It’s difficult to think productively about the future when the world seems pitted against your very well-being and existence. That is how many of my students are feeling these days.
Their hopelessness is earned, their despondency legitimate. It is not born of fragility or a lack of resiliency, as some pundits of higher education often want to suggest. My otherwise hard-working and motivated students are demoralized and exhausted.
And so are most of my colleagues at the small college where I teach — as are most of my friends who teach, in one capacity or another, spread all over the country. And so am I. Many of us trying to understand our own devotion to what seems, at least at the moment, to be a lost cause.
I have previously written about Josiah Royce’s insights into the nature of loyalty as a helpful resource for thinking about vocation. But what does the “loyal agent” do when everything seems lost?
Here, too, Royce has something to teach us, when he directs our attention to the nature of a “lost cause.” “Loyalty to lost causes,” Royce states in Philosophy of Loyalty (1908), is “one of the most potent influences of human history.” He goes on to describe how even when a cause seems lost “in the visible world . . . it survives in the hearts of its faithful followers, [and] one sees more clearly than ever that its appeal is no longer to be fully met by any possible present deed.” Visions of the way the world could be serve as galvanizing ideals.
But this is a two-step process, as Royce astutely observes. Sorrow “pierces the heart” of those who are loyal in the face of the seemingly lost cause; a heavy blanket of grief shrouds them.
Yet, for the loyal agent, grief is a “comrade”: “loyalty, always strenuous and active . . . devotes itself to resolving upon what shall be. Grief it therefore transforms into a stimulating sense of need. If we have lost, then let us find.” The vision of the cause can deliver a loyal person through the dark days.
This is possible, Royce notes further, because of a second “comrade.” Imagination, the capacity of the loyal to generate new, creative visions of the cause, propels loyal agents forward. Such imagination furnishes a new, higher vision, one “that can be translated into deeds.” Loyalty to a cause is inherently and incessantly active. It never supplies permission to retreat from the world.
Doing the work of vocational discernment may seem impossible, even superfluous in the face of exhaustion and setback. We simply don’t have the emotional and imaginative resources to do anything beyond the day-to-day work of keeping our students from becoming derailed at this point in the semester. The challenge at these moments, taking a cue from Royce, is to help deliver our students from the first stage and into the second stage, from grief to imagination.
Here are some still tentative thoughts about how we undertake that subtle challenge:
First, it requires us to listen all the more attentively. How do they articulate their fears or anxieties at these dark moments? Like all grief, it cannot be rushed. To demand that someone relinquish one’s fear does a harmful disservice. We have to create spaces for them to name their fears, to rant, to cry. Or, to sit silently with them, our presence as a form of witness.
Second, and cautiously, we begin to remind them of their strengths, of what they know to be true. What hasn’t changed, even when all seems lost? What are those even more fundamental commitments and values? Why are they here? Where are they headed?
Then, brass tacks. What needs to be done, now? What will they do tonight, tomorrow, next week? What are their resources? Not just their own strengths, gifts and talents but their friendships and familial connections, their other networks of belonging.
The immediate and pragmatic can then be enhanced with some gentle reflection. What new things are they learning about themselves? About their most deeply held commitments? About what is true? What, finally, is being revealed about their faith?
At this time of the year in particular — when we find it harder and harder to find enough light — the work of vocational discernment turns out to be more important than ever.
Quotations from Josiah Royce, Philosophy of Loyalty (1908), reprinted with a new Introduction by John J. McDermott (Nashville: Vanderbilty University Press, 1995), pp. 130–34.