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Turtles All the Way Down, Part One

A few months ago, I read John Green’s new book, Turtles All the Way Down, and I’m still thinking about it. There were two questions that I’m turning around from the book, so I’m posing them to you to crowdsource your thoughts. You don’t need to have read the book in order to talk about this.

In fact, the two questions barely need any context. A boy and a girl are texting each other. The boy was born into a wealthy family and doesn’t know if people who befriend him like him or like the fact that he has money. He asks, on page 79, “What’s the difference between who you are and what you have? Maybe nothing.”

Meaning, he’s a rich boy. He can’t separate out his self from what he has.

The question stood out to me because — and I don’t know if this is adulthood, my personal experience, or being a product of where I live — but I would ask it differently: “What’s the difference between who you are and what you do?

I don’t think about people based on what they have, but I definitely think about people in terms of what they do.  I knew someone who worked for an ethically questionable organization that I believed was hurting people despite the organization’s claims that it was helping people.  How could I not associate him with the fact that he was a cog in that machine?

And then there are the associations we make due to individual actions.  That person is nice because they treat me well.  That person is a rude because they’re thoughtless.  That person is smart because they are a doctor.  That person is lazy because they weasel their way out of helping out.

Are people defined more often by what they have or what they do?

Part two tomorrow after you give your thoughts on this first part…


1 Raven { 02.13.18 at 8:14 am }

I think it’s age dependant and circumstance dependant.

A rich kid with no hobbies is likely defined as a rich kid. But a rich kid who is also a piano prodigy, would more likely be defined as a piano prodigy.

For adults, we’re most often defined by what we do – as long as we do something. Like the women on all those “Wives of _______” shows, they are defined by what they have because they have a lot and do little. But regular joe’s like you and me, are more often defined by what we do rather than what we have (because, at least for me, I don’t really have anything in excess but I DO a couple big things with all my heart and people remember that).

Context is everything! But I like this post…thought provoking!

2 Turia { 02.13.18 at 8:14 am }

I think he asked the question the way he did because he is rich- because the wealthy think in terms of having (or at least are often portrayed that way). And often the super rich don’t have to do anything- aren’t there studies that show that children of very rich families usually lack purpose?

I think about people in terms of what they do, and sometimes what they have (often when I can’t figure out how the two add up, such as when a family buys a pricey house and I can’t make the numbers add up knowing what their jobs are).

3 chickenpig { 02.13.18 at 8:26 am }

Hmmm…. I think that we put too much emphasis on what adults do professionally. Probably because when I tell people what I do, they don’t understand. And it requires a lot of education and off hours studying for very little pay. My kids get judged by their autism diagnosis, not what they have or don’t have, which will probably follow them throughout life, even when they accomplish great things.

4 Cristy { 02.13.18 at 9:37 am }

Thinking about this given all the comments above. I’ll add one more wrinkle.

I know scientists who work for big agricultural firms (think Monsanto and Syngenta). There’s a lot of negative press with these companies, yet I know these people are both excellent researchers and are working to improve crop development with the goal of feeding people. So I think there’s a lot of grey even with what you do.

5 Sharon { 02.13.18 at 11:10 am }

In my experience, in the U.S., adults are primarily defined by what they do, meaning their jobs. I believe that’s one of the challenges that faces SAHMs when they leave the workforce to stay home: now what do I say when someone asks what I do?

Only the most shallow people judge adults based on what they have. . . and wise people realize that often the people with the fancier cars, houses and trips are up to their eyeballs in debt, while those living more simply are sometimes better off financially. (I know several millionaires, and you would never guess from appearances that they are rich.)

6 Beth { 02.13.18 at 5:59 pm }

This is an interesting and timely question for me. I define people by what they do and how they treat others.

The school my daughter attends is very diverse socio-economically. We fall squarely in the middle. There is an active parent group comprised almost solely of well-off families. I have volunteered a bit peripherally (meaning at the school but not organized by this group) and have been exposed to this group quite a bit. They spend a lot of time patting themselves on the back for fantastic ideas they come up with that, in my opinion, exclude families of lower socio-economic means. For example, rewarding kids during the school day with a special treat for reaching a fundraising goal – a goal that, at this age, is almost surely met by the parent reaching out and doing the fundraising. Or donating the money themselves, something many families do not have the means to do.

I believe this group has good intentions but is blinded by their own privilege and, as such, judges the parents of lower socio-economic means for not volunteering, etc. Whereas I am judging the more well-off families because I think they are being elitist and ridiculous and not recognizing that they can volunteer at the school while many parents cannot.

That’s what came to mind when you raised the question. I am judging this group based on what they do, which is exclude whether they mean to or not.

7 Lori Lavender Luz { 02.14.18 at 9:04 am }

Great discussion. I do confess to making assumptions about a person based on their occupation (less so on what they have, but that aspect is present). As my kids have gotten older, I look for ways to get a handle on their new friends by gathering scraps of info on the parents. I haven’t found a reliable way, though, to figure out what kind of values they may have.

8 Mali { 02.17.18 at 10:17 pm }

I’ve been thinking about both your posts on this for a few days now. I’ll answer here, then go to the next one, even though I don’t have a clue what I’m going to say!

You asked, “Are people defined more often by what they have or what they do?” The problem is, that neither of these two things are well-defined. What we have might be possessions, but equally, it might be our good health, high energy levels, responsibilities, high (or low) IQ, a great personality etc. Though yes, some of that is who we are. Or is it?
Likewise, what we do includes both our actions, and our occupations. I know that since I finished working full-time, one or two friends and family don’t have conversations with me anymore. It’s as if they think I don’t have anything to contribute. Yet, in my opinion, because of what I do (or have done) – including blogging, counselling/volunteering/ being self-employed, etc – I have become a much more rounded, and interesting, person!

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