Is What We Do Who We Are?

Unitarian Universalist Meeting House

September 2, 2018 – Labor Day Sunday

What I want to do this Sunday of Labor Day weekend is to reflect on the work we do as a source of meaning in our lives, but first I want to give a shout to the reason for the holiday, which is organized labor and its contribution to the America we know now. I have never been a member of a trade union, but I believe in them. The closest I ever got was that I was once pressured off a job as a security guard because I was trying to organize a union.

Samuel Gompers, founder of the AFL, said “What does labor want? We want more schoolhouses and less jails; more books and less arsenals; more learning and less vice; more leisure and less greed; more justice and less revenge; in fact, more of the opportunities to cultivate our better natures, to make manhood more noble, womanhood more beautiful, and childhood more happy and bright.”

Unions brought us the eight-hour day and child labor laws and a lot of workplace safety issues. We are in their debt. In the last fifty years, we have seen a steady decline in union membership in private employment in this country, and that is associated with a decline in the middle class and a rise in income inequality. The rich fight them tooth and nail because they are an alternative center of power, and the rich are winning and all the rest of us are losing.

But Labor Day is for all of us, union and nonunion, whether we have had jobs or careers or not. and it is a great time to consider the meaning of work, by which I mean not only the work for which we get paid in dollars, but the work for which we have been paid in kisses and hugs and enduring relationships.

It is said that when John F. Kennedy was running for President in 1960, he visited a coal mine in West Virginia, and after a short speech, he took questions. One old miner, who had spent most of his life underground said, “Mr. Kennedy, I understand you’re a rich man’s son and that you haven’t had to do a day’s real work in your life. What do you know about work?”

Kennedy replied that he had worked hard as a congressman and senator to represent the people who elected him, and then he finished this way “but compared to all of you who do back-breaking and dangerous labor every day of your lives, I guess you could say that no, I haven’t done any real work in my life.” The miner was taken aback by this honesty, and replied “you haven’t missed a damn thing.”

We glorify the work that coal miners do because it seems more honest than the work of a US Senator, but it isn’t more productive. In fact it could be argued that coal miners today should be retraining for work in other industries as the market and government forces move us away from fossil fuels, particularly coal.

Yet the exchange between Kennedy and the miner reflects an uneasiness, a deep guilt that mental work cannot be as real as physical work. This is an illusion; the entire march of technology is away from physical labor. When your computer is hacked, you can’t call in a coal miner to fix it.

In the election of 2016, among many false notions which were bought by voters, none was more false than the idea that immigrants were stealing blue-collar jobs. America’s middle class grew because unions mediated between employers and the labor force, and when the forces of reaction attacked the unions, the steadiness of those jobs dried up. It also had to do with automation. It did not have to do with immigrants.

And the task we all face now as a country is what happens as more jobs disappear to the robots? Many economists think that the rational thing to do is just pay people money whether they work or not. But Calvinism is deeply ingrained in the American psyche. It is considered a sin to be idle, as shown by the periodic issue of the welfare queens which raises its ugly and racist head every so often.

But a deeper question is, if we eliminate the need to work, what will replace work as a source of meaning in our lives.

Mary Oliver asks, “what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” I have been asking myself this question all my life. At age 70, there is more of my life in the rear view mirror than ahead of me, and yet I continue to ask it.

I asked it at the outset of my adult life, while I was still in college, in the turbulent late 1960s. My girlfriend Lee and I had gotten swept up in what was loosely called the Movement, a great push for social change focusing on racial justice, ending the war in Vietnam and opposing the influence of giant corporations which seemed to dominate the employment landscape. Everything we opposed seemed to loom as a personal threat. How was I to avoid serving in a war I considered unjust when I had a low draft number? How were we to make a living without giving in to a corrupt system?

Suddenly we found ourselves spit out of college with no clear answer to these basic questions. So with a third friend, we started a research project. A new publication, The Whole Earth Catalogue, had taken the counterculture by storm, so we were going to model our efforts on it and try to interview people who were finding a niche in the new society without compromising their ethics; we were going to create a Whole Earth Catalogue of alternative vocations. We sold our green VW and bought a Dodge Van and painted it da-glo camouflage, and got a tape recorder. We kept at the project for about two months, traveling through much of the East Coast and into the Southwest. We decided to settle in Ann Arbor, MI because that seemed like a key node of the counterculture and would undoubtedly be one of the starting points for the revolution we were sure would break out any day now.

And while there, like any aspiring artist or actress, author or filmmaker, we got make-do jobs. I was a security guard; my first wife was a secretary.

I have told the story before of how we moved on to the next phase of our lives. I tried landscape gardening, I worked for a printer, and for a week I sold Encyclopedia Britannica.

I figured I couldn’t sell anything unless I really believed in the product, and I did believe in knowledge. My first prospect at selling encyclopedias was a married couple of University of Michigan undergraduates who had a small child and had changed their major from political science to religion when they had found Jesus. They were going to move to a Jesus community in the country when they graduated, and it was clear that my task as a salesman was to convince them that in addition to truth, which they would find in the bible, they were going to need information, which they could find in the Encyclopedia Britannica. Well I talked for about two hours at that first meeting but didn’t make the sale and the rest of the week went about the same way. No sales, I was not cut out for this.

Then we saw a piece in the New York Times about a brand new law school opening in Washington DC, devoted to social justice and the rights of the poor. I was the son and grandson of lawyers, but considered lawyers part of the problem. Maybe, though, they – or we – could be part of the solution. So Lee and I applied and were accepted to the new school, and the following August found us standing in line at the registrar’s desk. There was a lot more chaos than order there; the school was housed in temporary quarters in a faceless downtown DC office building, and all of us prospective students were wondering what we had gotten ourselves into. Could there be such a thing as a countercultural law school? As we were pondering these questions, I heard a voice from about five people behind us in line which said “Look, Dick, there’s the guy who tried to sell us encyclopedias in Ann Arbor!”

Thus Lee and I embarked somewhat haphazardly on our first careers. I think it did make a difference that we went to a self-described radical law school, and we were able to make an impact on the southern society into which we settled despite the comforts of having a home and raising children. Until, twenty years later, I decided I could be doing more to change the world, and went into the ministry. But that’s another story.

Nineteen years after being ordained, I continue in the ministry, despite some challenges, because I feel that it is something worthy that I can be doing, that I can put my talents to use for others. Emerson said something to the effect that ministry is life passed through the fire of thought, expounded for the benefit of others.

Are we defined by our work? In many mindsets in America we are. I think particularly in cities, it is the custom when meeting people to say “what do you do?” as one of the first questions. In one sense, this is understandable; we want to put the person we are just meeting in some kind of pigeonhole so we know something abut them. But when that question becomes the first or second question on meeting, it conveys an underlying assumption that what the person does for a living is the most important thing about them.

I think most of us are aware of that that question is not so cool as the first or second one here on Cape Cod, where most of the people are retired, and others were stay-at-home parents. To affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person, we can’t go through life with the assumption that who someone is equals what they have done for a living.

For we each have some essence which will be there regardless of whether we are still in the workforce or not. I am preaching to myself here, for I need to keep reminding myself of this as I contemplate retirement. When I am an ex-minister, I will still be me.

Yet in a larger sense, what we do is inextricably intertwined with who we are. Not what we do for a living, but what we do in general. If we spend our lives in a room watching television, that results in a different personality than taking walks in nature or going out to social gatherings, or getting involved in churches and nonprofits.

What is the relation between being and doing? This subject was perhaps most economically expressed in a graffiti once found in a college restroom: “To do is to be – Plato; To be is to do – Sartre; Doo be doo be doo – Sinatra.”

Emerson is often misquoted as saying that who we are is more important than what we do. But Emerson gets a lot of misquotations. When you track down what he actually wrote, it turns out he was talking about how silence can be superior to chatter in social conversation. He said,

“Don’t say things. What you are stands over you the while, and thunders so that I cannot hear what you say to the contrary.”[1]

What we are thunders louder than what we say. We could certainly apply that to certain public figures.

One part of what we are is our values. When the US Senate issued a report in 2014 detailing the US government’s complicity in torture of suspected terrorists, President Obama said, “That’s not who we are.”

But a writer in the Atlantic criticized Obama’s position, pointing out that you can’t say torture isn’t who we are if it’s what we did. “A country, like a person, is what it does.”[2]

In Christianity there has always been a lively debate between faith and works, between what we believe and what we do. The Epistle of James says

(James 1: 22-25 (NRSV)) “But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. 23 For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; 24 for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. 25 But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act — they will be blessed in their doing.”

If you are connected to others, if you can see their suffering, this seems to say, you can’t help doing something to relieve it.

It is all in the connection. The theologian Parker Palmer said: “Self is a moving intersection of many other selves. We are formed by the lives which intersect with ours." No person is an island, all of us are interconnected.

Thus what we do or have done for a living, for money, is not who we are today, particularly if the doing is in the distant past. But what we do in general, the connections we make, the attention we pay, comes closer to being who we are.

John McCain’s daughter Meghan, in her eulogy yesterday for her father, said that one of Sen. McCain’s favorite books was For Whom the Bell Tolls by Hemingway. This book was also referred to by former President Obama a few minutes later, when he took this quote from it: “Today is only one day in all the days that will ever be. But what will happen in all the other days that will ever come can depend on what you do today.” President Obama observed,

“In captivity, John learned, in ways that few of us ever will, the meaning of those words – how each moment, each day, each choice is a test. And John McCain passed that test – again and again and again.”

Meghan, in her eulogy for her father, noted that the world knows the famous deeds he did, but those were not what made him who he was. She shared an intimate portrait of the senator as a father, and said that those moments of love and teaching respect and courage were who he really was at his deepest.

“I don’t know exactly what a prayer is,” writes Mary Oliver,

“I do know how to pay attention,

how to fall down into the grass,

how to kneel down in the grass,

how to be idle and blessed,

how to stroll through the fields,

which is what I have been doing all day.

Tell me, what else should I have done?

Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?”

This reminds us that sometimes the best thing we can do does not involve others, it is to be idle and blessed. Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy, a time out of time, a time to communicate with the depths of who we are.

Bob Franke writes

“But the grace to accept ev'ry moment as a gift

Is a gift that is given to some.”

What else should we be doing? Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?

As summer shades into fall, as the days get shorter and drier, as the blessed peace falls on our little spit of sand cleaving the ocean, think that what we do with our days can makes us who we are. And you can do worse than to try to fill your days with love. As Bob Franke writes

What can you do with your days but work & hope,

Let your dreams bind your work to your play.

What can you do with each moment of your life

But love til you've loved it away,

Love til you've loved it away.


The Summer Day

Who made the world?

Who made the swan, and the black bear?

Who made the grasshopper?

This grasshopper, I mean-

the one who has flung herself out of the grass,

the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,

who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-

who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.

Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.

Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.

I don't know exactly what a prayer is.

I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down

into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,

how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,

which is what I have been doing all day.

Tell me, what else should I have done?

Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?

—Mary Oliver

[1]“Social Aims” (1875)

[2]“Torture Is Who We Are” by Peter Beinert, The Atlantic, Dec., 11, 2014

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