One of my favorite moments from the movies I used to watch as a kid comes from Billy Crystal’s 1991 film, City Slickers. The moment I’m referring to is memorable and many will know it. Crystal’s character, Mitch, is on a mid-life crisis-abating trip with childhood friends to a western ranch in order to help drive the cattle across the land. The lead cowboy on the expedition, Curly, played by Jack Palance, is riding solo with Mitch and they start talking about love and the meaning of life. Curly holds up one leather-gloved finger and says, the meaning of life is “one thing, just one thing.” Leaning into the TV as a kid, I remember nodding along with Billy Crystal as he asked, “That’s great, but what’s the one thing?” Curley replies, “That’s what you’ve got to figure out.” It’s a compelling scene, and is likely in part responsible for Palance’s Oscar for this film. The idea that there is “one thing” — singular narrative — is often utilized in conversations about vocation. I’ve subscribed to it. Yet, recently I have been wondering if vocation in the singular is deeply misguiding.
Singular vocation is embedded in some of the most common ways we define the concept. That oft quoted line from Frederick Buechner, “vocation is the place where our deep gladness meets the world’s deep need” implies singularity. It suggests that there is one place where these two criteria meet. Go and find it. Consider Mary Oliver’s lovely poem The Summer Day and it’s closing lines, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” There is oneness here again: one life and one plan. It is not my intention to undermine some of the most poignant and treasured ideas about vocation in this post, for they are attempting to articulate through finite prose that which is often just outside of the reach of our language. Yet I do want to trouble them a bit by juxtaposing two stories, one fictional and the other anecdotal.
The fictional story comes from David James Duncan’s The River Why, where our protagonist Gus graduates from high school and leases a cabin in the Oregon woods along a river so that he can pursue his true love: fishing. Gus has found the one thing. He is strategic about it, too. As he gets his new, independent life set up in this cabin, Gus designs a pattern for his day right down to how much time he will spend doing the essentials: bathroom (15 minutes), sleep (6 hours), food consumption (30 minutes), non-angling conversation (0 minutes), and so on. Ultimately, Gus calculates that he can fish 14.5 hours per day, especially if he opts out of friendships and lives alone (Duncan, 57-58). It’s hard to see where the world’s deep need intersects with this particular joy, but if Mary Oliver asked Gus what he wanted to do with his one wild and precious life, the answer would have been singular: fishing. This is the set-up for a wonderful unfolding narrative where Gus ultimately realizes that a life of fishing 14.5 hours a day is unfulfilling. He knows the one thing, but it isn’t enough.
Let me share another story that is not fictional, but a generalized version of a story I’ve heard many times. Let’s imagine a friend sharing about her approach leading up to her comprehensive exams in her PhD program. She starts with a balanced schedule of reading, exercise, and social engagements. As pressure mounts, she schedules her days right down to the minute for essential things like food and sleep, all so that she can have maximum time for studying. She creates her own version of Gus’s schedule, trading out fishing for studying. Once on the other side of having passed her comprehensive exams, this friend shares how utterly unhappy and caught in the forest with no trees this life had become. Undergraduate students shift into this mode around high-stress seasons like finals. I also think there is a less extreme, ambient version of it at all times for some: maximizing each step to pursue the one thing. The one thing might be a job, grad-school, financial security, adventure, or devout service, but there is a common thread of a highly strategic and practiced approach to pursuing the “one thing.”
Gus and our PhD candidate friend both have made choices that have led to their lives of singular pursuit. The first was by design (Gus) and the second is often due to an erosion of principles of self-care and compromises that eventually leads to an overtly focused life (PhD friend). Both stories have an unhappy, unfulfilled, lonely, and somewhat directionless protagonist. The unintended consequence of so seriously pursuing that “one thing” is an onslaught of doubt and questions: “is this really my one thing?” and “why am I so unhappy given I’m doing exactly what I said I wanted?”
There are a lot of complex and reasonable answers to explain why someone might be unhappy while pursuing their “one thing.” Words like wellness, balance, community, and self-care would fit into it. But I think a single vocation can be part of the diagnosis. The prescription, counter-intuitively, may be to do much less of that one thing and indeed to seek and find a second and third thing.
While proponents of excellence or something like the 10,000 hour rule might say this is the exact opposite of a good prescription, I would argue it depends what the goal is. If the goal is to be the best, perhaps doing less is not wise. If the goal is to be fulfilled and authentic, perhaps doing less of a vocational pursuit is worth considering. In NetVUE’s recent publication, Hearing Vocation Differently: Meaning, Purpose, and Identity in the Multifaith Academy, editor David Cunningham charts out major themes of the volume in the epilogue, one of which is moving from “univocity to multiplicity” (Cunningham 310). In the multifaith and postmodern landscape, we see vocation can become plural, even necessitating the navigation of divergent or “conflicting callings” (Cunningham 311). This refreshing reframing of vocation implies that we cannot dedicate every hour to a single thing if we have multiple vocations, and perhaps that’s a good thing.
Some may feel multiple vocations (especially conflicting vocations) sounds overwhelming. But for others, it might be liberating. What if there was room to claim vocations that relate to professional goals, service goals, family goals, and self-discovery goals? And what if the ideal schedule did not focus on a single day as the currency of the good life, but instead implied a thoughtful schedule using years. How would you set up your one wild and precious life if you identified several intersections of your joys and the world’s needs? What if you devote Tuesdays to one and Thursdays to another? Or January to one and July to the other? Or your late 20’s to one and your mid 40’s to another?
For some, finding the one thing is a helpful vision. I posit that for others, a full life requires plurality. Vocation has too often been framed as a singular pursuit. I hope imagining a plurality of callings might open new doors of reflection, new questions of discernment, and new ways of living out life’s many seasons.
Daniel Meyers is the Director of the Center for Faith and Vocation at Butler University. He was ordained in the United Church of Christ and has served in his current role at Butler since 2015. With a team of colleagues and students, Daniel provides support to religious life communities on campus, promotes vocational reflection within and beyond the curriculum, furthers interfaith engagement on campus, supports faculty and staff in their vocational and professional development, and serves as part of the campus wellness resources.