Daunting Freedom, Paralyzing Fears

One of the most dramatic features of the late modern period (which to historians means anything after about 1790) is that everything about where you will live and what kind of work you will do and who you are likely to meet and marry was no longer decided by the time you were born. As the myriad changes in the technology of production collectively constituting the Industrial Revolution produced in turn momentous shifts in geographical, political and familial organization, suddenly people no longer simply inherited their place on the planet and their place and role in a community from their parents. More than two centuries downstream, we take all this for granted, but of course in the grand sweep of human experience across millennia, it’s really pretty much a recent innovation.

The good news is that, to a significant extent, if you are born in the US or Canada, in Western Europe and in increasing portions of Eastern Europe, as well as in many other arenas of relative affluence and stability around the globe, you are largely free to choose your life: where you want to live, what kind of work you want to do, whether and whom you want to marry or whether to have a family at all. In short, you can decide who and what you want to be when you grow up. (This remains true in general despite all the ways access to various life paths and indeed to freedom of choice itself is filtered and limited by economic resources, ethnicity and social class in America as elsewhere, despite our denials. Social mobility and the liberty it offers is not by any means unqualified or universal, but it is real, and historically unprecedented.)

The Birth of the World

Joan Miró
(Spanish, 1893–1983)

1925. Oil on canvas.

Museum of Modern Art, New York.

This liberty, as many of our students have already come to suspect, is also the bad news. Perhaps we and they are altogether unable to imagine what it would have been like to always know that you were going to be a farmer in Provence, a shipbuilder in Portugal, or a silversmith in Boston. Maybe that was for many a straitjacket, binding them to a life they had no say in. But I suspect that from our historical distance, it seems kind of cozy and reassuring, especially to our graduating students, NOT to have to make a decision, or more like an ongoing series of them, in order to figure out what you were going to do with yourself.

On a related note: For more on the paradox of choice, see William Cavanaugh’s “Vocation and freedom in a ‘free market’ economy” and Hannah Schell’s “The problem with ‘you can do anything you want.'”

At no time is the uncertainty and the anxiety that goes with it more acute than for those who are within sight of the end of college. For until now, while most of them have made their own choices and lived their own lives to be sure, they have done so within a surrounding framework that someone else has planned and put in place. The family, the community, the church, the school system, the college—various people and institutions have taken it upon themselves to decide what children and then adolescents and then emerging young adults need to learn and to do to be ready for adulthood. And now. . . that scaffolding is being pulled away. It is no wonder if they find the freedom—and the necessity—of figuring out their own lives from here a little daunting.   

It is important for us to take real note of the fact that the anxiety our young people face is not only a historically recent phenomenon, but one now greatly exacerbated by ongoing systemic changes. Exponential increases in geographic mobility and information flow, and increasingly globalized systems of cultural and economic production, distribution, marketing and consumption vastly increase access. They also multiply options, heighten uncertainty, and intensify competition. The world in our students’ immediate view is at once unimaginably larger than that inhabited by their predecessors of even two generations ago, and palpably smaller, as the scenes of life and death around the globe are instantly visible to them at the click of a mouse, and reachable by air in a matter of hours. 

On a related note: On the realities of making hard choices, see Daniel Meyers’ “Making hard choices: the importance of deciding not deferring.” On globalization and environmental crisis and its relevance for vocation, see Bren Tooley’s “Vocation in a global frame: four considerations.”

One aspect of this radically shrunken world is the overwhelming and inescapable presence of every disaster on the planet, and every looming crisis. A 20-something of my acquaintance in his last semester of college took a course entitled “Slouching Toward the Apocalypse”. The course covered a wide range of projected threats to the survival and welfare of our species. These included zoonotic plagues occasioned by human encroachment upon wild habitat, coupled with worldwide air travel, and the growth of antibiotic resistance. Students were shown maps depicting ongoing habitat destruction and climbing rates of human-caused extinction that portend massive ecosystem failures. . . . They read analyses of the covert spread of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, and of the rise of non-state actors not effectively limited by existing non-proliferation protocols. Perhaps most paralyzing of all, they looked at swaths of data recording the escalating and perhaps irreversible effects of global warming and made dark jokes about how long they could tread water.

Nebuchadnezzar

William Blake (English, 1757-1827)

1795-c.1805. Color print, ink and watercolor on paper.

Tate Gallery, London

Now, make no mistake: honest, conscientiously-researched and evidence-based analyses of real threats to the human community and the planet on which it depends are altogether appropriate for a university; you might even say they are why we have universities. But slouching toward the apocalypse? Much as I appreciate the nod to Yeats, I question the wisdom of framing in this way the life and work our graduating students are just embarking upon. In the case of the young man I know, this portrait of the future as a foregone conclusion we can only lament has had a stultifying effect. Despite keen intelligence, willingness to work hard, a deep sense of moral responsibility, and gifts of empathy and kindness, he has rather floundered than progressed in the years since graduation. It seems as if he is unable to find something that seems to him worth investing in for the long term. His conviction about our situation and our unwillingness to address it fatally undercuts hope, making it impossible for him to believe that anything he undertakes can really matter even within the horizon of his own lifespan, much less on any grander scale. . . . He reads avidly, supports himself in various jobs, maintains a rich diversity of friendships, and is generous to panhandlers and unhoused folks in the city where he lives. But it would be hard to find in this anything deserving the name of vocation. [. . .]

On a related note: On maintaining hope and a sense of meaning in the face of apocalypse, see Jason Stevens’ “Vocation and the apocalypse: McCarthy’s The Road.”

Accepting that the challenges that face us as a nation and as a species are genuine, how do we speak in ways that acknowledge real risks without engendering either despair or escapism? What does our language of vocation, what do we as teachers and guides to the rising generation of leaders in church and society, have to offer both of these young men, and to all the other young women and men in whose formation we share?    

This post is an excerpt from a keynote address delivered at a NetVUE regional gathering held at Huntingdon College in February 2020. The entirety of the talk is available to NetVUE members through the Community Network Site.


Sondra Wheeler is Martha Ashby Carr Professor of Christian Ethics at Wesley Theological Seminary where she teaches bioethics, the history of theological ethics, the virtue tradition, and biblical ethics. She is the author of several books including What We Were Made For: Christian Reflections on Love (Jossey-Bass, 2007) and more recently, Minister as Moral Theologian and Sustaining Ministry: Foundations and Practices for Serving Faithfully, both published by Baker Academic in 2017.

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