Recently, I was at a friend’s house when another old friend, David*, arrived with his partner Margaret.* I had already met David a couple of times, but I wasn’t acquainted with his lady. The four of us enjoyed an animated conversation over dinner, ranging over a number of different topics. Alone with Margaret – who I knew had taught at a university and therefore had publications to her name – I innocently inquired what her field was, and what her speciality. She informed me very briefly, then continued telling me about her grandchild and the time they had just spent together.
A little later, however, David turned to our hostess and asked in a most accusatory tone, “How come you didn’t tell Cat about Margaret?” Nonplussed, my friend said that she had told me about her. “No, you didn’t,” he replied, ”she didn’t know that Margaret is a highly distinguished scholar and a world authority on her speciality.”
Margaret nodded “Yes,” she said sourly, “I wonder what exactly you did tell her about me, since you didn’t mention the most important thing!”
My friend explained that as I didn’t yet know Margaret she had simply told me that she was David’s partner, and a university professor. She may indeed have mentioned Margaret’s field of study but I hadn’t registered that fact. This explanation only added fuel to the fire: Margaret felt that her status had been greatly reduced, if all I had been told about her was that she was an appendage to David. Alas, she most definitely felt snubbed. Feathers were very ruffled. I also tried to defuse the atmosphere by saying that in my opinion, what matters is not so much what a person does but rather who the person is. In addition, we are all well past retiring age so you can’t really assume that we are all still working– although as it turned out, we are.
No, no, no! David and Margaret were both very adamant that what you do professionally defines who you are: your achievements and social standing are primordial, your identity is shaped by your work. There was no budging them on that, and Margaret’s wounded pride may sadly mark the end of a very long friendship between my friend and David, although I fervently hope not
However, the question raised has occupied my thoughts since this event.
I agree that we probably choose our career path as a function of our tastes and talents as well as whatever opportunities come our way. Personally, I could never have had a career in medicine or engineering, for instance. But over the years, I’ve filled a multitude of roles both personally and professionally, and not all in the same field, interacting with people at many different levels of the social and academic scale, and making friends with people from all walks of life. It seems snobbish to me to put a higher value on a person because he or she has a title – be it academic or noble – than one who is equally faithful, fun and sincere but at the bottom of the class system. Prince or pauper, for me it’s character that counts.
I put this same question to my readers, and would really be very interested to know where you stand on this issue.
Are our accomplishments more important than our character?
Am I the person I am because of my professional success or failure?
And does that set the criteria for my personal worth?
Do you value yourself for what you do or for what you are?
And do you value your friends for what they do or for what they are?
*Names changed to protect the innocent!