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“Nothing’s free anymore, unless you’re a liberal!”

We had each somehow stumbled into one of those wrong-way elevator trips and, as it finally reversed, I had made some comment about getting a free ride.

His reply stunned me and has haunted me for weeks. The words on paper are stark enough. In the flesh, their impact was jarring. He and I were alone on the elevator, and nothing in our silent half minute together before his statement was remotely political. Yet the words as delivered, complete with voice tone and body language, carried true vitriol.

I have spent time and energy parsing the words. Does he mean that liberals act as if some things are free, or is he saying that liberals indeed receive freebies from which non-liberals are excluded? Does “anymore” imply that once upon a time, something was free but is no longer?

I have explored—briefly—the definitions and histories of the various manifestations of the liberal tradition, from the seventeenth century until today. It’s an exercise that leaves my head spinning and reminds me why I never enjoyed philosophy. 

These are, I recognize, attempts to distance myself from the visceral reality of the encounter. The anger. His. And mine.

He did not hurl the insult at me personally. Maybe he thought I was a fellow … (whatever label he would give himself; “conservative” seems too mild). But I’ll accept the “liberal” label, even wear it proudly. That’s largely my own visceral and vitriolic reaction—my caricature of “conservative” against his caricature of “liberal.” If he and I were able to carry on a civil conversation, would both our positions be more nuanced? Would we find some common ground? I’ll never know.

I wear other labels, and most are imperfect. “Writer,” for instance. Over the past several decades, I have both embraced and rejected that label. Embraced because I’d like it to be true; distanced when I doubted deserving the honor. By some definitions, a writer is one who writes, indeed one who cannot not write. Confession: the lengthy gaps between posts on this blog are not filled by literary output in any other forum. So, between posts, am I no longer a writer? I don’t lose my God-given talent for stringing words together during those dry spells. But I often wonder whether I have anything to say with those strings of words. It’s different from “writer’s block.” I’m not a frustrated writer when not writing. More often, I’m wearing another label.

“Lazy” might sometimes apply, but let’s stick with nouns. Labels I would happily claim include “gardener,” “woodworker,” “do-it-yourselfer.” In my working career, I claimed “economist” and “engineer.” In my younger days, “backpacker.” I also claim “journal-er” (i.e., one who journals) and “contemplative.”

“Musician” is a new label for me, and one with fewer bona fides. Despite two painful years of childhood piano lessons and some choral singing in my younger adulthood, only within the past few years have considered myself a musician, specifically “singer.” 

Even more recent is my halting attempt to become an “instrumentalist,” a “percussionist.” By virtue of Nancy’s strong-arming (and her believing in me), I am a not-totally-deadweight member of one of her bands, capable of banging out a regular two-or-four-beats-per-measure rhythm on a bass drum and occasionally bringing in a cymbal crash or triangle note at the right time. Keeping up with where we are in the score or reading a more complicated rhythm or quickly switching from drum to woodblock to cowbell—well, let’s just say I have a lot to learn.

What I notice as I write this piece is that the labels I embrace are vocational/avocational.   They describe me, yet allow me to be multidimensional, to be more than the label. The ones I’d rather not claim are tribal. Political labels—conservative, liberal—at least as used in public discourse, are tribal. They separate my tribe (the good guys) from your tribe (the bad guys). How else to hear the scorn in my elevator companion’s “liberal” (likewise the “conservative” I silently voiced back at him). It’s as if we’d shouted “I’m a Vol and you’re a Gator,” only with more acid, if that’s possible.

Unfortunately, labels of nationality, regionality, ethnicity, and religion, as with politics, are mostly used in the tribal sense, to separate us from the other. It is true that I am an American and a Christian. Yet when I hear people claim those labels (or their own tribal equivalent), I frequently hear exclusion. I cringe; I don’t want to be in that kind of tribe.

Let me take this idea of labels in another direction.

For the past couple weeks, I have frequently found Nancy in her studio, painting. “That don’t mean a thing to you, but it does to me.” [See footnote] I know how much Nancy has longed to get back to her art, both to have the space and time, and to have the inspiration. So, seeing her at work/play, with paint-stained fingers, happily creating again, is a source of joy for me, too. 

And, as I watch her work, I see a coming back to true self. That idea, found in various literature—on vocation, on creativity, on spirituality—asserts that there is in each of us a wholeness that we lose sight of and must re-discover. (For an introduction to one thread of this literature, see Richard Rohr’s meditation for July 31.) Is that not what we mean by vocation/avocation? What is it that brings us deep joy? Acting out of our truest, deepest, God-given nature. 

Any name that we give to this deepest, truest self will be inadequate. Nancy is an artist, a painter. But that is not the entirety of her being, and the labels do not attempt to confine her to that box. So that’s the distinction I wish to make. Some labels build up, invoke joy, leave open; others tear down, invoke scorn, enclose. Or, in the words of a song I once heard, Some things do and some things don’t lead us to higher ground. May the labels you attach to yourself and those you bestow on your neighbor lead you both to higher ground.

Footnote: The best road trips are those on which we allow for interesting side trips. So we unabashedly move off-topic here to enjoy some gems of Americana music. The line, “That don’t mean a thing to you, but it does to me,” perfectly conveyed what I wanted to say there. And it took me on a side trip to the source, Lori McKenna’s song, “Lorraine.” Take that trip with me. You can find it on YouTube, and probably many other sources. Likewise, I recommend a trip to Gretchen Peters’ website and a listen to her rendition of Stephanie Davis’ song, “Wolves.” (Not Selena Gomez’ totally different song with the same title!) “Wolves” popped into my head while musing on the exchange with my elevator companion, which, fairly or not, led to musing on the plight of refugees. Both songs are powerful. Both artists are superb talents. I invite you to extend your side trip and explore more of their music. Practitioners of theological reflection will find much to reflect on. Some of my McKenna favorites include “You Get A Love Song,” “If He Tried,” “All I Ever Do,” “If You Ask,” “One Man.” Favorites by Peters include “Everything Falls Away,” “Five Minutes,” “Little World,” “Jubilee,” “The Cure for the Pain,” “Guadalupe.”