Grief as the Garden of Compassion

The profound connection between grief and compassion can easily be forgotten, especially when we grow impatient with the long fingers of grief’s grasp (on ourselves, or others). I was reminded of their connection by Colleen Dunne, the Director of Campus Ministry at Saint Martin’s University in Washington State, who participated in a recent Zoom conversation among NetVUE campus ministers and afterward shared a piece she had written for her campus community. It begins with a quotation from Rumi:

Grief can be the garden of compassion. If you keep your heart open through everything, your pain can become your greatest ally in your life’s search for love and wisdom.

Jalalu’ddin Rumi
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Vocation matters in this time of pandemic

We find ourselves in a time of rapid change, fear, and great uncertainty, and each passing week seems to bring a new set of circumstances. Whatever your campus role, you are no doubt engaged in a kind of triage in order to hold your campus community together and support students in finishing up this academic year.

Here is a short list of pieces from Vocation Matters that directly or indirectly address themes relevant to this time of crisis:

Relevant pieces written prior to 2020:

As short, publicly accessible writings, please share these pieces with your colleagues and friends. You might consider using them as the starting point for a discussion among students, faculty and staff, or other members of your campus community.

If you find a particular post insightful or thought-provoking, please use the comments section to let the author know, and to encourage a wider conversation about how these thoughts have a new resonance.

Last updated on June 19, 2020.

Character and calling in a time of crisis

No doubt you have seen the advice, attributed to Mister Rogers’ mother, that we should look to the helpers in those times when the news is scary. As the frightening realities about the spread of the Covid-19 virus have unfolded over the last few weeks, there are also plenty of stories of heroes and heroines on the national and local level. Paying attention to their stories and especially to the virtues that they embody in this harrowing situation can be an opportunity for students to consider how the virtues intersect with calling. Here, I’ll mention two examples, but there are many others now just as there will be in the weeks and months ahead.

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In Memoriam

Douglas J. Schuurman (1955–2020)

We give thanks for the life and work of Douglas J. Schuurman, one of the founding leaders of the contemporary conversation on calling and vocation. Doug passed away on the evening of Saturday, February 15, 2020. Many in the NetVUE community will be familiar with his important book Vocation: Discerning Our Callings in Life (Eerdmans, 2004) and with the more recent collection (co-edited with Kathleen A. Cahalan) Calling in Today’s World: Voices from Eight Faith Perspectives (Eerdmans, 2016). Much of his life’s work was devoted to the task of “retrieving and reforming the Protestant concept of callings for modern times.” He also contributed to theological explorations that broaden the range of women’s callings, serving as co-editor (with Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen, Annelies Knoppers, Margaret L. Koch, and Helen M. Sterk) of After Eden: Facing the Challenge of Gender Reconciliation (Eerdmans, 1993).

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Wrestling with White Supremacy

Second edition published in 2014.

In an essay published in December in The Cresset that is now available online, Richard T. Hughes recounts how he slowly came to see the myth of white supremacy as one of the most significant in forming American history and identity. The author of Myths America Lives By (published by the University of Illinois Press in 2004 and revised in 2014), Richard shares how a comment offered during a panel at the American Academy of Religion initiated a change in his thinking:

I had spent years thinking about the Great American Myths. I had taught classes and written books and articles on that subject. While I acknowledged the persistence of racism in American life, not once had I considered the notion of white supremacy as an idea that has been central to the American mythos. I understood that avowed white supremacists stalked the American landscape, but I had always viewed them as standing on the margins of American life. To suggest that white supremacy was a defining American myth struck me as preposterous.

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Why go to college?

Why do young people go to college? In a short piece in Inside HigherEd this week entitled “A Not-So-Tidy Narrative,” Michael Horn and Bob Moesta share some of their findings, which were published this past fall in Choosing College: How to Make Better Learning Decisions Throughout Your Life (Jossey-Bass, 2019). The book explores the constellation (and complexity) of reasons that prospective students choose the college they do, and serves as a good reminder that it is about much more than “getting a job.”

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Re-thinking Leadership

Do you have a teetering stack of books on your bedside table? Mine looks like this: On the bottom, playing a support function, are usually classic texts that I know I should read but never really get around to (apologies to George Eliot). On top of that are books purchased in a temporary bout of self-improvement (currently: Fit at Mid-Life: a Feminist Fitness Journey, written by two philosophers and which I recommend even though I am only half-way through – ha ha!). Then, a friend’s brilliant yet difficult memoir about her mother’s suicide that I really should finish (The Art of Misdiagnosis) and a collection of poetry by a local poet (A New Index for Predicting Catastrophes). Closer to the top is Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality without Religion, the focus of a recently formed book-group of interesting people with whom I enjoy spending time; our conversations have thankfully been more reflective than the book itself. 

On top of the pile are books given to me in recent months by two different friends, who said some version of “you should read this” as they pressed the book into my hands. Both books are about leadership, and each one challenges our traditional understandings. 

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Passion vs. Duty

Should work be construed in the terms of passion or of duty? This is the question posed by a recent piece in the New York Times. The author, a philosopher by training, suggests the Stoic wisdom of Seneca as an antidote to our culture’s obsession with finding meaning through work. If we approach work in terms of duty, as Seneca advised, rather than as an expression of one’s passions, we will be less likely to fall prey to the threat of what another writer has described as “the religion of workism,” and the accompanying burn-out that could eventually develop.

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Help for Undecided Students

I “meandered” through several majors during my college years. Such exploration was encouraged, understood as an important part of the liberal arts commitment to “breadth” and the messy and slow process of “figuring it out.” By the time the deadline for declaring a major arrived, I had completed most of the required courses for the philosophy major, taken here and there as electives. I called home and left a message on my parent’s answering machine (this was in the late 80s), notifying them of my intention to declare a major in philosophy, Beyond having to endure my father’s jokes (Q: “What did the philosophy major say to the engineering major? A: “Do you want fries with that?”), they supported me in both the meandering and the final decision.

Thinking about this now from the perspective of college personnel, I can see why such meandering might be considered a problem, for the student as well as for the institution. A recent article in the Chronicle describes one strategy that some large universities are taking to circumvent these problems: the development of the “meta-major,” requiring students in their first year (and in some cases before they arrive on campus) to commit to a general area. Such interventions appear to be necessary, given the scale of the institutions. In one example cited in the article, the ratio of advisors to undeclared students is 1:275! Readers will not be surprised to hear that the “meta-major” is part of a larger strategy to improve retention and completion, and the article mentions other measures.

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Sharon Parks on Good Mentoring

The word “mentor” is used promiscuously in our society, Sharon Daloz Parks remarked recently at a gathering of several dozen higher education professionals at Goshen College. Titled “The Heart of Higher Education: Living Between What Is and What Could Be” and sponsored by the Center for Courage and Renewal, the conference offered a venue for faculty, staff and administrators to engage in conversation over several days about what Parker Palmer calls “the tragic gap,” further circumscribed at this conference as “the tragic gaps in higher education.”

Parks’ talk, which she titled, “Working the Gap, With an Open Heart, an Informed Mind, and a Little Courage,” offered both analysis and words of hope. In it, she wove together many strands from her previous work on student development and meaning-making in the college years. The talk was a treasure trove of insights and research, and upon returning home I pulled her book Big Questions, Worthy Dreams off my shelf to re-read portions of it. Here, I will focus on her comments about good mentoring.

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