Is what we are who we are? Revisiting a sermon on selfishness.

January 22, 2013

writer
Driven to write…

A couple years ago, Pastor John Buchanan of Fourth Presbyterian Church Chicago (now retired) gave a terrific sermon on the rite of baptism, which I had the privilege of attending. Earlier he had performed the sacrament on two babies. And so later spoke of names, identities and how they relate to God’s plan for us. Interesting stuff. Especially for a borderline agnostic like me.

While there was much to glean from his sermon, I want to focus on one thing in particular. Buchanan referenced a book he’d read by Sister Joan Chittister (The Gift of Years) that struck a nerve with him. It did the same for me. I think many of you will relate to it as well. We define ourselves by our work. It becomes the Who, What, Where, How and Why of our lives. Can you deny it?

In our society, introductions to people almost always include asking what the other person does for a living. I do it all the time: “So, Phil, what do you do?” Big deal. It’s a good way to find common ground.

But what happens, the pastor asked, when ‘what we do’ is over with or, worse yet, taken from us as in layoffs or job eliminations? Do we lose our identities? Do we become nobodies in the eyes of our peers and ourselves? Buchanon suggested living by such a self-absorbed credo devalues us as human beings, often causing serious anxiety and depression. In America, our identities are inextricably tied to ‘what we do’ versus who we are or what we believe in. Take away that and we’re left with… what exactly? Given the current recession and myriad job losses, his sermon was especially poignant. Yet, even in good times the ‘what we do’ credo is troubling. For one thing: what happens when we retire?

Uh oh.

I have always unabashedly identified myself as a writer, be it of copy, editorial or fiction. To wit I wrote and edited my high school newspaper (The Lane Tech Warrior). I did the same for both student papers at the University of Wisconsin, Madison (The Daily Cardinal and Badger Herald), not to mention scribing for an independent publication, The Madcity Music Mirror. I started my career as a copywriter at Leo Burnett and continue to do so at gyro in San Francisco. I’ve written three novels and dozens of short stories, some of which have been published. I wrote two screenplays. I write and maintain Gods of Advertising as well as The Rogue’s Gallery, which, as some of you know, was originally intended to be a forum for copywriters to showcase their writing.

So, yeah, for me it’s all about the writing. The point I’m building to: What happens when all that ends, as one day it surely must? I get paid to write and creative direct copy. This also gives my blog a modicum of credibility. Take away my job and then what do I do? Relax? Hell, I barely do that now. How am I supposed to do it 24/7?

According to Buchanan, if we are spiritually fit we are more content and serene, regardless of our employment status. But getting fit means letting go of intense personal ambitions. Self-centeredness must slip away. Easier said…

To me writing is a very selfish act, even if for clients. It has a narcotic effect. I not only get off doing it; I can’t stop. There is always another brief, another story, another presentation. Writing takes me away from my family, friends and other obligations. Buchanan suggests it also takes me away from God.

His point isn’t that writing is a despicable act (even ad copy!) but that putting it before others and God potentially is. Similar counseling is given to alcoholics: ‘Get outside of your head,’ we are told. ‘Think of someone other than yourself!’

I promise. Just as soon as I complete this post, rewrite that presentation, and edit some copy…

(Special thanks to friend, Anne Ross for reacquainting me with this post and Buchanon’s brilliant sermon. It is a lesson I have yet to master.)

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