Mindfulness in Action: A Buddhist Reflects on Vocation

If someone had asked me when I was growing up if I had a sense of vocation, I would have had an easy answer. Yes! I have wanted to be a teacher since I was in the first grade. But if someone had asked me if my religion talked about vocation, I would not have had such a quick answer. Buddhism didn’t talk in those terms. The historical Buddha’s teachings were the result of his search to understand the causes of the suffering inherent in human life.

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Knowledge, Love, and the Meaning of Life

Drawing of Hayden White
Drawing of Hayden White by A.E. Kieren for The Chronicle of Higher Education

I suspect that anyone involved with the teaching of undergraduates will appreciate this interview (from 2008, but heretofore unpublished) with the historian Hayden White, who died last year.  I encountered White’s work in graduate school, when his Metahistory changed the way I thought about scholarship. In this interview, practically every response he offers contains multiple gems of insight, and those who are interested in helping students with matters of vocational exploration and discernment may find his thoughts quite inspiring. In addition, those readers who work at liberal arts institutions may be particularly interested in the person whom White considers to be the greatest teacher of all time.

Robert Pogue Harrison, who introduces the interview for the Chronicle, notes that “As departments shutter and enrollments plummet, White’s thoughts on professionalism, vocation, and love are more relevant than ever.”

The interview can be found here. It may be behind a firewall, but most academic institutions subscribe to the Chronicle and their libraries can provide access for anyone who hits a roadblock.

I hope others find this short interview as inspiring and enlightening as I did!

Privilege and Lies: Some Problematic Myths about Vocation

What myths about work and vocation do we convey when we talk with our students?

What lies might groups with different forms of privilege come to believe about themselves? When those lies are about their abilities and the horizons of possibility for their futures, how do they affect their sense of calling? These questions were posed by Christine Jeske of Wheaton College to a packed room of higher-ed professionals during a session held at the recent NetVUE gathering in Louisville. Trained as an anthropologist, Christine has previously worked on attitudes toward and myths about work in the South African context, where there is a stark disparity between rich and poor. But what myths about work do we convey here in the U.S. when we talk with students on vocation? And what are the unintended consequences of those problematic narratives? How can we tell a different narrative, one that more accurately represents the world in which our students will live? 

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Telling our Future Stories: Hope, Loss, and Possibility

Recently I found myself in a first-year seminar college classroom conducting an interview with the students’ professor. The class was arranged so the students made a horseshoe facing their professor, who was seated in a chair with her back to the whiteboard. I posed several questions designed to tease out the vocational narrative of the professor and simultaneously charted on the board the key ideas, concepts, moments, people, and influences she mentioned. The exercise is designed to provide an example of a vocational narrative to students and to visually represent active listening on the board. As the professor turned in her chair at the end of the interview to digest what the whiteboard displayed, I noticed for myself that as a result of my questions the entire board dealt with her past. Narrative is arguably the foundation of vocational reflection. Yet, does narrative draw our attention too strongly to the past? What opportunities for vocational reflection could occur by telling our future stories?

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“For Such a Time as This” – with Apologies to Esther

1945 Purim greeting (postcard) from the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art, University of California, Berkeley; reproduced at https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/9-things-you-didnt-know-about-purim/

Purim is coming soon, beginning on the evening of March 20th this year. That’s the Jewish holiday when we read the Scroll (aka Book) of Esther, which itself describes some of the traditions—days of feasting and joy, and of sending portions one to another, and gifts to the poor (9:22). But most Purim customs come from the tone of the book, a kind of burlesque with reversals, exaggerations, bawdy humor and caricatures. So we dress up in costumes, spin satires, and (as adults) drink a bit too much. When reading the Scroll of Esther in the congregation, we drown out the name of the villainous Haman with noisemakers (groggers)—as if we can silence the force of evil.

Purim is one of my favorite holidays, mostly because it weaves profound messages into all the silliness. One of them is that, even with all our discerning and planning and preparing, sometimes our vocation finds us rather than the other way around. It happens to Esther. 

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Happiness and fulfillment

Reading applications for prestigious scholarships gives the author hope but also raises some questions about how we understand a “meaningful and fulfilling life.”

In December I participated in a national review of applications to a prestigious post-graduate fellowship. The review process was enjoyable, even exhilarating, as my team read and reflected upon beautifully crafted essays, thoughtful letters of recommendation, and staggeringly extensive records of accomplishment, leadership and service. The applications increased my hope for the future. With students like these coming out of our colleges and universities, seeking continuing opportunities for growth and giving, there’s good in the world.

And yet. The wisely mentored, academically successful lives of outstanding students, with their impressive profiles of study, service, travel, internships and leadership, prompt in me both admiration and weariness, and some skepticism about the ways in which we value “meaningful and fulfilling work” as something one can prepare for and deliberately seek out.

Do we know what will be meaningful before we choose it? Is meaning sometimes (perhaps often) conferred more in retrospect than in design? What happens when work isn’t where a sense of meaning, purpose and fulfillment reside? At what point(s) do we take stock, try to determine what is meaningful, what is fulfilling? And what do people do who have few resources with which to respond to the injunction to pursue a meaningful life?

It got me thinking about the difference between happiness and fulfillment.

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Stories for the Undecided

Some lucky students enter college knowing exactly what they want to do and go on to pursue a career that feels like a calling.  But many enter with several possibilities or only vague notions.  To encourage students to examine their choices, my college lists all entering students as “Undecided.”  However, for understandable reasons, being undecided is profoundly stressful for many students, especially if their initial choices have led to failure and they are still trying to decide on a major late in their sophomore year and even more so, if they are approaching graduation with no clear career direction.  Higher education is expensive and to many Americans occupation “counts” so students want to make the right choice. 

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