Negotiating our notions of self

October 17, 2011

I
just got back from a few days of speaking and preaching, so it feels good to
settle into the kitchen table, surrounded by the colors I love, and sipping out
of the coffee mug that fits my hand. I talked a lot in the last three days, so
I'm enjoying the silence. I was speaking about church in a new generation--something
about which I'm passionate.

It
occurred to me as I was talking about the situation in which many young adults
find themselves, that we might need a new definition of selfhood. Right now, it
seems that we define ourselves by our independence and our careers.

Sociologists
like to think of people in their twenties as living in the "Odyssey years," or
"extending their adolescence" because they don't have a marriage certificate or
a mortgage. (Believe me, I could go on a full-on rant about this, but I will
refrain.) It is as if becoming married and buying a house defines a person as
an adult. It's as if we believe that each 18 year old ought to be completely
self-sufficient and independent in order to be considered grown-up. As if
personhood itself depends on autonomy.

But,
our economy just doesn't work that way any longer--and it's not because a new
generation wants to extend the glamorous life that they lived as sixteen year
olds. It's because this is a time of high unemployment, high debt, a highly educated
workforce, and low meaning jobs.

Why
are they low meaning? Most young adults work in retail or the service industry.
As our restaurants become franchised and our retail stores become swallowed up
by larger and larger chains, workers had a difficult time being creative.

I
worked at Crabtree and Evelyn when
my manager saw an empty table in the corner of our store. It was a rare window
table. In all the other windows, we were given maps that told us exactly how to
display each poster, soap bar and silk petal. So I dutifully set up the
displays exactly as I was instructed, day after day. There were secret shoppers
who came by the store to make sure that each flower was facing the precise
position that someone in Connecticut prescribed.

But
there was this table, in the corner of the store with no imposed map, and as my
manager was leaving for her break, she looked at me and said, "Do something
with this table, will you?"

There
I was, a college graduate who worked in retail for years, giddy with excitement
that I was actually going to be able to create a window display from scratch. I went nuts. I used every
scrap of material that I could. I gave it a three-tiered, rippling effect, that
poured out on the floor. At the end, I smiled at the creation that could easily
be the cover of a Southern Living
magazine.

My
manager came back from her break, looked at it, stared at me, sipped her Diet
Coke, and asked, "Why didn't you tell me that you could do that?"

I
shrugged, "I never had the chance."

Our
store was like most franchise shops--every single bit of creativity was squeezed
out of the job. We were cogs in the machine. We put the soap where it belonged.
If there was an October wedding expo going on in the mall, but someone at
corporate dictated that it our windows ought to be dressed up for Halloween,
then our store would be wearing orange and black in the midst of the white
calla lilies. There was no deviation. There just isn't much creativity and
meaning in jobs when corporations take bright talented people and tell them
where each petal should land, in the name of quality control.

Most
young adults work retail, which usually means that they're not at a mom and pop
shop that allows them to decide what would be on each end cap or how to
construct the displays, but they're told exactly where to put what. There's no
creativity. Which, as people who have studied The
Courage to Be
can attest, an inability to create can contribute to an anxious sense of meaninglessness.

Our
jobs used to define us. Even in church, we go up to people in the coffee hour
and by way of introduction, we ask, "So, what do you for a living?" Or when a
new person joins the church, we give the congregation a quick rundown of his or
her vitae. It's the easiest thing to talk about, and it's the way we have been
identifying people.

But
in this new time, when people might not have jobs, or they don't want to be
defined by their cog-in-a-machine employment situation, how are congregations
speaking into people's lives? How are we throwing off the notions of our success
defining us? How are we recognizing the value, dignity, and worth of people who
may not be able to live independently?

Can
we, as Christians, who believe that we are human because we are created by God,
in the image of God, speak out against this paltry understanding of selfhood
that pervades our society? Can we begin to talk about a new notion of self? How
would you define selfhood, in light of our rich theology and our emerging economic situation?

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