After realizing that a career as a college professor was no longer a realistic option for me, I struggled to find a new direction. At times, I felt discouraged by the thought that my life has had no clear, consistent focus. When the depression would lift, I could see that teaching and writing were two skills that I consistently used in various jobs and personal pursuits, and so I searched for a way to continue using one or both of those things in a new career field. Happily, I have found what (so far) seems to be the perfect new niche for me – a job in communications and grant writing for a non-profit organization. In my previous blog entry, I even wrote that as I start to fulfill some of the responsibilities of my new job, I have been able to see connections to my past aspirations – specifically, my childhood desire to be like reporter Lois Lane.
But a friend of mine posted a response to that entry that got me thinking. She wrote: “It's very nice that you're able to connect what you do now with your childhood dream/ambition. It seems you have always identified yourself mainly as a writer trying to use your words to make a difference. I've gone through many more identity changes…and now I'm really having trouble answering the “who am I?” question.”
After reading that, I started to wonder what I would do if I hadn’t been able to find a job that matched my interests and skills so well. By connecting the dots between my childhood idol and some of the “reporting” that I will be doing in my new career, I have been able to find a thread that runs throughout the whole fabric of my life. But are there other ways of linking your different experiences? And why is it so important (for many of us, if not all) to find a connection like this between the past, the present and the future?
It has to do with, as my friend stated, the “who am I?” question. It’s difficult to feel like you understand who you are if you cannot find something that holds everything together. Human beings use all kinds of stories in order to give their lives meaning – it could be religion or history; it could be science or group-identification. But I think that most of us want to find consistency, a theme for our personal story, a narrative that defines our goal and purpose. Most of us feel better if we can say, “this is who I am” and “this is what I do.” So if you don’t rely on a consistent career path to help you define yourself, what kind of a thread or theme can you trace back through your life? What else can you use to help you determine the kind of person that you are?
The truth is, there have been many people who have not had the opportunity or the luxury of defining their identity through a “career path.” Throughout history, there have been a lot of people who were simply born into a trade – if a person’s father was a baker, he became a baker; if a man was a butcher, his son followed suit. Many people haven’t had to wonder about how to define themselves; they simply accepted the situation into which they were born. I sometimes wonder how I would feel if someone just handed me a butcher knife and expected me to learn how to slaughter a pig, simply because that’s what my father had done for a living. I'm fairly certain you would find me passed out in the corner of the butcher shop after a test run.
Of course, society evolved. Many people stopped invariably teaching their children the family trade, and while some people might have still defined themselves (or others) as farmers or factory workers, I wonder if many middle-class individuals relied on their jobs to understand themselves the way that so many career-driven young professionals do today. Some people never had the education or job training to establish themselves in a profession. They worked odd jobs all their life, or took a series of unrelated positions as the opportunities presented themselves. This was the situation for my grandparents – particularly my grandmother, who worked as a telephone switchboard operator, a sales clerk and a secretary. Because of my grandparents’ examples, I have the idea that the people of their generation didn’t tend to rely on a job to define themselves.
For example, even though my grandfather remained in the same line of work for many years, I don’t think about him as simply a Telephone Repair Man – and I don’t think anyone else does, either. After briefly working on an assembly line at a Fanny Farmer candy factor, Grandpa got a job with Bell Telephone and remained with the company for 38 years, so he had more of an opportunity to establish a career than my grandmother. He had to learn specialized skills to do his job – they didn’t yet use cherry pickers, so he had to climb telephone poles with special spiked boots, and once he was up there, he had to deal with all those wires. When he went overseas during World War II, he was part of a communications unit that was responsible for maintaining telephone operations between different parts of the Allied forces. So his commitment to telephone communications could be seen as a thread that ran throughout the different parts of his life.
When I think about my grandfather, however, I think about him more generally as a handyman. His career with Bell Telephone was only a part of that. Grandpa knew how to make things, fix things, run and maintain things. He built the tire swing in our backyard and a three-story Barbie house for me out of bookshelves. He always took my car for an oil change and mowed the lawn at my parents’ house. He trimmed the bushes, raked the leaves, and kept everything in the workbench neatly organized and labeled. He also did all kinds of work for my uncle and aunt’s business and volunteered for odd jobs and janitorial work at our church.
If you want to understand who my grandpa was as a person, you have to know that that he was a handyman – and you have to understand why he did these things. He used his skills as a handyman to serve our family and our church because that was how he showed his love and commitment to people. He checked the fluid levels of my car so that I would never run out of oil and get stranded somewhere when the engine conked out. He brought an extra half-gallon of milk over to our house in the middle of the week so that my mother wouldn’t have to worry about going to the grocery store after work. He wanted us to be safe and happy; he was the patriarch of our family and to him that meant being a consistent, thoughtful provider. He had no objection to women having careers, – he just believed in serving the people that he loved in as many ways as possible.
Once his cancer kept him confined to his bed, I could tell that he didn’t really want to stick around much longer – not just because he was in pain, but because he couldn’t be himself any more. He couldn’t take care of us. “Where have you been?” he would fret if we didn’t come to the nursing home until late in the day. “I’ve been laying here worrying about you people.” I could barely keep from crying when he said things like that. Here he was, in so much pain from the cancer eating away at his bones, and he was worried about us. That was just who he was, though – the welfare of the people that he loved was always more important to him than his own welfare, and he had to express that in certain ways. He had to be able to mow the lawn or run the errands – he had to be able to keep things working. He had the heart of a superhero and the practicality of a working man.
I only hope that as I work to define myself both in and outside of the workplace, that I can consistently be a loving, unassuming person like my grandfather. It might be too much to ask me to be unassuming – but I really hope when I look back on my life, I can trace a thread that I shows I consistently, patiently serve other people.