We usually think of vocation as being about NOW. Listen for your calling, make a choice, and then follow it throughout your adulthood until retirement. But that’s an increasingly outmoded way of conceptualizing how vocation works.
What if we think of our callings as seeded at birth, confirmed in adulthood, and continued into old age all the way to the end? In other words, vocation is both being and becoming — both now and later. Evolving throughout the life cycle, vocation connects us with purpose: before, during, and after paid employment.
Sounds good, right? But how many people actually think this way? Especially while involved at the peak of their careers? If they think about post-employment living, it’s usually in financial terms. How much money do I need to make sure I don’t outlive my savings? We’d all like a definitive answer to that one, but most of us can’t be sure we have it. It’s not A More Beautiful Question, as Warren Berger might say.
What beautiful questions do you have about vocation? For me, this one holds great promise: What would change in your life NOW if you imagined the years after 65, not as descent and decline, but as ascent to the fullest expression of your vocation?
This question excites me; I aspired to it ever since my own mid life, and NOW, at the age of 68, the vision of my deepest self emerging keeps me walking, dancing, reading, thinking, writing, conversing, publishing, traveling, and yes, playing. Gerontologists have been tracking the impact on the dramatically longer life expectancy we are experiencing in the 21st century. Some call the ages 45-65 middlescence. I’m guessing that most of readers of this post fall into this age group.
One of the most important ways to teach vocation is by example and by telling stories. As professors, our own ongoing vital vocational search is what will attract our students to a life of purpose, and it binds us together with them, because it never ends.
Recently, I recognized the value in this process in new ways as I read former NPR reporter Barbara Bradley Hagerty’s recent book Life Reimagined: The Science, Art, and Opportunity of Mid-Life. Hagerty spent a year interviewing America’s best experts on aging, resilience, and various forms of positive psychology. She challenges the idea of a mid-life crisis, and extracts many insights to apply to her own life and recommend to others.
One study particularly relevant to those of us teaching in church-related higher education is the “Nun Study.” Hagerty notes the ground-breaking work of David Snowden who studied 700 Sisters of Notre Dame at the University of Minnesota in the 1990’s. His work was published as Aging with Grace: What the Nun Study Teaches Us About Leading Longer, Healthier, and More Meaningful Lives. Many of the nuns in this study were teachers. Those who were cheerful lived longer. Those who were complex thinkers and avid readers sometimes escaped Alzheimers even though their brains showed serious signs of the disease in autopsies.
Hagerty, after interviewing another researcher, David Bennett (who also recruited sisters, monks, and priests, along with a diverse group of laypeople), offers this advice to mid-lifers like herself:
Develop thought patterns, particularly purpose in life, now, in one’s forties, fifties, and sixties. Find a purpose beyond your career – because you will one day retire.
Can you define your larger purpose, the one that may have started out as a dream in childhood and drew you to your career? If perchance you are feeling a bit burned out, like many others in midlife, what can you imagine Now that will help you to blossom Later, giving you purpose and passion for every step along the way?
Shirley Showalter is the former president of Goshen College. You can find her essay, “Called to Tell Our Stories: The Narrative Structure of Vocation” in Vocation Across the Academy: A New Vocabulary for Higher Education, ed. David S. Cunningham (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017). For more of Shirley’s musings, please visit her website at www.shirleyshowalter.com. For more posts by Shirley, click here. For a link to the NetVUE podcast episode featuring Shirley Showalter, click here.