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St Johns Southgate

09 Feb 2017

I swore I’d never do it again, but I did. I was standing around at a summer barbecue and when the conversation died down I turned to the closest person and asked that most predictable of questions, “So … what do you do?”

Despite my intention to ask new acquaintances more interesting questions, I kept reverting to that staple barbecue conversation piece.

It got me wondering why what we do for a living is such a natural avenue of interpersonal discovery. But to be truthful, my ponderings didn’t take long.

It’s pretty obvious. In adulthood, one’s vocation – whether it be a daily grind or a series of pleasant potterings – is central to our developed sense of identity and belonging.

What we do to pay the bills is more than reward received for effort expended. It can determine where we live, what we wear, how we carry ourselves and who we associate with.

It can explain the spring in one’s step or the furrow in one’s brow. It can bring pats on the back or be the author of nightmares about unrealised potential and opportunities missed.

But to sustain us through career lows and widen our smiles at career highs we all need to be able to answer the question, “why?” Why do you do what you do? Do you get up at five o’clock to provide for your family? Do you do it to make a difference? Do you do it to climb the social ladder – to accelerate mobility of the upward kind?

There are countless reasons why people might do what they do. But when a spiritual element is introduced into the reasoning it has a marvellous levelling effect.

C.S. Lewis wrote, “The work of a Beethoven, and the work of a charwoman, become spiritual on precisely the same condition – that of being offered to God, of being done humbly as to the Lord.”

Lewis is commenting here on vocation as seen from a Christian perspective – which, as one whose vocation is ministering in religious affairs, I can appreciate. But we can take it even further and broaden its scope.

When we see our work, along with the honest work of every person as being a brushstroke in the painting of a bigger picture, we can see our daily tasks as being done hand in hand with those of every cleaner, doctor, cashier, cook and lawyer.

We can see ourselves as a single, but vital thread in the global tapestry that makes humanity what it is and what it can be.

I have a feeling that if the answer to the “why” question about what we do was more often focussed on how we contribute to something bigger than our personal glorification that the world would be a better place.

The next time I’m at a barbecue and find myself asking that age old question, I’ll make sure I follow up with, “Why do you do it?”

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