The Chastening of Careerists, Part 2

In a previous post, I introduced two related concerns I have with the otherwise difficult, commendable work of turning a career into a calling. My concerns, again, are these:

Screen Shot 2018-07-25 at 4.56.04 PMFirst: If I were to fully and without remainder make my career into a calling, would that collapse the difference between them? Would calling and career become synonyms, such that the first no longer transcends and troubles the second?

Second: If it is I who makes meaning, and forges a path, and crafts a job, and even serves others through my work, does this mean that a calling is something that I always actively invent and employ, rather than hear and respond to? Can meaning, purpose, and service fall fully within my control without turning them into something they’re not?

Here I want to explore the second, related claim—namely, that strategically transforming a career into a calling risks giving too much custody and charge (not to mention credit) to any one human being. It risks obscuring the receptive, responsive dimension of being called, which is otherwise decisive to the phenomenon.

Working with David Orr’s essay, “The Dangers of Education,” I argued that developing a career and discerning a calling are and should remain different sorts of endeavors, even as they overlap considerably. One needs to preserve, rather than reduce, what Brian Mahan describes as “the inevitable tension between the self perceived as morally responsible or spiritually advanced and the self perceived as successful in the more banal, everyday sense of the word” (Forgetting Ourselves on Purpose, xix). In short, understanding oneself to be called should become a “counterplayer” (9) to the individual ambitions that almost always drive upwardly-mobile careerists.

Some might argue that recent college graduates in their twenties are already all-too “receptive” and “responsive” (read: passive and impulsive). Meg Jay, in her book, The Defining Decade, argues that twentysomething-year-olds need to stop waiting for relationships and careers to fall into their laps. She summons them instead to“claim your adulthood. Be intentional. Get to work. Pick your family….Make your own certainty” (Jay, 201; see my earlier response in “The Tragedy of the Road Not Taken.”)

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From Mark Enser’s “Can We Change Mindsets?”

The contention that young persons should actively form rather than passively find their vocations has some empirical support. I’m thinking of the recent studies from Stanford related to the work on “growth mindset.” One summary report interprets the study as pointing out the limitations of “finding” (versus actively cultivating) one’s passions.Just as those with “growth” interpretations of their aptitudes and identities engage new learning more deeply (compared with those who understand themselves as “fixed”), so too with one’s interests and passions: “A future isn’t decided by a set path; rather, it’s shaped by a series of choices and hard work.” One of the researchers, Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, writes this:

My undergraduates, at first, get all starry-eyed about the idea of finding their passion, but over time they get far more excited about developing their passion and seeing it through. They come to understand that that’s how they and their futures will be shaped and how they will ultimately make their contributions.

Certainly, educators ought to be enabling students to actively carve a fitting path rather than perpetually wait for a vocational Godot to enter their lives, stage right. And yet, I do think we can (and often do) over-emphasize the degree to which passion-development is in our control. Passion, from the late Latin passio (suffering, being acted upon), entails enduringsomething (or someone) that impinges from without. It is etymologically related to patience, and to being a patient.  The passion of Christ (his arrest, torture, and execution) graphically preserves these connotations of passivity, which is related to passion as well.  Passionate love also has these passive connotations. When one fallsin love—passionately, in love—one finds oneself de-centered, drawn out by another, a bit out of balance within the ec-stasy.

How does one develop or cultivate such passion? Doing so certainly is as much about patiently awaiting, recognizing, and giving way to what we love, just as cultivating one’s calling firstly entails discerning it, listening for it, and then responding, becoming response-able.

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The French philosopher and religious mystic Simone Weil writes of the art of paying attention and the transcendent, ecstatic experience of doing so. We must train hard to learn to be open, expectant, attentive. In “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies toward the Love of God,” Weil writes of traditional studies, and of mathematics in particular, as invaluable for developing the “habit of attention,” which for her is the substance of prayer. Attending to a difficult problem, one where the answer refuses to present itself, ideally consists—as with prayer itself—of “suspending our thought, leaving it detached, empty and ready to be penetrated by the object.”  She claims that wrong answers in geometry (or bad translations in a foreign language, or unpersuasive prose in a writing class) are almost always the product of wanting to be too active, of “seizing upon some idea too hastily.” Patiently resisting this temptation and remaining open to the truth is really hard, receptive work, as a mathematician or a saint would profess.

At church-related colleges such as my own, many will continue to use theological language, as did Weil, to identify the Caller and calling that students patiently receive. But more secular schools and secular students also attend to the responsive nature of vocation whenever they consider the needs of a community, which must be carefully discerned and which draw out a person’s passions, making one responsible. The phenomenon of each is structurally similar. Callings come, and we receive them, and yet doing so requires intentionality and practice on our part.

Parker Palmer is equal parts theological and simply realistic when he invokes the wholeness and hardness of reality to which one’s life must respond:

If we accept that our lives are dependent on an inexorable cycle of seasons, on a play of powers that we can conspire with but never control, we run headlong into a culture that insists, against all evidence, that we can make whatever kind of life we want, whenever we want it. Deeper still, we run headlong into our own egos, which want desperately to believe that we are always in charge….We need to challenge and reform these distortions of culture and ego—reform them toward ways of thinking and doing and being that are rooted in respect for the living ecology of life. (Let Your Life Speak,97)

Is it coincidence that Palmer invokes ecological intelligence here, just as Orr points to the ecologist Aldo Leopold in distinguishing a calling from a career(ist)? Probing that question is perhaps a different conversation! (And one that Jeff Brown has explored here).

Here I can only conclude that by actively cultivating “passive” dispositions—dispositions of listening, of waiting, of discerning, of abiding, of loving—our students do the good and needed work of curbing personal ambition and of paying attention to the needs and summons of other creatures. Only then can they enjoy their callings as the gifts and the tasks that they are.

Jason Mahn is an Associate Professor of Religion and Director of the Presidential Center for Faith and Learning at Augustana College in Illinois. He is the author of the essay, “The Conflict in Our Callings: The Anguish (and Joy) of Willing Several Things,” which appeared in Vocation Across the Academy: A New Vocabulary for Higher Education, ed. David S. Cunningham (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017). 

Author: Jason A. Mahn

Jason A. Mahn is Professor of Religion and Director of the Presidential Center for Faith and Learning at Augustana College in Illinois. He is the author of the essay, “The Conflict in Our Callings: The Anguish (and Joy) of Willing Several Things,” which appeared in Vocation Across the Academy: A New Vocabulary for Higher Education, ed. David S. Cunningham (Oxford UP 2017). Jason recently authored Neighbor Love through Fearful Days: Finding Purpose and Meaning in a Time of Crisis (Fortress 2021), and co-edited So That All May Flourish: The Aims of Lutheran Higher Education (Fortress 2023).

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