“The scientist is not the one who gives the right answers, he’s the one who asks the right questions.” - Claude Levi Strauss
Why they out here? I think to myself. It’s 25 degrees and I had to use all my tricks to get myself to go for a run. All I wanna do is get home and jump in a hot shower. But there’s a sea of people walking toward Bears stadium, and now I’m running against the tide. I can’t understand why they want to sit for hours on a cold plastic seat. Why they will shiver while other people run around without appropriate outerwear and toss a rocket shaped piece of leather back and forth. Fools, I think, as I dodge through the crowd toward home.
The further I get from the stadium, the more the crowd thins out. The single sea of people separates into a million droplets of love: I see a dad and his toddler son, dressed in identical Bears coat, scarf and hat. I see tailgaters in parking lots, circled up around coolers—filled with beer, yes, but also homemade food and hot coffee. I see teenagers willingly hanging out with their parents, almost skipping ahead in hopes of spurring them along. And not a single one of them on their phone.
Maybe, I think, they’re not here for the football.
I find out why they out there later that night, at a birthday party filled with people I’ve known for almost 20 years. There was music, and food, and kids running up and down the stairs. And then there was that moment—when we sat around and one-by-one, spoke on what the birthday boy had brought into our lives. Most everyone had the same message: I met you. You were amazing. Then you welcomed me into your family of friends. Dalilah spoke last and she said it best: “I look around the room, at all of us here, and I think…this is why I work. I work so I can eat, yes. I work for the roof over my head. But most of all, I work for this.”
I saw then, why those Bears fans had been out there, hoofing it through the cold, shivering through the game. It was the same reason we were at that house party. It wasn’t the food. And no, it wasn’t the football. It wasn’t even the friendship—though that’s close. It was the sense of belonging. Of being welcomed into a we that fits you.
Of course, I knew before then how important community is. That’s why I lead retreats for a living. But Dalilah had said something more than that. She didn’t just say it’s important to build community. She said the entire purpose of her paid job was to make way for this kind of connection. That feeling you get when you come together with other people and realize that what you’re doing with one another makes you part of something bigger than just you: A team. A family. A community. A movement. That’s what she meant when she said, “This is why I work.” She meant, we put in the labor because labor is the thing that makes way for what we love.
So…why you out here? That’s the end-of-year reflection question I’m offering this December. We all know the work of a scholar is a long walk in the cold, against the wind, toward a stadium filled with cold plastic seats. That’s not the only thing it is. But that’s what it can be a lot of the time. Why’re you doing it? What’s your “This is why I work”?
There are good reasons to do intellectual labor; to work as part of a community building and breaking down and uncovering knowledge. But it’s often hard to remember those reasons in the rush and din of the teaching term. So, as the term comes to a close, I’m offering this question as one way you can get some perspective on the value of all you’ve done this past year.
I also offer it as a way to root yourself in something beyond the stress and strain of work when you get started next year. You spend your days in the classroom and the lab and the archives. In those God forsaken meetings. At a computer with your manuscript. What’s your “This.”? What’s that precious thing that all that work gives you, once the work is done?
Whatever your This is, I’m wishing that. As much as you need, and a little bit more. Now, and into the new year.