The End of an Era, Part 2

Last night I talked a little bit about the sense of loss I feel now that I’ve finished my degree, and how that has me feeling like I don’t know quite who I am anymore (here’s the link to that). The post was awfully short (by my standards), and I didn’t feel like I’d explored what I wanted to say to my own satisfaction. I also have a few informal guidelines for the little essays I share on this site, and that post missed the mark on a couple of counts (more details about that are here).

The biggest piece that I missed is that I like for whatever the current issue is to lead into a discussion of a more general nature – I want to move from the specific into the general and look at the big picture. Last night’s post didn’t do that, mainly because I’d been awake for over 24 hours, and my brain was mush.

So last night I talked about my realization that my professional identity was completely made up of my status as a student, and now that I’m graduating, I’m not sure quite who I am anymore. Today I want to look at the bigger picture, about identity in general. This post is a direct continuation of yesterday’s; they are intended to be read one after the other, starting with yesterday’s, as one coherent essay.

I wonder if the sense of loss I’m feeling is similar to the way retirees feel? Retirement is similar to graduation in many ways – in both cases, the person in question is experiencing a major life change, and the types of things he or she typically does are changing drastically (usually resulting in that person enjoying more free time). Being a student is a full-time job in and of itself, after all, and it’s been easy to explain why I’m working in an industry that is totally unrelated to my education by saying, “Well, I’m also a full-time student,” in the same way that a retiree might explain his or her part-time job as a barista by saying that he or she is also retired. Now that I’ve graduated, it feels like I need to come up with justification as to why I am underemployed (and somehow it’s worse to be underemployed with a Master’s than it was to be underemployed with just a Bachelor’s).

It’s interesting and sad how much of our identities are tied up with our profession. The first question most of us ask when we meet someone new is, “What do you do?” and many common surnames had their origins in professions: Butcher, Baker, Farmer, Shepherd, Cook, and Smith were (and still are) all the names of jobs, too. What people did was so much a part of their identity that they used their profession as a part of their name. For all intents and purposes, there was no real difference between what you did and who you were. These days, surnames are usually passed down through families, but we still consider our job to be a major part of our identity.

I have mixed feelings about that. On the one hand, considering the number of hours most people spend at work, it makes sense that this would be a major part of our identities. It’s how we prove we are responsible, contributing members of society, and there’s nothing wrong with that. We should be proud of the fact that we are able to contribute to society.

On the other hand, this association of profession with identity implies that we don’t have much intrinsic worth beyond what we can do, and I don’t like the idea of that at all. Human beings have worth because we are human beings, not because of the type of work we do to make our livings. My worth does not change if I am underemployed; I still have intrinsic value as a human being. Everybody does.

In the absence of a job, people tend to identify themselves by their connections to others, and I’m not sure that’s much better. Again, human beings have intrinsic worth as individuals; it is not necessary to be someone’s son or daughter, brother or sister, or mother or father to have worth. Connections are important, but we should not get our worth from those.

As an aside, this is why I don’t like it when support for crime victims is garnered through reminding people of the victims’ connections. We are supposed to be extra-horrified when we are reminded that a rape victim was somebody’s daughter, or that a murder victim was somebody’s mother. Why is that? Don’t all people have intrinsic value? Shouldn’t we be equally horrified that something happened to a human being as that something happened to a mother, father, daughter, or son?

I know why I’m feeling a sense of loss and confusion now, but I wish I wasn’t. Not because I’m not going to miss the friends I made at school (of course I will; I didn’t spend much time on campus this semester, and it was already hard to adjust to not seeing them every day), and not because I’m somewhat in limbo waiting for the faculty job openings to post, but because I shouldn’t rely on my work to give me that much of my identity. I am a worthwhile person completely independent of my job. We all are.

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