John Neafsey explores the relationship between suffering and vocation in A Sacred Voice is Calling: Personal Vocation and Social Conscience. He speaks to the notion of “redemptive suffering,” meaning that painful life experiences have the potential to make us wiser and more mature. What turns this possibility into promise depends on our attitude toward suffering.
I can attest to the reality of redemptive suffering based on my own life experience. Personal losses have served as powerful avenues of growth and maturity. Experiencing a significant cancer diagnosis at the age of 25, my eyes were opened to the reality that growing old is not guaranteed and procrastinating on things that matter is not wise. Divorce and the subsequent experience of single parenting beckoned me make my own wholeness urgent, recognizing that my then-three-year-old son depended fully on me for his own healthy becoming.
Even as I celebrate the positive elements of these experiences, I also appreciate Neafsey’s cue that we not “romanticize suffering.” Loss is hard, and is not the sole means to personal growth. Life is messy, and I don’t pretend to know the “why” of my own suffering any more than I understand the larger query as to why suffering exists. Moreover, figuring out the “why” of suffering is not necessary in order to redeem suffering. Redemptive suffering rests only on our willingness to choose to use life’s challenges as spaces for finding meaning and vocation.
Neafsey focuses his efforts to connect suffering and vocation on the lives of individuals, but this compelling connection can be true of institutions as well. The challenges faced by institutions can be—if we choose to see them this way—spaces for nurturing vocation. A day doesn’t go by without reports of the challenges faced on college and university campuses: budget cuts, breaches of integrity, concerns about public trust. What transforms these experiences from “meaningless obstacles to be overcome” into “meaningful avenues of growth and maturity” depends fully on our collective ability to use these challenges for redemptive purposes.
In the midst of difficulty, we can choose to focus on what matters most in our institutional mission. We can resolve to find the strength to make the health of our organizations both important and urgent. After all, millions of students depend on colleges and universities for their own healthy becoming. The well-being of the larger society is at stake in the effective functioning of higher education.
Experiences of suffering can create moments when our mental acuity for what matters is at its most precise. In moments of crisis, it’s infinitely easier to say no to what doesn’t matter. If we are to lean fully into vocation, then our experiences of suffering—both as individuals and as organizations—must be viewed as places for cultivating vocation. Indeed, the perspective we take on our suffering will determine whether those experiences will gain a sense of meaning and significance. Loss and challenge are unavoidable in this world; yet in their midst, we may come to experience the depth of who we really are and to claim what really matters. Revelation of identity, renewed purpose, and strengthened resolve to move toward greater wholeness—these are the gifts that, in the midst of suffering, we can choose to receive and to cherish as crucial to the work of nurturing our vocations.