Recently I found myself in a first-year seminar college classroom conducting an interview with the students’ professor. The class was arranged so the students made a horseshoe facing their professor, who was seated in a chair with her back to the whiteboard. I posed several questions designed to tease out the vocational narrative of the professor and simultaneously charted on the board the key ideas, concepts, moments, people, and influences she mentioned. The exercise is designed to provide an example of a vocational narrative to students and to visually represent active listening on the board. As the professor turned in her chair at the end of the interview to digest what the whiteboard displayed, I noticed for myself that as a result of my questions the entire board dealt with her past. Narrative is arguably the foundation of vocational reflection. Yet, does narrative draw our attention too strongly to the past? What opportunities for vocational reflection could occur by telling our future stories?
Any amount of reading within vocational literature will demonstrate how important narrative is to the work of talking about vocation. Narrative theory suggests that we derive meaning through stories, and thus reflecting on our meaning and purpose will naturally lead many of us to peruse our libraries of personal stories. Even this blog, Vocation Matters, is a great example of how often we use narrative for this important work. This is not by accident. As a single example, Robert Nash and Michele Murray in their 2010 text Helping College Students Find Purpose dedicate their fifth chapter to practical ways of accomplishing the titular idea; the first strategy is “Tell Stories.” The authors encourage readers to tell their own stories with their students and provide methods for students to tell their stories. If we know from where we came, perhaps we can understand where we are going. Nash and Murray indicate that telling stories can be instructive for identifying a future path, but overwhelmingly the task of telling our stories is a task that looks backwards.
There is nothing wrong with looking backwards; I have often characterized my own vocation through the image of links in a chain that are only clear in hindsight. [See Erin Van Laningham’s helpful reflections in “Cartographies of Vocation”]. Using the words of another essential vocational narrative story teller, in Let Your Life Speak Parker Palmer talks about how as a younger man he kept waiting for “way” to open in front of him with no real clarity ever emerging. Finally a mentor shares with him that way has never opened in front of her, “but a lot of way has closed behind me, and that’s had the same guiding effect.” So yes, looking backwards remains important.
Yet, I am wondering if we miss something by not fervently telling our future stories, not at the exclusion of stories about the past, but in addition to them. Jürgen Moltmann, author of Theology of Hope, said human beings are grounded by being “open to the future, open for new promised possibilities of being.” By reflecting on what has not yet come to be, we can imagine ourselves in an “expected future whole.” For Moltmann, the future is “the stage on which persons can become what they are not yet.” Andrew Lester and Howard W. Stone develop this insight in their work on pastoral care.
Intrinsic to this idea is the notion that future stories are hidden, often written but untold. The buried nature of the future story is explored in How to Think Theologically, throughout which the authors discuss the notion of “embedded theologies” as hidden ideas to which we subscribe without intention. Simply put, many of us may have a clear understanding of who we are becoming, having written a future story of getting a particular job, presenting at a particular conference, or having children with a particular romantic interest, and so forth. For those of us who think vocationally and go about the delicate work of encouraging others to do so, new landscapes of meaning and purpose may be uncovered, revealed, and built by asking people to tell their future stories or indeed to write new ones. [For more on these themes, see John Barton’s posts entitled “Back to the Future”].
This line of reflection should be pursued with great care. Sometimes the only way we come to realize how much we believed these future stories is when we lose them. In their essay, Lester and Stone used the concept of future story for pastoral care because it relates to loss. When something occurs that forces us to change or causes a closely held goal to no longer be feasible, we might lose an embedded future narrative. In some cases we lose a goal we didn’t even know we had. Changing your major or not getting into the desired internship may not just be about adapting expectations; these changes might include real loss over a whole chain of events in which a student was meant to be the protagonist, which now can never happen. While Lester is writing with pastoral care practitioners in mind, his theory articulates the potential power of writing new future stories as a source of healing. Whether embedded or explicit, if we lose one future story there is potential in taking the pen and writing a new future story designed for hope and healing.
Many of us won’t do this on our own. In order to unearth our existing future stories or to rewrite new ones, we must be given opportunities to reflect on our futures. The vocational narrative should not only chart the people, places, experiences, and life seasons that most inform who you are. Vocational narratives should project further into who you have yet to become, what experiences you have yet to have, and what mentors you have yet to meet. Imagine that you accomplished your current vocational goals and are a decade down the road, what then becomes your expectation of self, others, and world? In what stories are you the protagonist related to your future friends, family, society, social goods, and global problems? Uncovering imbedded, un-interrogated, future stories is gentle work. We should tread lightly, recognizing that in many cases these stories have been written but unspoken for many years. Yet, by simply asking, we give others a chance to tell what they did not know to be true, to heal from what they did not realize they lost, and potentially to rewrite a new path they did not know they were on.
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.