You Are Not What You Do

Though wearing the clothes and doing the deed, I am not and never have been a firefighter ;]

Though wearing the clothes and doing the deed, I am not and never have been a firefighter ;]

It’s likely everyone has met at least one person who defends the notion that people are defined by what they do. Hell, any quick glance at the news or some publication will most likely introduce someone by their job titles: Senator James X…; Harmeet Y, neuroscientist at Z University; Joe ‘The Plumber.’

Indeed, there are those who make such a big deal of occupation that it seems the whole value of their existence depends upon it, and these are typically socially pressured notions of a ‘good job,’ those proverbial doctors, lawyers, and (perhaps) teachers.

I tend to agree with the notion of selfhood outlined by Sartre in Existentialism. In rejecting ‘human nature,’ he writes,

“Man is nothing else but what he makes of himself.”

I won’t address the full parameters of my favorite philosophy, existentialism (as if I could), but I will take issue with a particular facet of Sartre’s “atheistic existentialism” when he claims, “‘There is no reality except in action’ … ‘Man is nothing else than his plan; he exists only to the extent that he fulfills himself; he is therefore nothing else than the ensemble of his acts, nothing else than his life.'”

I hope this strikes you as intuitively questionable, for it does to me, but we shall have to reason against it.

About a year ago, I concluded a post entitled What is a Philosopher? with, “Defining [any type of] person is not simply a matter of identifying those who perform certain deeds, but rather by identifying those whose default state of being consists of the very characteristics required for such a label.

Who you are, on one level, indeed concerns an ‘essence’—which may be indeed created rather than identified—but identifying yourself based solely on your actions is insufficient.

The who-we-are-as-defined-by-what-we-do argument becomes problematic when considering the boundaries within which we might identify someone in terms of time and ability. Let’s consider the example of Hannah the poet.

If a poet is someone who communicates poetry, and Hannah tells a poem, then she is a poet. But for how long? Does having spoken a haiku only in third grade qualify her as a poet? Not likely. But what if she hasn’t crafted a poem for only a year? A week? An hour?

What if Hannah, in the process of acquaintance with the tools and expression of poetry becomes so skilled in the trade that her every communicative faculty is colored by poetry? She tells us she thinks in metaphor and we observe even her casual conversations resound in rhyme. Something about her very nature is no longer as it once once; she has become a poet. She now is a poet.

Suppose Hannah loses her voice. Suppose she never learned to write. Is she no longer a poet? If she still creates poems in her head, is she a poet? Is thought an action? Has her poeticizing become a mere disposition that cannot be expressed? Are mere dispositions sufficient to describe someone? Can they describe someone? Ought they?

Surely there comes a point when someone is something even when they cannot do that which typically requires them to be labelled as such.

I’m still working on this notion of you are not what you do, and I fear this needs improving. My thesis seems perfectly obvious; what we do—especially as an occupation—seems as inadequate as being described by the data on a driver’s license, but setting the argument ain’t so easy.

Actions may indeed be the fruits of a type of person, but not always. Although I took pride in my work, having been described as a ‘dishwasher’ outside of a restaurant was laughably inadequate, and for some, being labelled by certain actions might elicit shame. How we feel, what we think about who we are, matters when identifying our selves. Description by deeds its sometimes useful, but certainly never exhaustive or inextricably linked to who we are.

Related issues get to “Faith without works is dead”; or “she was an X at heart.” If someone has played drums from age seven to seventy, and finally it’s no longer possible or healthy to continue those movements, who among us would claim they are no longer a musician, at least at heart?

It appears then there are abiding feelings devoid of ability or necessity to express; there are sentiments that contribute to identifying our selves that lie beyond mere outward description.