Happiness and fulfillment

Reading applications for prestigious scholarships gives the author hope but also raises some questions about how we understand a “meaningful and fulfilling life.”

In December I participated in a national review of applications to a prestigious post-graduate fellowship. The review process was enjoyable, even exhilarating, as my team read and reflected upon beautifully crafted essays, thoughtful letters of recommendation, and staggeringly extensive records of accomplishment, leadership and service. The applications increased my hope for the future. With students like these coming out of our colleges and universities, seeking continuing opportunities for growth and giving, there’s good in the world.

And yet. The wisely mentored, academically successful lives of outstanding students, with their impressive profiles of study, service, travel, internships and leadership, prompt in me both admiration and weariness, and some skepticism about the ways in which we value “meaningful and fulfilling work” as something one can prepare for and deliberately seek out.

Do we know what will be meaningful before we choose it? Is meaning sometimes (perhaps often) conferred more in retrospect than in design? What happens when work isn’t where a sense of meaning, purpose and fulfillment reside? At what point(s) do we take stock, try to determine what is meaningful, what is fulfilling? And what do people do who have few resources with which to respond to the injunction to pursue a meaningful life?

It got me thinking about the difference between happiness and fulfillment.

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The Cartography of Vocation

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Commercial map of the British Empire.

Cartographers try to render clear a patchwork of people and place, land and history.  As the poet Ciaran Carson suggests, “With so many foldings and unfoldings, whole segments of the/ map have fallen off” (“Queen’s Gambit”).   Maps embody, in pieces, cultural thought and human experience.

The map is an oft invoked image for discussing life’s purpose—indeed, upon my arrival at NetVUE’s Teaching Vocational Exploration summer seminar we spent time both drawing our own vocational maps and explaining them.  This exercise proved disorienting (I prefer to think in words, not images) and also expanding, in that I started to think of my vocational journey as a sort of constellation map.  On it, I noted bright spots in my past—my undergraduate mentor, reading George Eliot’s Middlemarch for the first time, studying abroad, professional achievements—and I also saw how the darkness of other aspects of experience offered direction. Continue reading

Complex Turning Points: Vocation and Social Location

AlexiecoverThe majority of students enrolled in my upper division Native American literature course tend to select The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian as their favorite book of the semester. I believe this has much to do with the voice of the novel’s narrator and protagonist, Arnold Spirit. The fourteen year old Spirit is honest, vulnerable, crass, insightful, and comedic, and although it is the only work of young adult fiction my students read in this course, the text wrestles with issues every bit as complex as those we encounter in the assigned works of “adult” literature. While I conclude my class with this book in order to end on a particularly contemporary note, I will be teaching it in a freshman seminar course on vocation this fall for a very different reason: it wrestles with many of the major themes in Catherine Fobes’s insightful and important essay, “Calling Over the Life Course: Sociological Insights,” which serves as chapter four in the NetVUE anthology, Vocation Across the Academy Continue reading