The perennial question “What do you do?” always stumps me.
I’ll be a few minutes into a nice conversation with someone I haven’t met before, when it pops up like an annoying jack-in-the-box. Or I might run into someone I haven’t seen in decades. “What are you up to these days?” they inquire, expecting a nice concise answer.
Hmmmm. How to condense.
Lately I’ve just been saying this:
“I take care of people.”
That is what I “do.”
Growing up, it never once dawned on me that “care-taker” would be my future avocation and appellation. At various phases of childhood and adolescence, I fantasized about becoming a dancer, a movie star, a lawyer, a writer, a politician, a professor. Somebody famous. I imagined myself one day being able to answer the ubiquitous inquiry with a sassy reply like, “I teach Russian Lit at XYZ University. Just published my third book on Tolstoy. What do you do?” (Told you I was a major Walter Mitty.)
Oh, the egocentric selfishness of youth!
Instead, I have a vivid memory of being at a party with old college friends and acquaintances. Some of us hadn’t seen each other since the early-to-mid-70’s. Sounds and smells from that era wafted through the air of the Big Chill-y gathering. The Question was particularly intimidating that night. The answers that were floating around with the smoke ranged from stuff like, “I’m head of NASA’s medical team,” to “I’m head of the Psychology Department at Emory Med,” to “I’m head of research at the CDC’s Department of Blah-Blah,” to “I head up the Litigation team at…” to “I’ve invented a medical device…”
I was the only person at the party without a graduate degree.
But I digress. I have long-since come to terms with the fact that what I ended up ‘becoming when I grew up’ was a stay-at-home-mom who did some long-term substitute teaching at her daughters’ school.
I loved it. I poured my life and creativity and passion into my family. Personally, I think parenting is the hardest and most important job in the world. I was able to take my teaching to a different level because I didn’t have to do it all the time… just when I wanted to. It was special and joyful. I am most humbly grateful that I was blessed with the opportunity not to have to work, as most moms do these days. I don’t take it for granted.
Still, That Question retains just a tiny bit of residual ability to intimidate.
Hi. My name is Kim.
I’m a care-taker.
It may be by default, but this is my job. My calling. In some ways, my identity now. I am learning to accept it… even embrace it. To celebrate the gifts intrinsic to the calling.
And I’m desperately trying to improve my job skills.
I was a spoiled little girl. I have been a spoiled woman. I’ve often been self-absorbed and forgetful of the needs of others outside my immediate circle. In many ways, I’m a novice at care-taking.
Some of it comes naturally, of course. Little girls grow up taking care of their dolls and stuffed animals and pets. Mothering was instinctual.
But this is a stretch beyond what comes naturally for me. I'm trying to take care of people from sea to shining sea. Pacific to (almost) Atlantic. I realize there’s been a huge gap in my education. I think Care-taking 101 should be a freshman requirement. Actually, they should start teaching it in preschool.
Because, ultimately, it will be everyone’s calling.
Unless you live on a desert island by yourself. Unless you have no human relationships at all. (Never mind. You might become your pet’s care-taker.) Let’s say “if you have no relationships of any kind with any living creature.”)
If you engage in the act of love, you will most likely need to become a care-taker at some point.
We Boomers are getting a heavy dose of it these days.
We may be trying to take care of our spouses, our children, our grandchildren, and our parents all at the same time. The fact that people are living longer means that we are becoming multi-generational care-takers. We could be changing diapers and Depends on the same day. And we try to take care of our friends when they can’t take care of themselves. (As they do for us when we’re in that position.) Then there are always strangers that need help.
The older you get, the more people there are in your life who desperately need some kind of care. This builds up to a crescendo until you are the last one being cared for.
Man, this is starting to sound depressing. I don’t mean for it to be.
Because care-taking can be a joy and a delight.
It is not always easy or fun or pretty.
But it changes you. Expands you. Enlightens you.
Teaches you to live outside yourself. Beyond yourself.
It enables you to lose yourself in order to find yourself.
Middle English, from Old English caru ("sorrow, anxiety, grief"); akin to Old High German kara (“lament.”) Cognate with Old Saxon cara, kara (“concern, action”), Middle High German kar (“sorrow, lamentation”), Icelandic kör (“sickbed”), Gothic kara, (“concern, care”).
Sense of "charge, oversight, protection" is c.1400.
I like the Old Saxon slant the best: concern that leads to action.
Just as God has acted on our behalf. “For God so loved the world that he gave… came… rescued… healed…
When we take care of each other, we are joining the Shepherd in tending his flock...
connecting with the Creator in the act of caring for his creation… his creatures.
And in the joining, we are being transformed into the image of his Son.
… for it is in giving that we receive.
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born…
“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care.” (Matt. 10:29)
“He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him.” (Luke 10:34)
Does anyone else struggle with the role of care-taker?
(To be continued...)