During my graduate coursework in the late 1990s, Frank Kermode’s The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction was revelatory for me. Published in 1966, it certainly wasn’t part of any hot, new direction in Victorian studies; it couldn’t even be described as canonical at the time. But it was vital for my own scholarly trajectory in its examination of our need for endings and how narratives play with temporality and shape our experiences both of reading and of living.
I’ve been thinking about endings a lot over the past year, prompted no doubt by the death of a parent and by my choosing to give up one of my administrative appointments, but also by our new realities in the post-pandemic academy. Perhaps it seems odd to consider endings just as we approach or anticipate the start of the new academic year—new classes, new students, new colleagues. But endings are bound up in beginnings, and to recognize their importance in our interpretive work brings vocational clarity. To begin anything is, paradoxically, to begin its ending.
In his discussion of our fascination with Apocalypse, Kermode writes,
Men rush ‘into the middest,’ in medias res, when they are born; they also die in mediis rebus, and to make sense of their span they need fictive concords with origins and ends, such as give meaning to lives and to poems.
He goes on to say that the work of poets and philosophers is to make such sense: “We project ourselves—a small, humble elect, perhaps—past the End, so as to see the structure whole, a thing we cannot do from our spot of time in the middle.” In the current climate crisis, such a projection past the End seems less difficult, more real than fictive. It may terrify us—and perhaps should terrify us—but it also invites our interpretation of our life’s meaning and of our shared existence on this planet.
Since endings are often feared, not just the catastrophic end of human existence on this planet, their presence may go a long way to explain the anxiety that we or our students feel in facing new experiences. Even if we anticipate ends—resigning a job, leaving an unhealthy relationship, completing a degree or internship—fear lives at their core. To choose an ending is perhaps to do what we fear. But even mundane endings can’t always be chosen. When we read Great Expectations or Atonement or Ethan Frome, we cannot change the end. When ends come to us unanticipated or just unwilled, especially in our lives and not just in the novels that we read, then we may feel grief as well as fear.
In a recent Hidden Brain podcast episode, “The Best Years of Your Life,” the psychologist Laura L. Carstensen and author of A Long Bright Future: Happiness, Health, and Financial Security in an Age of Increased Longevity shares some of her research on aging. She explains that older people have a different perspective on time than younger people; they sense the ending of time, so to speak, whereas young people (like our students) understand time as endless. That diminished sense of time, she says, means that older people are less explorative, more content to socialize with fewer, good friends. They also focus more on positive thoughts and interactions and let go of the negative more easily.
One of the implications of Carstensen’s research is that these perspectives can be taught through thought experiments: older people can become open to exploration and new friendships when they imagine that their lives will suddenly be extended by 20 years, and younger people can imagine constraints on their lives that allow them to identify previously unseen meaning and value. Perhaps this could be a useful exercise in our teaching of vocational discernment. For example, we might ask first-year or sophomore students to imagine that they must leave their current college or university at the end of this term, and then to discuss what decisions they would make or how they would spend their time differently because of that end. One of my former colleagues asked students to write their own obituaries as a similar thought experiment. Although some of us would shy away from that particular assignment, its goal was also to prompt students to identify meaning and purpose in their lives through sensing their own endings.
Students who are starting college this fall have just navigated the end of their high school career and possibly the end of the old way of being within their family or of home itself. Grief may live inside of their anticipation of the new—their excitement and even joy at being on their own, learning new ideas and meeting new friends. Certainly, many are fearful.
Discerning vocation, or what I would describe as interpreting a calling, is limited by our perspective in the middle. We cannot know the future. But to interpret our lives or to judge the best mode of action at any given moment requires us to consider that future—to imagine possible ends, to “project ourselves [. . .] past the End” like the poets. We must interpret the parts at the same time as the whole—an impossibility when the whole is our mortal life, yet one that presses upon us.
I suppose, then, that we are called to endings as much as to beginnings. We envision the end of our time with students as we plan the syllabus and the schedule for the term, and in the middle of that term, we often wish for the end. But we must be able to see the end—to sense it, to use Kermode’s word—to do justice to the time that comes prior to it. Chronos drags on, and moments of kairos inspire us, yet time is our medium and our limit.
In the literature classroom, we talk often about ends because of their importance to any literary text, even those that purport to participate in a postmodern disruption of linearity. I invite students to value the end even as it signals loss or disappointment. As poet Billy Collins said in an interview years ago (I am paraphrasing), “to major in English is to major in death.” And even though I don’t often guide class discussions to our shared mortality, the discussion of ends—how we construct them in our stories and lives, how they shape the meaning of all that comes before, and how we can fear them even as they create significance—brings clarity to our daily work and relationships.
Ends are more than student learning outcomes and course objectives; they create meaning for our experiences and lives. They cannot do so, however, without the moments of meaning that we experience in the middle. Preparing students for such moments, even prompting them, and attending to ends are vital to the teaching of vocation.
Stephanie L. Johnson is professor of English and chair of the Department of English and Communication at The College of St. Scholastica. She serves as editor of Vocation Matters and is a NetVUE Faculty Fellow from the 2017 cohort of NetVUE’s Teaching Vocational Exploration seminar. She is co-editor of the collection Cultivating Vocation in Literary Studies (Edinburgh 2022). For more posts by Stephanie, click here.