We are more than stuff.

I loved this entire article by LZ Granderson, but this sentence really struck me:

We are more than stuff.”

Well, duh. Of course we are. So why does so much revolve around our work? Why is “what do you do for a living” often the first thing we ask each other?

My doctor makes me list my occupation on paperwork and even the Census Bureau keep tabs on it. It seems comically offensive to be defined so one-dimensionally: height, weight, salary…

I’d say the most valuable things in life – our family, friends, passions and interests – certainly do a better job describing the essence of who we are than our last pay stub. But those questions seem too intimate for passing conversations. Instead, the default topic is one that we can use to make assumptions about someone’s entire lifestyle. We use something as simple as a job title to gauge another person’s happiness and financial status.

The passage below is so powerful I read it several times before moving on in the article:

We may understand that money does not buy happiness, but over the past few decades that notion has been competing against a message that at every turn tells us we can’t be happy without it. This dichotomy has slowly disconnected the American dream from the idea of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and attached it to one’s ability to move up the ladder.

I am absolutely, positively guilty of the type of exchange described in the next excerpt. I’m ashamed to say I think I do this daily. Despite the fact that I possess the logic to know this is a ludicrous way to draw conclusions, it’s still my natural instinct.

If you’re at a bar and someone’s response to that question is “I’m a lawyer,” the people around generally assume that individual makes a lot of money, drives a fancy car and is not living paycheck to paycheck. He or she is happy, if you will.

Obviously this is not the same rosy outlook people have about someone who says “I work at McDonald’s.”

 In our culture a person’s worth is tied to his or her profession — the higher the salary or profile, the more valued the individual is as a person, and the happier we assume he or she is.

And sadly the reverse is also true.

If it weren’t, women would not feel the need to defend their decision to be stay-at-home moms in the era of the career woman. If it weren’t, men would not feel challenged if they’re dating a woman who makes more.

Reading this article threw me for a ginormous loop. Mainly because it’s rare to read something so realistically eloquent. But also because it left me seesawing back and forth between the knowledge that salary and debt don’t define a person’s character any more than his hair color, but a life without financial stress might damn well be an easier, and dare I say it, happier one?

Maybe. But I think this is true only at the surface.

Money truly can’t buy happiness, and the quest to have more and more of it often ruins families, health and sanity. I don’t know if I can fully train myself to avoid asking new acquaintances about their careers, but I hope to transform the types of conclusions and instantaneous judgments I make as a result.

I’m going to round out these deep thoughts with a Dalai Lama quote my brother sends to me every time I stress about finances:

Man. Because he sacrifices his health in order to make money. Then he sacrifices money to recuperate his health. And then he is so anxious about the future that he does not enjoy the present; the result being that he does not live in the present or the future; he lives as if he is never going to die, and then dies having never really lived.

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2 thoughts on “We are more than stuff.

  1. So, acknowledging that I too begin conversations with people I meet at social events by asking “what do you do,” I’m thinking about alternative questions or statements to try. Alternative questions I’m considering seem too much “in you face” and personal – i.e. Tell me about yourself. What do you do for fun? What’s your sign? Tell me about your family? I want to stop asking people what “they do,” however I’m stuck. Suggestions?

  2. This was really good. I will be entering the stay-at-home-mommy world in just a few months and already I’m getting a lot of quesions like “what do you plan to do when you get out” (meaning out of the Army), as if I SHOULD be doing SOMETHING because being a mom is not enough? I proudly say that I just plan to stay home with my son and hope to with future children if we are able to, but I do feel I have to defend that reasoning.

    Thanks for sharing this. I like your dad’s question – “what do you do for fun?” But I also do think it’s bad to ask someone what they do, what their job is – it’s so much of our daily life it’s only normal to talk about it in conversation, I think we just have to focus on not making quick assumptions when we hear the response like I am guilty of doing.

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