Being and Doing

The question totally blindsided me:

“Wait, I’m confused. Is this a statement of who we are or what we do?”

For context, it came from my teammate, a good friend. He, I, and six others all moved in to a lower income neighborhood in our city because we wanted to somehow love and support our community. We had sat down in order to hammer out some goals and norms from our wildly divergent expectations.

I was facilitating the discussion, trying to get us to dream up a mission statement. For me, a mission statement would sum up our values and identity in a way that could inform our actions.
The question was powerful because in the second and a half that followed it I had this flash of clarity that I’m still trying to unpack:

1. Not everyone thinks like me

My friend’s question threw me because it exposed the assumptions that I was operating under; namely, that identity shapes vocation, or “who you are defines what you do”.
When he asked this, I had this incredible realization that this isn’t the way that everyone else thinks. My friend is always talking about vision. To a large degree, where he wants to be defines what he does.
Understanding the disconnect is crucial to communicating effectively. It is always difficult to see from someone else’s perspective, but it often exposes the futility of your own point of view:

If you're the first one to email me with the right answer, I'll buy you a coffee the next time we meet up.
What number spot is the car parked on?

2. Being and Doing

Back in the meeting, the simultaneous realization was that for me; who I am and what I do are incredibly close ideas for me. The dynamic goes both ways: at my best, all my decisions are made out of an understanding of who I am. This term,  a realization that I enjoy teaching made me apply to be a peer tutor, an opportunity that I have absolutely loved. Given this, it was natural that for me, a mission statement would be all about identity.

The danger comes when the process reverses, when what I do starts to define who I am. Being a tutor makes me smart, running an event makes me important, having friends makes me loved; it’s all backward. Many times I need to stop focussing on what I am doing, and simply be who I am.

3. Identity and Vocation

The reason that these thoughts have kept swirling around in my head is that these ideas shape how I think about development.
If you ask ten people to define poverty, you’ll get ten different answers. Bryant Myers, a scholar whose work I really respect, conceptualizes poverty as marred identity and marred vocation. The process of marring assumes a process of marginalization and dehumanization. Myers refers to both identity and vocation in order to recognize the psychological and economic impacts that poverty has on an individual.

Reflecting now, I realise that I like this definition because it matches the way that I think. It makes me wonder how others define poverty (deficiency, exclusion, powerlessness), and the implications there. More importantly, how do the people with whom I will interact see their own situation? Will they link their economic status to their identity like I tend to? Deepa Narayan set out to find how the poor defined their own condition, her research takes up three weighty volumes! There is no one definition of poverty; plurality is vital.

Second, I wonder how I can utilise my understanding to leverage change. Starting with who people are rather than what they do means that I begin by seeing people as people: mothers, fathers, sons and daughters. Too often I get caught up in vocation: slum dweller, day labourer, AIDS patient, unemployed. Starting with identity means seeing the possibility inside every person- their passions, skills, and unique story.


Our meeting ended with a beautifully crafted statement that captured our both team’s unique spirit and the heart that we have for our neighborhood. But I think that I benefitted more than anyone else from the conversation. For me, that moment of clarity crystalized how I see my own strengths and blind spots. As I continue to grow, I hope to continue this process and expand the conversation.

What do you think?

Are you like me— do you link your identity and role?

How do you see poverty— where does that view come from and what are the implications?

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4 thoughts on “Being and Doing

  1. I love your reflection on being and doing. It is so important to keep in mind that there is a directionality to that relationship – I think that so much of our messed-up-ness arises from getting this direction backwards both in ourselves and in others.

    Also, I hadn’t thought too much about the value in a plural definition of poverty but that makes a lot of sense because there are many relevant dimensions to it. I think this may begin to help me admit my own poverty in whatever form it comes and empathize in a deeper and more nuanced way way with those who are also impoverished in various ways.

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    1. Yeah…I always get caught up in my role…it’s such an easy thing to pull significance from. I struggled with this post because I wanted to keep it pretty accessible, but this almost necessarily ties into faith. My relationship with God has to be about who I am- forgiven, accepted, child- rather than anything I’ve done/will do.

      Also, there are so many ways to think about poverty! For a long time in India, they measured poverty by how many calories you had per day! But yes- framing it psychologically crucially breaks down that us-them barrier. Caloric intake is good if you need to do national surveys, identity is good if you need to build relationships.

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  2. There were a couple years of life where my income tripled, and I had more opportunities to be financially generous. I think this made me feel better about myself as a person. I felt like a more generous, loving person. But it’s interesting to think that, if what we do doesn’t define who we are, should I have felt like a more generous and loving person during those years? Or are those qualities of self pretty much constant regardless of how much money I happen to be making in a given year?

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    1. Hmm, that’s an interesting thought! I would think that generosity has to be about attitude, not amount, so regardless of how much you give, the generosity is a part of who you are. However, the two (identity and vocation) are not as cleanly separable as I might like to think. Your income increase might have caused you to question the way you thought about money, resulting in you deciding to value generosity. I don’t know what it’s like for you, but for me it’s always a struggle back and forth.
      thanks for sharing!

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