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)
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Letter to a young colleague

The following letter is offered in the spirit of Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet (written between 1903-1908).

Dear colleague,

I have been holding your email in my heart and mind since I received it. Thank you for the confidence you have placed in me! You are in the throes of vocational discernment, even as you enter your mid-career. I certainly understand your concerns for the present and future realities of your calling.

The older I get the more difficult it is for me to control my own ego and impatience when I mentor others. Why do I, by default, frame the answers to other people’s questions by using my own “special” narrative? Why do I feel compelled to move quickly and forcefully to bold solutions? I hope my response to you is clear and measured in humility, empathy, encouragement, and honesty, and that it gives you something of the help you’re seeking.

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Conviction and Covering

After watching the Netflix series about academia, The Chair, I’ve been thinking about its many connections to teaching as a calling that is imbued with a vivid sense of purpose. Series executive producer Amanda Peet, in an interview with The Chronicle of Higher Education, spoke about how impressed she was with the deep sense of calling she found in the faculty with whom she spoke as she developed the script. For me though, I was most engaged with the capacity of the women characters in the series to maintain that sense of calling amid the difficult racial and gender dynamics that they experienced with some of their white, male colleagues. These relationships—full of invalidations, microaggressions, bias, racial and gender discrimination, and harassment—were depicted in a realistic way that, frankly, made me squirm with anger and discomfort at times. As depicted in the series, their sense of conviction about the deeper meaning and purpose of their work helped them to both resist and navigate through the very real obstacles.

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Being stressed out isn’t your purpose

Is it possible to be both in the profession and line of service you were meant to be in and yet not be living out your vocation?

You may have carefully explored what you value and the talents or strengths you possess. You have used these and your passions to identify a job that aligns with who you are. You know the work you are doing is important, you have passion for this work, and you value it. Beyond this you are good at this type of work—your abilities set you up to excel.  This work is truly your vocation, your purpose, so, you embrace this work and fill your life with as much of it as you can—more is better right? You over-schedule yourself with this type of work—but you are doing the work you were meant to do. So goes the cycle of so many, and many serving in ministry, academia, student affairs and administration reach a point of burnout.

Could the work we are called to do possibly be bad for us?

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Should biography be used to teach vocation?

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.

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Finding a Way When Vocation is Denied

“I’m confused about my vocational direction.” I often heard these words from students when I was mentoring seminary students. In some instances, the student was clear that ordained ministry was the calling but was searching for the right fit of location and work. In other instances, ordained ministry was not the direction and so the task became helping the student to discern what service to the greater good might look like for them.

The most difficult situations, though, involved those students who had a clear sense of calling, meaning and purpose in a specific area in which there were barriers, based in bias and marginalization, to their engagement in that type of work. For example, there might be an inability to get the credentials needed because of poverty or a lack of opportunity due to systemic racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, or transphobia. In other instances, the block might be an injury, family responsibility, a disabling condition, religious institutional practices, or larger world events. Most often in these challenging instances, the student was perfectly clear about a vocational direction; what was unclear was what to do instead.

How do we guide students to find their calling, when the fulfillment of that calling is denied to them in very real ways? How do we help them to find a way of living out their calling despite the barriers they face, rather than helping them find “what to do instead”?  

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Learning from the Cracked Pot

In the spring I was surrounded by graduation ceremonies, talk of accomplishments, and excitement for the next chapter ahead. In my bones, this felt like a stark contrast to the language I embraced in reading Living Vocationally: The Journey of the Called Life.  In this book Paul Waddell and Charlie Pinches focus on vocation as a journey, that is, as a way of living, as a disposition and not as a destination. Graduation celebrations seem to place a higher importance on putting checkmarks in boxes that society has defined as significant. Does our focus on celebrating such rites of passage get in the way of living vocationally? What would these celebrations look like if the journey was the focus?

Indian folklore provides us with a story about a cracked pot that guides us to be attentive to the beauty and purpose in the imperfections of life. Written from the perspective of a cracked water jug, we learn that this imperfect pot only delivers half of the water to the Master’s house compared to the perfectly functioning pot balanced on the opposite side of the water-carrying peasant. The cracked pot feels no self-worth until the peasant points out the flowers that were able to grow along the side of the path where the cracked pot had unknowingly provided the water the flower seeds needed. The flowers not only brightened the days of the peasant and others taking this path but also decorated the Master’s house. If we are attentive, if we provide time in our busy days to really see, we are more likely to uncover the beauty and purpose in the broken, unplanned parts of our journey.

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Attention, Please: Attentiveness and Vocation

At the 2021 NetVUE UnConference, Willie James Jennings spoke of attention, or attentiveness, as fundamental to vocation, as the inner logic of calling. He advocated for cultivating students’ attentiveness to themselves, hearing their own voice, as well as of the world around them, hearing with new depth. On the following day, Paul Wadell and Charles Pinches, citing their book, Living Vocationally: The Journey of the Called Life, echoed: “The most basic calling is to pay attention.” Even more recently, Jason Stevens detailed a particular application of attentiveness within his first-year writing courses, quoting Wadell and Pinches at length.

Over the past several months, I’ve found myself coming to a similar conclusion, namely that attentiveness is more than a virtue—that it is, rather, the foundation of every vocational journey, individually and collectively. This conclusion took shape during the spring as I taught a new course exploring the impact and meaning of the twin pandemics of COVID-19 and systemic racism as a lead-in to exploring the broader impact and meaning of pivotal moments for our vocational journeys. Building on several readings used in this course, as well as additional sources, this post is aimed at elaborating on the critical importance of attention and suggesting corresponding applications. 

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First Year, First Virtue: Attentiveness, Technology, and First Year Writing

If I want to rile students up and get debate going, I mention Vermont State Senator John Rodger’s recent proposed bill to ban smartphones for anyone under 21, and his remark that smartphones are “just as dangerous as guns.” Student response to the debate over technology is a mixture of spirited defense and despairing acknowledgement of its harms. More and more, this debate has taken a vocational inflection for me. I think that the first-year writing course is an excellent place to begin to make students aware of, concerned by, and proactive about that which imperils their ability to thoughtfully and responsibly engage in their many callings, and especially their calling to conversations.

In Living Vocationally: The Journey of the Called Life, Paul J. Wadell and Charlie Pinches suggest that the first virtue required to begin our vocational journeys is attentiveness. Paying attention, so the argument runs, matters because “at the basis of every calling, whether a friendship, a career, or being patient with a stranger, is a summons to responsibility; however, we cannot be responsible without an accurate perception of reality, and we cannot accurately perceive reality without growing in attentiveness” (159). For Wadell and Pinches, attention is a “situating virtue” (along with humility and gratitude) because “instead of the thoughtlessness or indifference by which we turn in on ourselves and become carelessly disengaged with life, the virtue of attention forms us into persons who are fully present to life” (157). I agree that attentiveness is essential to beginning our vocational journeys. And few things are under greater assault in our culture than attentiveness.

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