In Paragraph City, some of us become better because of our career. Being a cop or a teacher or a nurse or a mechanic lifts us up. We recognize in the ideals of the career something essential to who we are, and as happens when we find ideals to reach for, we improve. It’s more than careers, too. It happens when people join girl scouts or the chess team or volunteer to help teach adult literacy or give out books on World Book Night or become a mom or dad.
Becoming a father lifted my expectations of myself that way, surprisingly, shockingly, and to a lesser degree so did becoming a professor. It’s what I imagine the medieval guilds or monasteries might have given to their members: a better self to strive toward. As the examples of guilds and monasteries suggest, though, such affiliation doesn’t always pull a person up. Sometimes the group identity is taken by our baser natures as an indication of our superiority: the professor who glories in the ignorance of his students, the doctor too proud to talk with his patients, the mother whose favorite phrase is “I told you so.” I wonder if politics mainly pulls people this way, dashing the ideals, pumping the adulation like a drug into the blood, lavishing praise on groupthink, elevating contention, and calling forth a sneer at the notion that anything like a “common good” exists.
But what I set out to write about is those who make the group better because they belong. They remind us of the ideals, show us things that are possible, give us a leg up, excuse our failings (where would we be without forgiveness?). These people, the ones I know from Paragraph City, tend to think of their work at least partly as a calling, and their work as one of the helping professions, almost a healing profession, regardless of their job title. How much better we would all be, it strikes me, if we thought every career were a service career, bred in its DNA to make life better for others. Is there any career, club, hobby group, cub scout den, coffee klatch, or profession which wouldn’t be better if it had in its core, like the transmission of a car, the desire to take other people to a more munificent land?