In a really interesting segment from On Being (which used to be Speaking of Faith, a title I much prefer, by the way), Krista Tippett interviews Terry Tempest Williams, who, I'm betting, like her father, as she says, wears the kinds of footwear that can kill spiders in corners. She's a sixth-generation Utah Mormon, a environmentalist, a writer and activist, and this particular episode, originally broadcast in February, is really worth your time--for a ton of reasons.
Somewhere near the beginning, Ms. Williams says that one night at a party, someone asked her the kind of question most everyone does when we meet someone we hadn't met before: "What do you do?"
She answered, "About what?"
The cliched question itself is, of course, resoundingly American because it simply assumes that the most immediately important fact about our identities is how we earn a living: "I am a teacher."
Ms. Williams's darling answer sticks with me, however: "About what?"--an answer one might expect from an political activist.
How we conceive of our own identities is an interesting question. "What do you do?" really asks us to identify ourselves by profession, by a job, and to thereby define our lives.
Navajos answer identity questions by lineage. If I were Navajo, I'd probably say I'm of the Unwooly Sheep Clan or something similar (my name, in Dutch, means sheep, of course, and there simply ain't much wool up top). Okay, not funny. I would answer by my clan, my kin, my tribe, my lineage--I would say I am "of" a certain people. I am one of them. I don't know many white folks who would say such things. What's important to us--probably vastly too important--is a job.
An answer that says a ton about culture, or so it seems to me.
I could answer that question myself somewhat similarly if I'd say "an American," or "a member of the Christian Reformed Church," or "a resident of Siouxland," or "a graduate of Dordt College"; but, seriously, who would? In the world I live in, for better or for worse, we are what we do.
Ephesians 2 always thrills me, capitalist that I am, because it suggests--at least to me--that we're all pilgrims really, that we're all on a journey, that we're all being "made," regardless of what we do. We are, the passage says, "God's handiwork." We are what he does, even though he doesn't really have a profession as such--after all, he's God, a position for which you can't go to school. Ephesians 2 says that we are what he's up to. We are what he's been at for a long, long time (by way of our calendars and clocks, not by his). I like to think our being His handiwork makes God a kind of sculptor or whittler who's never really finished, always carving, always shaping (and, yes, there is some pain there).
On a mercantile level, that's an answer befitting our age, I suppose, when the average American will, in all likelihood, experts say, switch professions a half dozen times during their lives anyway. In that kind of world, we're only temporarily who think we are; tomorrow, we may well be someone else since tomorrow we may sell shoes or shingle roofs.
But he's working on us, as he is on me, even though I've answered that cocktail-party question the same exact way for 40 long years. Yet, this I know: he's still working on me, and I like that because, even when I'm as old as the hills, he won't stop working, which means I'll never quite be the same.
So next year I'll have to give a different answer.
Maybe I can learn something from the Navajo.