The biography of earthly giants—celebrities, superstars, or icons in their domain—can challenge vocation in a foundational sense: Is my calling single-minded, all about me and my needs? Does my enthusiasm for a calling excuse me from certain ethical responsibilities to other people?
Personal narrative, a kind of informal autobiography, has become a popular and useful framework for approaching the subject of vocation with young people. Personal story-telling which aims at inclusion and belonging is a common technique in first-year-experiences courses. This strategy for approaching vocation can be enriched by supplementing first-person reflection with meaningful examples pulled from more formal biographies.
Biographies may be part of an essential reading list in vocation, and reading biography might feel especially natural to our time because we give priority to the individual and to our own importance as individuals. In the arts, since the Renaissance—and more recently, through Romanticism—individual genius and an expectation for individual originality are requirements brought along in almost every artist’s training, and they have become codified in the academy through the studio art major.
I have a special interest in biographies of visual artists—mostly painters, and mostly painters whose output inspires my own or serves as examples for my students. My hunch is that if you read biography, there’s a good chance its subjects are from the spectrum of your own domain or professional interests. While reading biographies of people from inside our domains may help us show young aspirants the vocation of our domain, we must also be aware of the limitations of relying too heavily on biographical narratives to teach vocation.
Ginzburg’s essay reminds me that my role as an art professor, advisor, and mentor is to help young women and men stand on unsteady feet and gradually overcome their loss of vocation-equilibrium.
I recently purchased Natalia Ginzburg’s The Little Virtues at a discount book store. I was unfamiliar with the author and picked out the collection of essays because of my interest in topics related to virtues and character. Later, scanning the table of contents, I was pleased to find an essay titled, “My Vocation.” Written in 1949, when she was in her early 30s, the essay traces her development as a serious writer. It’s clear from Ginzburg’s biography that vocation was always creeping from her room, to borrow a phrase from a a Jeff Lynne lyric.
She was born Natalia Levi in 1916 in Sicily; her Jewish father and Catholic mother raised Natalia and her four siblings in Turin. She married Leone Ginzburg when she was 22, and they had three children. After her first husband died in the hands of Fascist torturers she remarried, to Gabriele Baldini in 1950. She moved to Rome and later served as a member of Parliament from the Left Independence Party, and she died in 1991. Her life and work have enjoyed a resurgence of critical interest outside of Italy due to new English translations of her writings.
“My vocation is to write and I have known this for a long time,” opens the essay. Much of the essay reflects on Ginzburg’s self-awareness of changes in her calling as a writer, as a girl who wrote poems, to an adolescent who created stories more original than her poems, and then, after her children were born, as a mature woman who wrote novels and wrestled with the inevitability of her vocation. The last half of her essay is especially rich; she describes her vocation as beautiful, restless, domineering, saving, dangerous, and finally self-consuming. Ginzburg struggled to find her voice as a woman, she recounts, until she had children, lived through a period of not writing, and then returned to her “beautiful” vocation, writing as if she had never written anything before.
Vocation… is a type of redress. It offers an alternative, “countervailing gesture” to superficial, consumeristic, self-absorbed, and unjust visions of the good.
What Seamus Heaney’s “The Redress of Poetry” can teach us about rhyming vocation with our historical moment
When Joe Biden recently quoted Seamus Heaney’s famous exhortation to “make hope and history rhyme,” scores of subsequent articles commented on the fondness of Biden and other world leaders, writers, and activists for quoting this succinct and compelling civic calling that has echoed from the fall of Troy into the 21st century. As Biden’s speech sent Heaney’s call to visionary civic engagement trending on social media, I went back to Heaney’s 1995 essay “The Redress of Poetry,” a delightful, accessible, and wise essay first delivered as an Oxford lecture, that thinks through poetry’s purpose and the competing artistic and social obligations that the calling of poet enjoins upon those who answer it. As I read, I simply substituted “vocation” for “poetry,” and I came away convinced that Heaney has much to teach myself and my students about rhyming our vocations with our historical moment.
Empathy is a curious thing. As a scholar of historical literature, I often point to it as a justification for the existence of my field. Studying Jane Austen’s novels is hardly a practical area of study, even in the best of times, and can seem downright frivolous in a year marked by the murder of George Floyd, a global pandemic, and an historic election. But literature also cultivates, in elusive and remarkable ways, the kind of empathy our world so deeply needs right now.
Let me share one example. This spring, I was scheduled to lead a Jane Austen Book Club at our local public library. With Kate Hamill’s new stage adaptation of Emmascheduled for its world premiere at the Guthrie Theater in April, and a new film adaptation also set for release this spring, we planned group outings to see both following weekly discussions on each volume of Austen’s novel. The spirited group of mostly retirees—some of whom collectively researched forgotten women in history together to satiate their curiosity between book clubs—adapted to the online discussions gracefully. I pulled out my tried-and-true discussion guides and thought only of the change in style of our conversation, not anticipating one of substance. But for me, after reading this book many times and settling into an easy familiarity with it, Emma suddenly felt new again.
Proximity—from the Latin proximus meaning the “nearest” or “close to the actual,” and similar to the Spanish noun prójimo, neighbor— brings down the barriers, burdens, and biases that separate us from others. Stevenson’s example of proximity invites us to reflect on the things that really matter to each of us and to our students in these urgent and uncertain times.
Learning from Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy
Last fall, on an overnight retreat with sophomore student participants in SOPHIA (Sophomore Initiative at Assumption), a year-long program on vocational exploration that I direct at my university, one of our first group activities was a conversation on community-building themes. With everyone sitting around a circle, I asked students to share their ideas on the meaning of belonging. Almost all the students shared their thoughts with the larger group. Some agreed that belonging is finding comfort within a group of people who share similar interests and values. Others emphasized the importance of feeling safe and welcomed in a particular place.
After some time, Hieu, the quietest student in the group, politely raised her hand and asked to speak. She said: “Belonging does not just mean to be welcomed into a group, it means to be listenedto by others inside a group” (my emphasis). Hieu is a first-generation college student who grew up in Vietnam and immigrated to the United States seven years ago. Her wise interpretation of belonging has stuck with me, especially after the death of George Floyd in May.
SOPHIA Program Fall Retreat 2019. Canonicus Camp, Exeter, Rhode Island
Doug Schuurman’s vision of vocation is particularly timely for me in its “reevaluation of [the] mundane.” As someone who has spent the past four months trying to simultaneously change diapers AND work for an employer, his reminder of this deeper meaning was such a gift.
A reflection on the legacy of Doug Schuurman
Do you know the kind of person who has a calming presence—they may not talk much, but their simply being in the room has a quiet effect on people, making them feel more comfortable in the group, curious about the people around them, eager to see the best in each other, willing to be vulnerable?
One of the delights of returning a few years ago to my alma mater, St. Olaf College, has been reconnecting with my faculty members. The ones who inspired me as a student still inspire me as a colleague; the ones who intimidated me still intimidate me. But that quiet presence is something that holds me more in awe now than it did then.