Why do we decide who we are by the things we do?

There’s a spiritual bliss about doing things for their own sake. But getting there isn’t as easy as it sounds.

When you talk to strangers, there’s a good chance they’ll ask what you do. It happened to me last week at the airport and I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. It’s an innocent question that people use to make awkward conversations a little less awful, right?

Maybe not.

Because “what do you do” isn’t the real question. The real question they’re asking is, “Who are you?” In our culture, we have a nasty habit of establishing other people’s personal identities based on the way they put food on their tables.

  • If you heal sick people, you’re a doctor. [Translation: You’re intelligent, emotionally cold and you have a Mercedes parked in the garage.]  
  • If you fix broken toilets, you’re a plumber. [Translation: You’re dull, uncultured and drive a pickup truck.]
  • If you don’t have a job, you’re a bum. [Translation: You’re lazy, loathsome and if you’re lucky enough to own a car, you’re probably living in it.]

For whatever reason, we’re obsessed with putting the people we meet (and ourselves) into tidy, little boxes and we have no qualms about using shortcuts or stereotypes to do it.

Time after time, we decide who we are based on the things we do.

But is it possible that we’ve mucked up the relationship between doing things and being things at the expense of joy and personal fulfillment?

“I want to sing.”

A while back, I ran across an article that discussed the characteristics of teenagers who succeed in reality shows like The Voice or American Idol. I can’t give you a link to the article because I don’t remember where I saw it, but the point of the piece revolved around the difference between being things and doing things.

Singing ability is obviously an important part of the magic formula for young contestants who compete in musical reality shows. But surprisingly, it’s not the most important trait.

In interviews, researchers found that nearly all of the unsuccessful contestants identified “being a singer” as their lifelong goal.

But what about the most successful contestants? They didn’t want to “be” anything. Instead, they said that their dream, their singular goal in life was simply to sing.

Here’s what that means:

The doers (the kids who just want to sing) outperform the strivers (the kids who want to become singers).

It may sound like a minor distinction, but it’s not. It’s actually at the heart of a debate that has haunted Christianity for centuries.

Jesus and the debate about doing things

In Luke 10:38-42, Jesus drops in for a visit at the home of Lazarus and his sisters, Mary and Martha. If you’re familiar with the passage, you know where I’m headed.

The dutiful sister, Martha, runs around doing things, while Mary slacks off to spend time with Jesus. When Martha finally unloads on her sister, Jesus tells her that Mary has chosen the better part. He says that all of the activities Martha was “doing” fell short of Mary’s decision to simply “be” in his presence:

“Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

On the surface, it looks like a straightforward piece of scripture. But as early as the third century, we find church leaders coopting the passage in the debate between active ministry (Martha) and contemplative ministry (Mary).

In some cases, early church leaders even used the passage to illustrate the difference between law (which they identified with Martha) and gospel (which they identified with Mary).

Unfortunately, it’s an understanding of the passage that has carried into present day. Over the years, I’ve heard too many sermons extol the virtues of Mary the “be-er” at the expense of poor Martha the “doer.”

In practice, the passage has sadly been used to downplay the importance of ministries that serve the poor and marginalized to free up resources and attention to liturgical ministries that take place within the four walls of the church.

But if you read the verses closely, you’ll find that they don’t specify either the kind of work that Martha was doing or “the better part” that Mary has chosen. In fact, it’s difficult to determine what was really going on — aside from the fact that Mary was focused on Jesus while Martha was distracted by other things.

And that’s a shame, because in the western world, we’ve used this passage and our own natural tendencies to reinforce the wrong things and downplay the sheer bliss that comes from simply doing things.

Sometimes doing is the key to happiness.

What drives young reality show contestants to want to be something rather than wanting to do something? I think a lot of it has to do with fame, fortune and the other trappings we associate with the “singer” label.

But I think it also has something to do with the security that we gain from being things. If we can call ourselves something, then we gain comfort from knowing our place in the world. By attaching labels to others, we gain the security of knowing how we stack up against everyone else.

The problem with the whole thing is that it’s an arms war. There are never any winners or losers. Just a constant struggle to move up the ladder by acquiring new labels and new identities.

It’s an insane process performed by people who are driving themselves beyond the edge of insanity for no good reason.

When we drop the need to be something and choose to be satisfied by the sheer act of doing things, we find that the act itself is the reward.

What you do isn’t important. Singing, serving, writing, loving — they all take you to the same place. They allow you to discover happiness and personal fulfillment outside of titles and labels and achievements.

Which — not coincidentally — were all of the things that Jesus refused to attach to himself when he walked on the planet.