"What do you do?" Strangely, those words changed the direction of my life. Let me explain.
In my late twenties, my late twenties, not "the" late twenties, I happened to meet an acquaintance in a grocery store. I hadn't seen this person for awhile. We exchanged the usual pleasantries and made small talk.
Then she asked me, "What do you do?" I was puzzled because I was fairly certain that she already knew the answer.
I automatically responded with, "I'm a teacher," as if this would justify my entire existence.
"No, I mean what do you do?" (emphasis on the word "do") She elaborated, "as in things that are personally fulfilling....hobbies, physical activities, volunteer work."
I was taken aback and was briefly stumped. Didn't she realize that the statement "I'm a teacher" explained all that? On the other hand, I felt compelled to come up with an alternate response.
I didn't want to confess to this person that, "I work late hours. I sleep until noon and hang around in pj's on weekends. I didn't think she'd be impressed with, "I go to the odd movie, eat out, and drink with friends." So, I blurted out my first thought. "I ski."
"Oh", she said and nodded. "Downhill, cross country or water?"
"Yes, I've done them all, but mostly downhill." I said. We chatted a bit more and she left. I was relieved. She didn't pursue the issue nor did she ask me to elaborate.
"Why had I said those things?" I wondered. I had never cross country skiied and had in fact water skiied only once. My downhill skiing career was far from illustrious and had been over for a number of years. There was the time on a hill at Chicopee when I was rescued after a painful fall only to be escorted down the hill, red faced and shivering. I was laced papoose-like onto a toboggan and escorted by half a dozen ski patrollers in flourescent vests. People stared and pointed at the unfortunate disaster victim. Then there was the occasion in Quebec when I decided to trudge down Mt. Ste Anne, carrying my skis and poles. In fairness, conditions were, in my opinion, very icy and hazardous. On another trip, I fell from quite a height off a chair lift directly onto my posterior. That experience had a colourful "end"ing. Then there were the times I held up troupes of skiers by skidding off the tracks off poma lifts and t-bars. I suppose I finally gave up skiing after my embarassing ride up a mountain in a gondola...and back down.
The question, "What do you do?" remained with me all day. It sat, Jiminy Cricket-like on my shoulder. It moved into my head for weeks. It wound itself through my thoughts for months. Then it took up residence.
I knew that I used to do a lot more in my teen years...community work, walking, skating, stitching, drama, music. I did plenty during my university career...choirs, clubs and aforementioned skiing.
But now? I was in my late 20's. Now what? Did my job really consume so much of my life that it became my only identity? I realized that in fact, I no longer did much of anything but work, sleep, socialize.
I wasted a lot of valuable time and I did not plan to do that for another minute. I wasn't going to be caught off guard if I was ever asked again, "What do you do?" I had to fit more into my daily schedule. I had to do more for myself and my community.
If I didn't sleep as late on weekends, if I worked a little less and loafed around a lot less, if I made time to "do" things, would I suffer? Would anyone be worse off? Absolutely not.
So, first, I became an auxiliary police officer...community service.
I walked to and from work with a friend. Sometimes, we played squash...exercise.
I painted and did a some crafts...hobbies. All the bases were covered. It's strange, but somehow, I even found time to take some upgrading university courses. The more I did, the more time I seemed to have and the more envigorated and successful I felt.
I have lived with the question, "What do you do?" ever since. It has helped guide me for the last thirty years. I have done more, learned more, and participated in more than I could have ever dreamed. I have taken risks...some successful and some not.
I suppose it concerns me when I see members of the younger generation doing nothing that in my opinion seems of great value. They party all night, they spend beautiful daylight hours sleeping, they sit around using computers, cell phones and other technology. Has nobody ever asked them, "How are you contributing to your well being and that of others? What do you do?"
I will always be grateful to a person who said those words to me. That little phrase caused me to re-evaluate my circumstance and change my course. It taught me to live differently. It helped me be an active participant in my life. It kept me from having regrets. It gave me adventure, sponteneity and satisfaction. It helped give my life meaning.
So now I'll ask you, "What do you do?"