they had a similar conversation with me about being a human BEING. I just graduated from my nursing school and feel stuck somewhat (and NOT at all relaxed) in a holding pattern until I can pass the NCLEX and get my license and start working. Up until this point I had half-heartedly settled on moving to Tampa and finding a job there, even though I have been somewhat desperate to move out west for a year. Tonight, my friends spent the night having a sort of intervention with me, telling me I don’t need to settle for Tampa because it’s practical or I already paid $175 for a Florida nursing license. I realized on the drive home to my apartment that my answer to the question “What do you want to do after graduation” is the same: “I want to do something that makes me happy, I want to be a nurse, I want to live somewhere peaceful, I want to make new friends, I want to explore.” None of those things are exclusive to Tampa and that while moving cross-country, or even half-way, may be somewhat impractical for the short-term, it may be a really good and desired change for me in the long-term.

      Your words here about being a human being not a human doing was a beautiful reminder to me that I am free to have those wants and just be myself and fulfill myself. Thank you!!

  2. Well, I suppose I must place myself on the side of the doers. Perhaps this is due to a broad definition of “doing”. To do is simply to act, or to behave. From my perspective, we behave constantly. Try, for a moment, to be and not do. I’ll send you a nickel if you made it through half a minute without moving or thinking. Even a quintessential “be” activity, meditation, is filled with doing- sitting, consciously redirecting one’s attention, deliberately breathing deeply.

    My point is not to be semantically belligerent. To me, it is not so much whether to be or do, as doing is so plainly inescapable. So, given that we are behaving organisms, I find the interesting question to be: around what do you choose to orient and organize your behavior? Do you organize your actions around hedonic experience? Avoiding pain? Creating wealth? Fulfilling a particular role (i.e. parent, CEO, environmental advocate)? Service to others?

    Do we all have inherent worth? I think so. But still, what we choose to orient our behavior around matters a great deal. So, the prostitute may still be a worthy human being, but has chosen to organize her actions around morally questionable priorities. So we can easily say that she is a worthwhile human who is behaving in a way that some (including myself) deem to be morally problematic.

  3. Wow, Alex and I just literally had this conversation last week. We both thought it to be a somewhat ingrained action to ask the question “What do you do?” Why is this so important? I feel like people judge you on a level of “success” you have achieved in life. “He’s a real go getter” they say or “she is wondering around aimlessly”. Well he is probably a real go getter because he feels he has to because of the pressure society has put on him. The chance that he is actually happy if he were to slow down and listen to himself from within are pretty slim…I used to worry when I stopped school and started teaching Yoga that people would think I was a slacker or unsuccessful. I wait tables on the side to make ends meet right now and you know what, it took me awhile but I got over it because I looked inside and realized I am truly happy. My jobs don’t stress me out, I can take off work rather easily. Teaching Yoga may not pay well, but it pays me in joy…every time I can help another student or get a new person interested in something I feel so passionately about, I feel successful. What is success to you? Success does not mean making a ton of money…I can be successful at making a healthy meal for myself. I can be successful by practicing my yoga six times a week. These things make ME feel successful. Maybe someone else may not think this is a “success”, but the way I see it, they haven’t opened their eyes to the bigger picture. The sad part about it is our culture is in this race to go go go but why are we running? We have no time limit. Until people can slow down and enjoy everything, they are running so fast they are passing up life, REAL LIFE.

  4. I love these heart felt and honest comments. I am glad this post sparked discussion, because it is an issue I often grapple with and come back to frequently.
    Nate, I appreciate your feedback. Erich had a similar response…but I’m not actually making a claim against “doing” I tend to feel the way Sara and Mallory do, that I don’t want my profession to confine me. I want to do things I enjoy and while I’m doing things I am not particularly passionate about that I try to do them as authentically as possible. For me, it’s simply a matter of, if you “gotta do what you gotta do” don’t let it define you, don’t let society’s perceptions of your profession or “day job” define your Being. I think who are you boils down to how you treat yourself and others.
    Mallory and Sara, I too try not to ask people “So what do you do?” When I meet them anymore. I try to make it a point to lightheartedly say “who are you, really?” I generally say things like “what do you enjoy?” or “what are you into these days?” I might steal Jo’s way of saying, “so tell me your story.” I like stories. I think we all have great stories in us, whether you’re a traveling circus performer or a radio show host or a plumber. Your perception of your reality is what matters most. That’s what I feel anyway.
    Thanks again for the comments. Keep em comin!

  5. I come from a different generation. I find myself “guilty” of asking the question “what do you do” . At the same time when asked the same question, I would like to say that I do what makes me happy. I usually say ” I am a teacher” as if that defines me. Being a teacher for 30 years brought me a sense of accomplishment. I used to get a positive response. Not so any more. I hear the thunder of the 2000’s and have to deal with, WHY would you want to do that. It does not pay well and you have no respect. I had good days and bad days. I was a passionate teacher in that I cared for my students and provided them with alternate ways to deal with life. I think I challenged them. I gave support, but I also talked two young men into quitting school. Probably not what a teacher should do. They were both spinning their wheels in a quagmire of safe. I challenged them to get on with their life and to quit being safe in an institution in which they were failing.

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