By Patrick Atkinson
What was I supposed to say when Sara asked me,”What do you do for a living?”
She was, after all, barely seven-years-old. How much could I tell her?
Sara was a beautiful girl. Found on the streets totally alone, she had been physically abused and injured by the beatings her mother endured in the months before Sara was even born.
Sometime around age three, Sara was sent into the streets to beg for money where she became lost in her wanderings. She slept alone in alleys for weeks unknown. Eventually a stranger led her to a woman known to have a good heart.
Even then, Sara wasn’t wanted at first.
“The child is too sick,” this woman told me. “I can’t be responsible if she dies on me.”
I convinced this woman to take Sara in and with her motherly love, Sara grew to be a beautiful young girl.
So how should I respond when Sara asked me what I did for a living?
I could tell her I chase demons during the day and bonk them on the head when they try to scare her.
And that I call upon the angels at night, and ask them to sit by her bed to keep her safe and hold her tight.
If she were older, I could say I educate kids and keep them from committing suicide.
If she became even more serious, as sometimes she does, I would tell her that I started my adulthood as a missionary and, in turn, became an educator, health worker, builder, writer, troubadour, and businessman. Like her, I have begged.
“You must be wonderfully rich having done all that,” I can imagine Sara saying.
Without hesitation and holding her hand in mine, I would say the treasures I’ve held are among the most beautiful on earth.
When we meet someone, and ask them what they do, they almost always tell us the title of their job. While interesting and insightful, this isn’t what we asked. Wikipedia defines career as “an individual’s journey through learning, work and other aspects of life.” Ah, therein lies the information I want to know when I meet you.
Students and reporters frequently ask what someone should study if they want to get ahead. I tell them to go home, lie in bed, and stare at the ceiling while they imagine themselves doing something they love.
“Start from there and work backwards,” I say. “You will learn what you need to know to get there.”
Career—our journey through learning, work, and other aspects of life’—needs to start with our dreams.
A few months after Sara’s question, the lights went out while some children were still doing their homework, and the room turned black. Sara left and returned with six small candles.
Putting on my father-cap, I also went to find a battery-powered lamp. Before I could turn it on, though, I turned my head and was rewarded with a magical view of the night.
There sat my son Neto, staring at the orange glow of a candle, quietly lost in his thoughts. He needed a father.
Sara needed a tutor, and in the kitchen, the children needed a cook. The Project needed an electrician. Everyone needed to know they were safe.
Our world works because people have dreamt their dreams, and many have chosen to follow them through. Not just in their work, but with their “individual journey through learning, work and other aspects of life.”
Careers are dreams manifest.
Bismarck-native Patrick Atkinson is the founder and executive director of the International God’s Child Project and the Institute for Trafficked, Exploited & Missing Persons. he is a national award-winning author and the recipient of numerous human rights awards.