The language of “vocational discernment” is finding a foothold in higher ed these days, but occasionally some critics have asked whether this is just a fancy way of talking about “deciding what to do in life.” Institutions may have adopted new language, but aren’t they simply doing what they’ve always done—namely, helping students to choose a major and to embark on a career? Or does “vocational reflection and discernment” really point to a genuinely different way of helping students think about their future lives? I believe that it does, and that one way to understand this difference is to think about playing catch.
I don’t usually find myself turning to sports for metaphors, but I think this one works. For most sports, there are certain things that one can do alone: learning about the game, undergoing physical conditioning, and watching the techniques of the greats. In some cases, one can even practice a sport alone: go for a run, hit tennis balls against a wall, or throw softballs and baseballs into one of those “pitch-back” nets. But all athletes know that these experiences are not the same as getting out with other devotees of the sport and working on their skills as a group. Even “individual” sports like running or cycling need other people, if for no other reason than to simulate the actual conditions of a race.
Vocational discernment is like that as well. You can decide for yourself, and by yourself, what you want to do with your life. Many people have done this, and many will do so in the future. But you’ll probably have more success in that endeavor—and you’ll certainly have more fun along the way—if you undertake this process alongside other people. Throwing a ball into a “pitch-back” gets boring in a hurry. And I can’t imagine that could ever improve your throwing and catching skills to the same degree that a live partner would.
I thought about this connection recently when I recalled a very thick book that I was reading back in graduate school: Truth and Method, by the German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer. That book was primarily about the interpretation of texts, which requires two viewpoints or “horizons”: that of the reader, and that of the text itself. You can try to interpret something from only one horizon, giving absolute control to the reader (so that the text says whatever I say it means), or to the text (so that it has one absolute timeless meaning, rendering the reader irrelevant). But neither of these approaches will produce such good results, or be as enjoyable, as a genuine encounter between text and reader. It’s just more fun—and more productive—when there’s someone else around who’ll play catch with you.
Gadamer himself recognized the usefulness of “playing catch” as a way of thinking about how we encounter others. For one thing, he uses the language of “play” quite a bit in the book; for another, the book’s epigraph is a poem (by Rainer Maria Rilke) that describes a game of catch. That poem refers to the superiority of playing with a genuine partner—as opposed to catching “only what you yourself have thrown,” which is described as “just skill and meaningless gain.”
I’ll come back to the poem in a future post; I’ll quote the whole thing and dig around in it a bit. For now, I just want to observe that finding one’s calling is a little like playing catch: it involves others. If I think about my future direction as something that I can merely “decide,” I might imagine that I could do so on my own. But if I describe that work as “discerning my vocation,” I’m more likely to recognize that such work always requires another person—and usually more than one. As suggested by the writers I’ve mentioned here, we need someone external to us in order to complete the picture. You can’t really interpret a text on your own; you’re already in a relationship of sorts with the person who wrote it. And you can’t really play catch by yourself.
Vocational discernment requires me to think beyond the boundaries of my isolated “self.” Yes, I do need to consider my own perspective, my own inclinations and desires; but I also need partners who will help me see these realities more clearly, as well as pointing out matters I hadn’t considered. I need people to catch the balls that I toss out, and to run down the ones that I threw really badly. I’d be grateful if they’d throw those back and give me another chance. And if they want to offer some suggestions as to how I might improve my throw, I’d appreciate that as well.
And that will be so much more fun than throwing balls into a pitch-back.