“What do you do?” It’s one of the go-to questions, asked when meeting someone for the first time in order to find out about their work. We ask it to discover who they are, what makes them tick, what their significance in the world is. For occupation, it seems – erroneously or otherwise – is linked to significance and worth. Maybe we’ll jump to conclusions according to whether someone is working in the arts (flighty), or finance (steady), medicine (caring) or business (cut-throat). Of course, what we choose as work hassignificance, but when we begin to equate people with their jobs, or, worse still, superglue our own identity onto how we earn a living, we can end up feeling quite unsure of ourselves when change comes, as inevitably it will. The majority of ‘jobs for life’ disappeared along with Woolworths (if not before), and many of us are now learning to bounce like frogs from lily pad to lily pad, in leaps of faith, trying our hand at something different. Our work choices matter, hopefully we enjoy what we do, though maybe we should wear our occupation lightly, like a stage costume, so that our sense of self remains intact when the time comes to move on to the next staging post.
I wonder if defining oneself according to one’s job is entwined with the pursuit of legacy? Not the legal definition of legacy: that of property, or money, by a will or bequest. I’m not thinking of legacy in terms of how much money you accrue from your job and the sum you leave behind, but rather the sum of one’s life work: a discovery, a publicly recognised feat, a body of work, maybe even fame. I’ve been musing on this ever since I went to see the film, Bohemian Rhapsody, at the weekend. The spotlight throughout the new biopic about the band, Queen, was firmly trained on the man with an enduring legacy: Freddie Mercury. Before he was a world famous rock star, Freddie was a baggage handler at Heathrow Airport. Had he not hit the big time (and surely there are no guarantees that talent will be discovered, even talent as immense as his), there would have been no public legacy. There are so many feted lives, like Freddie’s, for whom a gold plated ‘legacy’ seems to come at a high price. It’s hard, after having seen the film, to believe that Freddie could have been anything other than a musician: writer, singer, showman. But, if the film is to be believed, it wasn’t an appetite for fame that drove him, but a love of music. Although not written by him, one can’t help but believe he is singing about himself when he sings ‘The Great Pretender’: “Oh yes, I’m the great pretender/ Pretending I’m doing well / My need is such I pretend too much/ I’m lonely but no one can tell/ Oh yes I’m the great pretender/ Adrift in a world of my own/ I play the game but to my real shame/ You’ve left me to dream all alone.”
Playing the game in order to be ‘somebody’, will always be the goal for some of us in a society that pushes and values the notion of celebrity. Marlon Brando in, On The Waterfront, plays Terry Malloy, a dockworker, who had been a promising boxer until he got involved with the mob and deliberately threw a fight for money. It all unravels from there, as he looks back on missed opportunities and, what he sees as, a lost legacy: “I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am.”
We put great store by being a contender; perhaps due to an inherent fear that we’ll be forgotten, that we’ll slip away leaving no legacy. Whatever it is that you work at, I hope it causes you little stress, brings you peace of mind, and (if it must) accrues gentle acclaim that does not unsettle you. Few of us would choose to live as Pope suggests, ‘unknown’, and to die, ‘unlamented’, yet his description of the quiet legacy-free life is softly alluring.
‘The Quiet Life’, Alexander Pope
“Happy the man whose wish and care
A few paternal acres bound
Content to breathe his native air
In his own ground.
Whose herd with milk, whose fields with bread,
Whose flocks supply him with attire;
Whose trees in summer yield him shade,
In winter, fire.
Blest, who can unconcern’dly find
Hours, days, and years, slide soft away
In health of body; peace of mind;
Quiet by day;
Sound sleep by night; study and ease
Together mix’d; sweet recreation,
And innocence, which most does please
Thus let me live, unseen, unknown;
Thus unlamented let me die;
Steal from the world, and not a stone
Tell where I lie.”