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So you Want to Live Your Dreams?

Reflections on the Nature of Vocation

I have nothing new to say and no new advice to give. I have no promises for you, and I refuse to pretend as if the identity-shaking questions we all ask ourselves can be addressed in 500 words or less. In the words of Walker Percy, “You live in a deranged age — more deranged than usual, because despite great scientific and technological advances, man has not the faintest idea of who he is or what he is doing.” I, in other words, have no clue, and our post-modern infatuation with self-esteem, which tells you that the greatest good is to live your dreams, has no answers… no real answers that is.

I once interviewed for a position with a workforce development organization in Indianapolis. This organization, which shall remain nameless, directs funding to local nonprofits engaged in various workforce development initiatives/programming and is undoubtedly doing great work to bolster my city’s citizenry and mitigate unemployment and underemployment. My interview followed the typical outline and I had the opportunity to ask questions, an opportunity, I realize now, that I most certainly abused. Before I articulate said abuse, a little background is in order.

My background, as I have mentioned in previous posts, is one deeply informed by and entrenched in the liberal arts. The liberal arts found me, a product of public education, deeply disillusioned with the all that it means to be educated in the first place. My experience with education had been, up until this point in my life, articulated to me as purely a means to end with that particular end being the pragmatic goal of professional training. My high school years were tainted by the impression that the humanities were areas of hobby or entertainment, but the true bread and butter of a fruitful, economically fulfilling life was found in the hard sciences.

In other words, literature and philosophy were suitable pass-times, but the key to a fruitful life after the years of education ended was found in the more noble subjects of mathematics, science, and economics. I even recall a sort of psuedo-masculinity pressuring me to abstain from the humanities; for what real man truly learned to feel and to ponder the questions of his existence? What real man wept over a novelist’s eloquent turn of phrase? What real man read Shakespeare with the inkling that perhaps he might realize something profound about himself and all that it means to be human?

Returning now to my recent interview and my questions for this workforce development organization, as I sat in their conference room I could not help but turn my interviewers’ attention to the notion of vocation. Based on their responses, you would have thought that they had never heard the word before. Vocation, a word which etymologically finds its roots in the Latin word literally translated as “to call,” carries, in my mind, deep implications for the role of work in the human experience. In response to my question as to the organization’s understanding of vocation, I was met with what I have come to understand as the two impoverished definitions of work that our modern culture has to offer: the pragmatic dimension, and the egocentric dimension. The pragmatic dimension, heavily influenced by the major American contribution to philosophical thought holds that the role of work is overwhelmingly previsionary; that is to say that the role of work is to provide for our physical needs. On the other side of the coin, the egocentric dimension stems from the manner in which work serves to lead an individual toward the greatest good of humanistic psychological theory, namely, self-actualization (i.e., the growth of the individual, as Abraham Maslow put it, toward the fulfillment of her highest need).

Reflecting back to my earlier mention of our post-modern infatuation with self-esteem, these two dimensions of work may indeed provide and exhaustive account of the purpose of work in the human experience. I however would suggest that such a definition is highly impoverished and far from exhaustive. What I heard my interviewers describe to me was not vocation, but rather occupation — a word finding its roots in the 12th-Century Latin work occupationem literally translated as “employment.” In other words, work was, for them, not a dimension of life that involves the whole of a person, but rather that which is used to provide for her needs.

Taken at face value, this may not seem like a problem, for many of the individuals the organization seeks to serve are in dire situations and simply need a steady source of income. I certainly recognize this and I also recognize that as I approach this subject from my state of privilege, my critique of their understanding of the issue they are seeking to alleviate has the potential to come across as socially repulsive. My concern however, like theirs, revolves around the good and how it may be best conveyed, approached, and furthered, and I believe a bolstered understanding of vocation is the best vehicle forward.

Looking again at the word vocation, again stemming for the Latin word literally translated as “to call,” we see that this word presupposes the presence of some external voice. But where does this external voice come from? As Wendell Berry once said, “The two ideas, justice and vocation, are inseparable… It is by way of the principle and practice of vocation that sanctity and reverence enter into the human economy. It was thus possible for traditional cultures to conceive that ‘to work is to pray.’” Berry shows us that the source of our calling is not rooted in its byproducts — income and self-actualization — but rather in the interconnectedness of our callings and our understanding of justice. What emerges then from the intimate relationship between justice and vocation is an understanding that providing those in need with the opportunity to work is a penultimate goal if we wish for justice to take hold of our society. We must go a step further and deepen or understanding of what work truly is in our lives. It is a calling to transcend the monotonous day-to-day, to further justice in each of our stations, to see ourselves as together and far more in need of one another than we have ever dared to admit.

The Apostle Paul, I believe, provides the best framework for understanding our callings when he says in 1 Corinthians 12, “For the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot should say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less part of the body. And if the ear should say, ‘Becuase I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less part of the body. If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body.”

All this is to say, we need each other and we should not see ourselves as alone if we wish to understand meet our callings head on. Such a view is not well-received by our culture’s valuation of individualism and our desire, like Mrs. Henry Lafayette DuBose of Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, to die “beholden to nothing and nobody.” But if we truly desire to live our dreams, let us share them with the other, and in so doing allow our dreams to conform to the needs of the other. This is, after all, our calling.

“No Man is an Island” by John Donne

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; 
It tolls for thee.
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