Finding vocation in loss, suffering, and death

One’s truest sense of vocation is always revealed in the meaning of one’s life. Here we encounter the… paradox that we must share with our students—that the question of meaning is finally dependent on the reality of death. We ask about the meaning of life because the fact of death makes our lives seem so absurd. Put another way, the fact that we will inevitably die forces each of us to ask if there is meaning in the midst of such apparent meaninglessness.

There could be no better time than the present moment, with the Covid-19 pandemic threatening human life all over the world, to ask the question, “How might we find vocation in loss, suffering, and death?” To help us think about that question, I want to begin with a story.

It was almost twenty years ago when I learned that the Lilly Endowment had awarded Pepperdine University, where I taught at that time, a $2 million grant to support the “theological exploration of vocation” with our students.

I was ecstatic, and only moments after that call, I met one of my classes and shared the news with my students. They all were delighted—all, that is, except one. Far from delighted, he seemed distressed and troubled and told me straight up, “This project strikes me as a gift to children of privilege, a project that will simply cater to their own self-absorption. Most of the people in the world,” he continued, “don’t have the luxury of thinking about their ‘vocation.’ Life for them is a struggle simply to survive.”

My student’s words hit me like a bolt of lightning and reinforced a truth I already knew—that to serve our students well, this project had to encourage them to envision their lives and careers in terms much larger than themselves.

It goes without saying that our students—and all of us—must let our lives speak, as Parker Palmer puts it, and pay close attention to the kind of work that brings us joy and satisfaction. But if that is the only voice we hear, then we risk listening only to our self-indulgent whims.

To guard against that mistake, there are two other voices we must hear, especially if we are Christians engaged in a “theological exploration of vocation.”

First, long before we listen for the voice within, we must know that God has already called us to lives that are radically transformed, lives dedicated to service to others, especially the poor, the marginalized, and the oppressed.

This is the point made so well by Lee Hardy in The Fabric of This World. “To those of us who are familiar with the language of the Bible,” Hardy writes, “there is something odd about the phrase, ‘choosing a vocation.’ For in the New Testament, the primary, if not exclusive, meaning of the term ‘vocation’—or calling (klesis)—pertains to the call of the gospel, pure and simple.” Indeed, Hardy continues, “job satisfaction cannot, for the Christian, serve as the sole or even primary criterion by which a job is evaluated. For an occupation must be first considered in terms of how it provides a fitting place for the exercise of one’s gifts in the service of others.”

Ultimately, to find one’s vocation means to find one’s life. But here we encounter a paradox that literally defines the Christian faith. According to Jesus, one never finds one’s life—one never finds one’s vocation—by merely listening to the voice within and doing what brings us joy. Rather, “whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Mt. 16:25). And if we wonder what it means to lose one’s life for his sake, the answer is not hard to find. For to those who fed the hungry, clothed the naked, and welcomed the stranger, Jesus pointedly said, “As you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” (Mt. 25:35-40).

For more from Lee Hardy on jobs and vocation, see this pair of essays that appeared in Comment.

The counsel that one finds one’s life—and by extension, one’s vocation—by losing one’s self in service to others is not, however, unique to the Christian faith. One finds variations of that theme in Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and virtually all the world’s great religions. Indeed, that theme is deeply rooted in the wisdom of the ages, but the consumerist culture in which we live may hide that truth from our students unless we, their teachers, help them to see it, grasp it, and internalize it. And that is the first step we must take in resisting vocation as little more than self-indulgence.

The second step grows from the fact that one’s truest sense of vocation is always revealed in the meaning of one’s life. And here we encounter the second paradox that we must share with our students—that the question of meaning is finally dependent on the reality of death. We ask about the meaning of life because the fact of death makes our lives seem so absurd. Put another way, the fact that we will inevitably die forces each of us to ask if there is meaning in the midst of such apparent meaninglessness.

It is true that our students, for the most part, cannot experience the absolute threat of their own personal deaths as profoundly as those of us who are older, even in the midst of a life-threatening pandemic. Yet, they inevitably experience the relative threat of death in the form of suffering, tragedy, broken relationships, divorce, and the death of friends and relatives. And precisely in those events they may discover both the meaning of life and the meaning of vocation.

Three stories

I want now to tell three stories that can help us understand how the questions of meaning and vocation will offer up their richest answers when we view them against the backdrop of our finitude, our brokenness, and our inevitable deaths.

Actor Richard Schiff as Reb Saunders in a 2013 production of The Chosen.

The first story, though found in a work of fiction, nonetheless rings true to our deepest instincts. It comes from Chaim Potok’s The Chosen which tells the story of Reuven Malter whose father was driving himself relentlessly—making speeches and raising money—on behalf of the creation of a Jewish state. One night when Mr. Malter came home especially tired and worn, Reuven counseled him to take better care of himself.

In response, Rueven’s father reminded him of what God said to Moses when he was about to die, according to the rabbis:

“He said to Moses, ‘You have toiled and labored, now you are worthy of rest.’ . . . Human beings do not live forever, Reuven. We live less than the time it takes to blink an eye, if we measure our lives against eternity. . . . What does it mean to have to suffer so much if our lives are nothing more than the blink of an eye? I learned a long time ago, Reuven, that a blink of an eye in itself is nothing. But the eye that blinks, that is something. A span of life is nothing. But the man who lives that span, he is something. He can fill that span with meaning, so its quality is immeasurable though its quantity may be insignificant. . . . A life filled with meaning is worthy of rest. I want to be worthy of rest when I am no longer here.”

Chaim Potok, The Chosen (1967)

The second story comes from Victor Frankl’s profoundly moving book, Man’s Search for Meaning. There, Frankl reflects on questions of meaning and vocation against the backdrop of unspeakable suffering in a Nazi concentration camp. Frankl’s question was simple and clear: in the face of such debilitating suffering, how can one find any sense of meaning whatsoever?

Frankl responds with the stunning claim that “if there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering.” That is why Frankl was so fond of the words of Nietzsche: “He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.” And though it may seem amazing and almost unbelievable, this is precisely why Frankl and his comrades in the death camps finally decided to embrace their suffering as their vocation.

Once the meaning of suffering had been revealed to us, we refused to minimize or alleviate the camp’s tortures by ignoring them or harboring false illusions and entertaining artificial optimism. Suffering had become a task on which we did not want to turn our backs. We had realized its hidden opportunities for achievement.

Viktor Frankl, Mean’s Search for Meaning (1946)

And that is why some in the death camps could “walk through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread.”

Viktor Frankl on the search for meaning

The third story is my own. Typically in our forties or fifties, we come to terms with the fact that life won’t last forever, and during my middle-age years, I often wondered how I would respond when I found myself staring the angel of death in the face.

The answer to that question emerged when I was 55 years old and suffered a debilitating heart attack in picturesque Door County, Wisconsin. The right side of my heart simply stopped working for the better part of a week, forcing the left side to do what it could to keep me alive. The doctors called my condition “congestive heart failure,” and I knew that I might never leave the hospital alive.

If the angel of death had visited me in my teens or early twenties, I would have responded with utter terror. The theology of self-reliance I learned as a child would be no match for the grim reaper, for self-reliance is always flawed and broken. But self-reliance was all I had, thanks to a church that taught me to think right and do right but seldom spoke of grace.

But over the years I discovered the gospel of grace, and by the time death came calling, I had so internalized that message that I responded with utter equanimity.

I understood by then that the gospel of grace has two components. I understood, first, that the King of the Universe has said “yes” to me, and in the face of my possible death, that “yes” was all that mattered. And my own brush with death reinforced a call that I had heard long before, a call rooted in God’s own grace—the call to extend grace to others. Precisely there I find purpose, meaning, and vocation.

In the end, it seems clear that to “let your life speak” is a start, but only a start toward a meaningful sense of vocation. We must also listen carefully to the voice that emerges from suffering and death, and if we do that, we may well grasp the truth embedded in the wisdom of the ages—that we will find our lives only when we lose them for the sake of others.

On a related note: On privilege and the pursuit of happiness, see Bren Tooley’s “Happiness and fulfillment” and “Exporting vocation.” On suffering and vocation, see Cynthia Wells’ reflection from 2013; on vocation and tragedy, see Jason Mahn’s “The tragedy of the road not taken” and Jason Stevens’ “Comedy or tragedy: some Shakespearean wisdom on vocation.” On Richard’s work on white supremacy, see “Wrestling with white supremacy.

Richard T. Hughes is professor emeritus at both Pepperdine University and Messiah College and teaches at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tennessee. He is author, co-author, or editor of over a dozen books including Myths America Lives By: White Supremacy and the Stories that Give Us Meaning (University of Illinois, 2018) and The Vocation of a Christian Scholar: How Christian Faith Can Sustain the Life of the Mind (Eerdmans, 2005).

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