Reaffirming Our Vocational Authenticity with Courage and Humility

Of the many types of distractions that clear my mind during the pandemic lockdown, I have found it especially entertaining to re-read Louise Penny’s Three Pines mysteries. The series, set in a fictional Canadian village in Quebec’s Eastern Townships, features Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec as he and his team, often with the assistance of the villagers of Three Pines, investigate and solve crimes that deal with murder. If you have read these mysteries, you will remember that Gamache has often told new agents of the police force the four statements that can lead to wisdom in their lives and success in their work: (1) I was wrong. (2) I’m sorry. (3) I don’t know. (4) I need help. Gamache hopes to ground the new agents in humility and an openness to critique and change that can develop them as effective and humane investigators. He is challenging the new agents to develop an honesty and genuineness in their communication with others as they investigate crimes, one that arises from a morally aware personal character and that shows respect for the persons involved in the incident. In turn, this personal authenticity creates an investigator that is grounded in human sensitivity and professional effectiveness.

It struck me that these statements might also be useful for reflecting upon vocational call. Clarifying and living out a vocational commitment involves a fundamental disclosure of authenticity—an awareness of meaning and purpose in our lives is rooted in that which we value.

We reveal something fundamental about who we are as persons when we discern and live out these values through our vocational commitments. The process of discernment is rarely a linear process. It becomes clarified in the reflected upon engagement with the work to which we feel called and connecting it to larger issues of meaning and purpose in our lives and in our communal contexts. It makes a huge difference for our communities, as well as our professional lives, when we are formed as persons and professionals who can admit our mistakes, apologize, acknowledge that we don’t know something and ask for help when we need it.

The coronavirus pandemic that has upended semester calendars, teaching practices and scholarly research schedules provides an important opportunity for us to reflect upon our vocational authenticity. In fact, it is exactly in such moments of dislocation that we are most challenged to reflect upon and make sense of our convictions as teachers and scholars and to renew our commitments to its meaning and purpose in our lives. Such reflection can help us to find again a deeper sense of the genuineness of who we are and how it is expressed in our vocational calling.

The realities of online meeting fatigue.

The Telegraph. April 22, 2020.

Photo source: Reuters

The public health emergency forced teachers and students to shift quickly to online learning formats in order to complete semester courses. New ways of research and collaboration had to be devised for research progress and deadlines. For some it may have been a manageable shift, for others it may have been a tremendous struggle. For all it likely involved teaching, learning and researching in unfamiliar and perhaps uncomfortable ways. And it appears unlikely to be resolved soon. A new normal is being created for the art and craft of teaching and scholarship, whether we are ready, willing or able—or not. Maybe we are ready for it, or maybe we feel “Wait. I did not sign up for this.” For some whose faculty position has been cut, the answer about what it means to teach and do research in this new environment has been made for us. Regardless of the particulars of our situation, it is certain that change in the ways that we function as professionals will inevitably become a reality.

This is where Gamache’s statements (i.e. author Louise Penny’s wisdom) might be a helpful construct to shape our reflection. It can help us to consider what we need to admit, and to whom, in order to sustain our personal and professional “realness” and thus, our vocational authenticity. Asking ourselves specific questions can focus our awareness: In what have I been mistaken? To whom do I need to apologize? What do I need to admit that I don’t know? To whom do I need to reach out to in order to get the help I need?

Writer Louise Penny

In what ways can we use spiritual, intellectual and emotional practices to create space for such reflection? We might, for example, engage in learning something new and difficult that is completely removed from the areas which we excel as an opportunity for reflection. Another idea might be to keep a journal with our analysis of our attempts to rework a syllabus or re-tool our teaching methods. We could develop artistic expressions that articulate the ways that our vocational image is developing in response to the changes to which we adapt.

It takes some measure of courage and self-esteem to reflect honestly on our limitations and, at times, the outright failures in our teaching and scholarly vocations. Often, it is not an acceptable stance in a profession based on the assumption that everyone with a doctorate has the capacity to learn all that they need in order to do the work required with excellence. It is in moments of intense upheaval that this assumption is tested, and we are challenged to accept our major stumblings with humility. We are challenged to recall how painstaking it can be to become competent when learning a new and unfamiliar body of knowledge. More importantly, it can make our successes even that much more satisfying.

We embrace personal wisdom and professional humility when we can confidently admit the things that we struggle to master, the help we need to improve, the things we got wrong, and the humility to apologize for any unintended harm caused to another. We can model for students what it means to live with a sense of vocational authenticity in the midst of disorder as we learn to adjust and seek a common way forward.


Kathleen T. Talvacchia is a contextual theologian with interest in practical theology, Christian practices of marginalized communities, and Queer theology. She was previously at Union Theological Seminary and New York University Graduate School of Arts and Science. Most recently she authored Embracing Disruptive Coherence: Coming Out as Erotic Ethical Practice (2019) and co-edited Queer Christianities: Lived Religion in Transgressive Forms (2015). While one part of her would love for vocational journeying to include a predictable map, her better-self rolls with and revels in the messy, unpredictable energy of Divine Wisdom.

One thought on “Reaffirming Our Vocational Authenticity with Courage and Humility

  1. I too enjoy Louise Penny’s mysteries, and now, by reading your excellent summary, I know why! Penny’s four statements seemingly so simple and yet so wise are often difficult to apply, but have a great healing effect, especially when leaders utilize them in times of crisis such as we are facing in our world today!

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