It’s What You Do, Not Who You Are

I stole this mantra from a rodeo coach, albeit a coach I didn’t like very much. Still, wisdom can come from unexpected places.

In the rodeo world, it is very easy to place one’s worth on one’s performance in the arena. I myself have gone through this realization after placing an incredible amount of identity and pressure onto my college rodeo career, only to have it crumble before me. It was a tough lesson, but a necessary one. The most joyful, and often the most successful competitors, are those that are wise enough to separate their performance from their personhood.

Rodeo performance is a small, specific example of what goes on in the larger world around us. Don’t we all place our abilities on a pedestal?

What is the first thing we ask a person? Usually, it’s: What do you do?

Then, it becomes our identity.
“She’s a doctor.”
“He’s a cowboy.”
“She waitresses.”
“He does construction work.”

In other words, we are valued by the amount of revenue that we can generate, or the amount of notoriety tied to our profession. Is it due to our capitalistic society that we place so much emphasis on the thing that we can do to make money? Perhaps. (And no, I’m not a socialist. We can discuss economics at a later date). It is no wonder farmers and ranchers struggle to separate their identity from their farm or ranch. If money is all that matters, and they have difficult years when they make little money, then their entire identity is a failure. It is not a difficult leap to see why suicide rates are highest among those in agriculture and in agricultural states.

Is our identity closely tied to our occupation? Of course it is. This is why our vocation and our station in life is our salvation! God has carefully placed us in the vocations of marriage or Holy Orders, followed by mechanic, mother, manager, etc.

It calls to mind the timeless story of Martha and Mary in the presence of Jesus. Mary sits at the feet of Jesus, listening to him, while Martha rushes about serving him and the others. To us humans, Martha seems to be of the most value, but Jesus corrects her (and us) by saying,

“Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things.
There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.

Luke 10: 41-42

Our Savior himself has said that to be present with him is the greatest good. Not doing, but being.

Boy, is that tough to hear, especially in our “hustle” culture. Is that truly the greatest good one can do, is “grind harder”?

Of course not. As always, let us look to the example of the saints, namely a very recent one. Mother Teresa’s order in India was becoming increasingly overwhelmed by the amount of work to be done with the poor. Her nuns came to her and expressed their concerns. There didn’t seem to be enough hours in the day, so they asked their Mother Superior if their daily prayer time could be shortened so that they might spend more time feeding the hungry.

Saint Mother Teresa, however, did the opposite. She increased their time in adoration by more than an hour. It was quite literally the modern-day scene at Martha’s house. “Be present with me,” Jesus seemed to say Martha. Saint Teresa’s nuns needed to hear the same message. Even working with the poor, an undeniable good, isn’t the highest good, according to Mother Teresa. It is sitting at the feet of Christ, in the chapel, where he is truly present in the Holy Eucharist.

All of this isn’t to say that our duties and obligations should be neglected. We mentioned before how Our Lord has given us some definite work and place in life, one which no one else can do. The important thing to remember is that our work ought to be hinged on Our Lord, and not the opposite. It is only by uniting every moment to him is our work on earth made holy.

This spring, I was going through a period of intense spiritual dryness and desolation (see more on Saint Ignatius and spiritual discernment here). I was utterly hopeless and despairing. I told this to Father Bryce in confession, and he told me something that flipped the whole situation on its head: “Once the devil takes away your identity, he has access to everything.”

So what exactly is our identity, if it isn’t what we do?

We are sons and daughters of God the Father. Not only that, but beloved sons and daughters of God. If the devil convinces you for just one moment that you are not, he suddenly can begin picking away at your worth, your purpose, and soul.

You are not worthy because of what you can do. You are worthy because you were made by the Creator of the Universe, branded in his love for all eternity.

When I had a disordered relationship with rodeo and my performance in the arena, do you know what my biggest fear was? That I would be in some horrific wreck and become paralyzed, unable to compete anymore. This was the greatest indicator that my whole identity was in the arena. Back then, I thought that if I didn’t have use of my body, then my life would be meaningless.

Now, however, I know that my purpose is not doing, it is being… with God. To love and be loved by the One that made us is the ultimate purpose of our existence.

One of the greatest examples of this lesson I have come across is the story of Ven. Annie (Anicka) Zelikova, who was diagnosed with tuberculosis at the end of her short life. She offered up all of her suffering, and even her inability to do anything, to Our Lord for reparations for abortions.

She had an ‘apostleship of smiling,’ declaring, “I must smile to my last breath. Ah, all I can give God now are my heartbeats and my smile. Nothing is left to me except love and trust.” Annie was greatly inspired by Saint Thérèse in holiness that can come through little acts of love. In 1940 she wrote, “…true beauty is hidden in faithfulness in little things. I always desired to do great and heroic deeds of love, but when I saw that I was unable, I was grieved by it. Now I find great heroism precisely in little things, so that now I haven’t the slightest regret whether I can do something or not.”

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She went to her eternal reward Sept. 11, 1941, and her beatification process began in 1995. May we all remember her beautiful example.

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