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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Coming Out into Vocation

New York Pride March, June 2019

I love the celebrations of Pride Month in New York. Some are solemn in remembrance of the violence, both historical and recent, that has been perpetrated against queer-identifying persons. Some are political as they seek to push for legislations to protect LGBTIQ+ persons, especially trans persons, in this moment of backlash. Some are totally celebratory—perhaps best seen in the vibrant, raucous, joyful, and diverse affirmations of pride, dignity, and equality evident at the annual New York City Pride March. For Queer persons, the common theme of “pride” animates an energy to make visible and affirm an authentic sense of self and of community that transgresses normative understandings of gender and sexuality, thereby creating a more inclusive understanding of humanity.

This drive for authenticity and visibility grounds the work of vocational discernment.  Indeed, for LGBTIQ+ persons coming out to a deeper understanding of our gender identity and sexuality centers the search for meaning and purpose in our embodied lived experience. Embracing our authenticity, even as it pushes us up against what is considered “normal,” illuminates the directions we must take for greater vocational clarity. We can make an impact in our LGBTIQ+ students’ lives when we help them embrace and celebrate their gender and sexuality as a strength and a resource to draw upon in the process of discerning their vocation. For students from marginalized communities this effort can make it possible for them to see beyond barriers put in their way because of systemic injustice. For students who are LGBTIQ+ this can literally be a lifeline to survival. As we seek to educate and advise students towards vocational development, we can partner with our LGBTIQ+ students in ways that help them to understand themselves more fully and assist their capacity to integrate that knowledge with their emerging sense of vocation. 

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Seeking the Courage to Know What Matters

A reflection exercise based on a series of aphorisms

As we begin a new academic year in which we are connecting with students remotely or meeting some of them on campus, we share an overwhelming sense of unpreparedness, stress, and uncertainty. This unprecedented moment is the perfect opportunity to invite students to reflect on how they can meet the demands of our time and find meaning and purpose through courage. 

There is no better time to encourage students to talk about the challenges they face at home and on campus, in their personal lives, and in their relationships with others. We can support students by reminding them that despite the many challenges and limitations they are facing, courage is the virtue through which they can transcend their fears and doubts in order to reach new possibilities. Courage is what makes us able to make possible the impossible.

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Vocational Image: Inner Identity and Outward Expression

A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education touched on a point that has lurked in the back of my mind for some time. The author, Allison Vaillancourt, considered the roles of charm, sparkle, magnetism, energy, and charisma in assessing job candidates. Vaillancourt points to the fact that confidence is valued over competence when interviewers evaluate new candidates for a career.

A career is not a vocation, but there can be little doubt that one’s image and outward self-expression play a key role in whether a person is considered a good fit, or has the right temperament, for a line of work. Charisma and sparkle in one candidate may get the nod for a job, or access to an important opportunity, when another person is actually better suited for it vocationally.

How do we maximize the consistency between our inner identity and its outward expression? How do we talk about this with our students? If landing in the desired place depends on other people’s impressions of our deepest vocational desires, how do we make the “right” impression while also being true to our inner self? How do we help students navigate this minefield of image and authenticity?  

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Telling our Students’ Stories

One of my favorite moments in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton (An American Musical) comes in Act I when General George Washington and friends reflect on the momentousness and frailty of leading people at war, in a song titled “History Has Its Eyes on You.” Sing along if you know the tune:

Let me tell you what I wish I’d known / When I was young and dreamed of glory. / You have no control: / Who lives, who dies, Who tells your story?

I know that greatness lies in you / But remember from here on in / History has its / Eyes on you.

Then at the end of Act 2 in the production’s finale, various members (Aaron Burr, Eliza Hamilton, etc.) sing a song titled “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story.” Therein Washington’s refrain enters again (“When I was young and…”). Others add:

But when you’re gone, who remembers your name? / Who keeps your flame?

And when my time is up / Have I done enough? / Will they tell my story?

As a historian and mentor, these moments cause me to wonder about the question, who gets to tell your story? Or, for our students, who gets to tell their story? The answer to the latter question is, in part: We do.

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