What are you taking care of?

Ezra, in the midst of pulling books off his shelf the other morning, turned to me and announced: “When I grow up, I am going to take care of giraffes.”  Then he turned to his brother, who was standing on Ezra’s bed with his tiny face pressed to the window: “Malachi, what are you going to take care of when you grow up?”

We are invited to think about our work in a lot of ways – what we do, how much money we make, what industry we are part of, what sector we contribute to.  But maybe this should be our core question: what, or who, do we take care of?

I used to teach a senior seminar on work as service; all the students were doing a non-profit internship of some kind as a way of exploring a field they might consider for the future.  And we all came together one evening a week to talk over readings on vocation, sustainability, meaning-making, community, and the sociology of work.  It was one of my gladdest times, one of the truest moments of vocation for me personally, because it brought together my best and favorite tools: teaching, critical reading, group discussion, exploratory writing, program-management, community partnership, administration in the original sense of caring for or ministering to.  And the seminar asked essentially Ezra’s question, though never so bluntly.  I wish it had.

As I write this, Jack Johnson’s “lullaby” version of “With My Own Two Hands” is on the stereo, and I realize that it names our common desire: to make the world a more beautiful place, a safer place, with our own two hands.  And open beside me on the scuffed blue kitchen table is Wendell Berry’s incomparable Hannah Coulter, and she is telling us of how in times of grief we stand by one another, we stand with one another: “He came to offer himself…to love us without hope or help” (55).  And eventually, she says “the comfort somehow gets passed around: a few words that are never forgotten, a note in the mail, a look, a touch, a pat, a hug, a kind of waiting with, a kind of standing by, to the end” (62).  What we build and what we hold up only exist by virtue of love, of ad-ministration; what would it look like if we named that truth?  If we thought of our work in the world as always a taking care?

William Sullivan wrote a brilliant book called Work and Integrity: the Perils and Promise of Civic Professionalism.  In it, he traces the civic roots of the professions – business began because people needed goods; lawyers happened because people needed a system to manage disputes and to institutionalize fairness; doctors, well obviously, doctors have always existed in one form or another, though only in recent history do we carve out with such diligence the many forms and ranks of physical care-giving.  He suggests, boldly and reasonably (in fact, it’s bold to be so plainly reasonable) that we might all benefit from a return to these foundational commitments.  Yes.  Of course.  The absence of them is what makes us all so outraged, astonished, and generally speechless: when a drug company hides evidence that its medication does harm; when a financial corporation allows the loss of lifetime-savings entrusted to its care; when food crops are sprayed with poisons so someone can make a bigger or faster profit.  These are betrayals of the basic human contract and certainly violations of the unwritten code of professions.  Who, we might ask, are those decision-makers taking care of?

I know there is room for disagreement.  There always is, and there always should be.  But can we begin with better questions?  Can we learn to question ourselves and our colleagues?  Can we keep a clearer sense of what’s at stake?  Because it’s pretty big and there’s kind of a lot of it: our whole selves, our communities, our nation, our earth.  The air we breathe and the water we drink.  And, Ezra would add, “oceans and jungles and fish and gorillas and babies.”  Right.

So: what are you taking care of?