Vocational gluttony and our fascination with unity

In a recent essay in The Christian Century, L. Roger Owens confesses that he is guilty of what a wise friend dubbed “vocational gluttony.” Recognizing his own malaise in that descriptor, Owens wonders, “Was I greedy for excessive variety in my vocational pursuits? Was I refusing vocational simplicity, refusing to focus, to settle down, to be satisfied?”

Owens goes on to refer to the “trifecta” of Mary Oliver, Frederick Buechner, and Annie Dillard, writers who variously invoke the significance (and necessity?) of a one, true calling. There is a compelling power to the idea of a unified singularity when it comes to how we understand our life’s purpose.

Woodcut attributed to Albrecht Dürer from Ship of Fools by Sebastian Brant, published in Basel in 1498. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

This is a theme that Daniel Meyers’ takes up in “Plurality of Vocations: Finding Seasons Rather than Singularity.” Daniel writes, “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.”

Ultimately, Owens’ settles upon the metaphor of a “through line,” the underlying reason for his many pursuits:

Vocation doesn’t have to be about focus, finding the one right thing, discerning the one right job, landing in the one right place. Instead, we might begin to discern whether there’s a through line that gives coherence to the variety of pursuits that call for our attention. We might look at our lives and say, Yes, these pursuits make sense as chapters in a coherent vocational story, even if on the surface the relationship among them is not obvious.

L. Roger Owens, “Vocational Gluttony,” The Christian Century (September 28, 2021)

This brings to mind the William Stafford image of a “thread” in a poem that Parker Palmer likes to cite:

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.

William Stafford, title poem from The Way It Is (Graywolf Press, 1999).

Click here to hear Stafford reading this poem.

I can’t help but wonder whether this fascination with an unchanging, unified whole is a Platonic obsession, a habit of mind that does not always serve us. While a possible “through line” can be discerned retrospectively, identifying it is perhaps a tall order for a young adult still in the early stages of life.

When it comes to helping young adults in their vocational development and discernment, it seems that they follow different arcs. Consider the student who arrives at college with an unwavering certainty that they want to be a lawyer. When they describe their goal, it becomes clear that they have already settled upon a narrative of a single, true calling but also that they seem to have prematurely foreclosed other options in a way that seems detrimental. In these cases, what seems most needed is some gentle guidance toward variety – trying out new things in what might become a more expanded horizon.

Other students are a hot mess of varied interests and goals. Indeed, there is a culture of busyness on many campuses that leads students to pursue as many different opportunities as possible. This is exemplified by the long list of positions and clubs they include in the signature line of their email as well as the trend towards amassing as many majors, minors, and “certificates,” that can fit into an undergraduate career. Such diffusion in their attention can often hit a crisis point around the junior year. Here, a good mentor can help guide discernment towards something more focused and coherent.

Both vocational gluttony and vocational narrowness can be a problem but as with most things, it depends on the particularities of the person and their context. When does pursuing a plurality of callings become gluttonous? Is this a sign of a spiritual crisis, a deformation that requires repair? Perhaps it is the result of a “fear of missing out” or some other anxiety? Likewise, an overly strict and narrow focus can curtail a person’s full flourishing. It can also be the product of an anxiety, akin to what Emerson diagnosed as the “hobgoblin of little minds.”

Stafford’s poem includes the idea that it is often hard for others to understand how our various pursuits connect because they are unable to see the through line. In contrast, Owens writes, with a tone of grateful relief, that other people “can see aspects of my life with a clarity I sometimes can’t are often better at noticing what connects to my vocational through line and what doesn’t.” That’s often what a mentor does, either by drawing out the connections through gentle, open-ended questioning or by suggesting how some different projects might connect.

But there is a value to letting students’ interests retain variety and even some apparent incoherence. One of the kindest things a mentor did for me at an early stage was to empower me to claim multiple interests without letting go of one or forcing an artificial unity. Walt Whitman’s words from Song of Myself exemplify this alternative way of thinking:

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Hannah Schell was a professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religion at Monmouth College in Illinois from 2001-2018. She is the author of “Commitment and Community: The Virtue of Loyalty and Vocational Discernment” in At this Time and In This Place: Vocation and Higher Education, ed. David S. Cunningham (Oxford University Press, 2015), and, more recently, “Loyalty in the Time of Catastrophe: Anthropocene Reflections” (co-written with Mark Larrimore). Currently the Online Community Coordinator and the editor of this blog, she is also a campus consultant for NetVUE. Click here to see other blog posts by Hannah.

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