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Who we are and what we do

Elliott Pearce | Monday, November 12, 2012

How do you define yourself? Often, we describe who we are by stating what we do. Rene Descartes associated his actions as a philosopher with his being as an individual when he said, “I think, therefore I am.” Many of us view our being in similar ways: “I study biology, therefore I am,” or “I run track, therefore I am,” etc. Being and doing are not identical, though. We still are who we are even when we are not doing what we do. I believe being is even more important than doing because we can do the things we do only because of who we are.

One of my friends recently wrote a blog post for a contest in which she encouraged her readers to stop “doing” and start “being.” I agree with her because I believe that the differences in what we do matter far less than the similarities in who we are when it comes to how we should relate to each other. We are all human beings living human lives, and we must never let actions, whether good or bad, ours or someone else’s, overshadow this fact.

For example, most of the rhetoric exchanged between Obama and Romney during the recent presidential election had to do with jobs. They would have us think that people with jobs are happy and fulfilled because they contribute to the greater good of society and provide for their material wants and those of their families. People without jobs are pitiable fellows who face fear everywhere they go because of their inability to ensure a stable material future for themselves and their loved ones. (And if you fall into the second group, it’s the other guy’s fault.)

As you might have guessed, I do not think this is a full and accurate picture of American life. I will now tell a story to help explain why. About a year ago, when I went to visit my sister at college in Philadelphia, I went for a morning run down by the Schuylkill River. (Don’t ask me how that’s pronounced; I’m still not quite sure.) It was a beautiful day, and I was enjoying the fine weather and picturesque scenery of the waterfront. Soon, I ran by a homeless woman who had just gotten up after sleeping on a bench by the river. I noticed she was smiling and cheerfully singing to herself as she folded up the elements of her makeshift bed and put them into her backpack.

This woman probably didn’t have a job. Therefore, it is likely that she did not perform the same functions and acquire the same means of purchasing material comforts that the employed visitors to the river did. Despite not doing those things, though, she still had as much right to be there and experience the beauty of the river as anyone else, and she seemed to be taking as much joy from it as all of the people around her, if not more. In this way, she was no different from the wealthiest person in Philadelphia. Both live human lives in which they experience joys and sorrows. Make no mistake: The homeless face extremely difficult challenges that the rich and even the middle class never experience and can only partially understand, but they are also spared the unique disorders and discomforts brought on by wealth. Uninterrupted happiness belongs to no one. We are all humans, and as such, we all share the ups and downs of human life.

This notion could change the way we think about jobs and other subjects of political debates. People do not “earn” the right to a living by doing things that others value. Instead, they deserve to be offered a productive outlet for the creative powers they possess by virtue of being human. I did not hear either Obama or Romney talk enough about creating jobs that affirmed human dignity instead of degrading and instrumentalizing it. While America has created plenty of jobs, robots and computers do most of them. We need to find means of production that augment and harness the human spark within workers instead of ignoring it and turning those we don’t replace with robots into robots themselves.  

I hope President Obama and all of our other newly elected and re-elected leaders can look at things from this perspective when considering which legislation to enact. I also hope that we ourselves can use this insight to inform the way we treat our “neighbors.” I know that I have failed in this regard. Just as a new term brings new hope to President Obama, each new day brings new hope for us. Let’s all use our next opportunities wisely.

Elliott Pearce can be reached at Elliott.A.Pearce.12@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.