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.
Many students feel called to engage in ongoing struggles for social justice on our campuses, in their communities, and beyond. Recent events have led even more students to recognize that such activism may be part of their vocation. But even the most motivated and energetic student advocates experience frustration and exhaustion to an extent that threatens their well-being and sometimes even the continuation of their studies. How can we best support these students? How can those of us who are committed to helping our students discern and live out their vocations tend to their sometimes acute sense of being embattled? On Tuesday, July 14, NetVUE hosted a webinar with four speakers who addressed this intersection of social justice, activism, and vocation.
Even without reading recent studies of Americans’ streaming habits, we’d probably all guess that far more content is being streamed now than prior to the pandemic. I’ve been fascinated by the number of adaptations available on streaming services both in back catalogs and as original content: adaptations of novels, of movies, of comic books, of biographies. Adaptations are as old as narrative itself (the oral tradition is an adaptive tradition), but the presence of streaming content in our lives seems to make them newly ubiquitous. For those of us who love adaptations, streaming services provide treasure after treasure. It’s a fascinating genre, offering us the familiar and the alien simultaneously—creating within us a kind of comfortable discomfort that doesn’t seem too risky.
As a genre, adaptations can help us shape conversations about vocation. While it may not seem odd to say that we adapt to new situations, it may sound very odd to say that we are ourselves adaptations. Yet this may be useful. The word “adaptation” has multiple definitions: the action of adapting one thing to another; the state of being suitable for a particular purpose or place; a revised version of a text or other creative work. In its multiple definitions, it signifies both process and product. Our lives are a series of adaptations, not only as we continually reshape ourselves to new forms and contexts but also as we embody each state of being newly shaped. I think that most of us have a sense of self that at its core seems constant—a kind of source text that is unchanging—but also conceive of ourselves as changing over time, as not being the same person as we were years ago. As we are re-purposed over and over again, we must rearticulate our vocations as well.
Of the many types of distractions that clear my mind during the pandemic lockdown, I have found it especially entertaining to re-read Louise Penny’s Three Pines mysteries. The series, set in a fictional Canadian village in Quebec’s Eastern Townships, features Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec as he and his team, often with the assistance of the villagers of Three Pines, investigate and solve crimes that deal with murder. If you have read these mysteries, you will remember that Gamache has often told new agents of the police force the four statements that can lead to wisdom in their lives and success in their work: (1) I was wrong. (2) I’m sorry. (3) I don’t know. (4) I need help. Gamache hopes to ground the new agents in humility and an openness to critique and change that can develop them as effective and humane investigators. He is challenging the new agents to develop an honesty and genuineness in their communication with others as they investigate crimes, one that arises from a morally aware personal character and that shows respect for the persons involved in the incident. In turn, this personal authenticity creates an investigator that is grounded in human sensitivity and professional effectiveness.
It struck me that these statements might also be useful for reflecting upon vocational call. Clarifying and living out a vocational commitment involves a fundamental disclosure of authenticity—an awareness of meaning and purpose in our lives is rooted in that which we value.
Sometimes we try too hard to make vocational exploration fit into our curriculum. Or we easily assume that it does not have a natural place within our particular discipline. But I would encourage us to look again. For me, the right fit was hiding in plain sight as the solution to a challenging situation.
In a recent piece published as part of Christianity Today‘s Creative Studio, Julie Ooms, an associate professor of English at Missouri Baptist University in St. Louis, reveals a painful paradox at the heart of Christian higher education. These institutions are in many ways “the academic arm of the church” and therefore “essential to preserving and transmitting Christian traditions.” Yet, given the role that many religiously affiliated private schools have played as “segregation academies,” if they do not change then they may continue in “preserving segregation, consolidating power, and perpetuating injustice.”
Confronting this paradox is a matter of institutional mission, Ooms suggests. And it entails returning to the role that vocation has played as part of that mission.
Early on in the COVID-19 outbreak, after an entire day spent reading anxiety-inducing articles and watching real-time maps of the spread, after loading up on quarantine supplies, and unable to banish a storm of doomsday hypothetical scenarios from my head, a passage from a C.S. Lewis’ sermon, “Learning in Wartime,” flashed through my mind:
The war creates no absolutely new situation: it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice… We are mistaken when we compare war with “normal life.” Life has never been normal… We think of the streets of Warsaw and contrast the deaths there suffered with an abstraction called Life. But there is no question of death or life for any of us; only a question of this death or of that—of a machine gun bullet now or a cancer forty years later. What does war do to death? It certainly does not make it more frequent; 100 per cent of us die, and the percentage cannot be increased… Yet war does do something to death. It forces us to remember it. The only reason why the cancer at sixty or the paralysis at seventy-five do not bother us is that we forget them. War makes death real to us: and that would have been regarded as one of its blessings by most of the great Christians of the past. They thought it good for us to be always aware of our mortality. I am inclined to think they were right.
C.S. Lewis, “Learning in Wartime” (1939).
That night I read the entire piece and found myself greatly fortified by it’s cool reason in the face of fear and anxiety—it reminded me of Wendell Berry’s remark that when you’re scared the best thing to do is try to make sense out of what’s scaring you—and the perspective it gave me on life and vocation in times of crisis, fear, and danger. Within a week, all on-campus classes and activities were canceled, we converted to an online format, and, when I had to assign the first reading for my senior Humanities and Vocation seminar, I chose “Learning in Wartime.” The response from my seniors was astounding. It was, in fact, the single best response I have ever gotten from students to a reading on the topic of vocation. They seemed in particular to resonate with three aspects of the sermon.
Over the last couple of months I have been slowly savoring Wendell Berry’s latest collection of essays and short fiction, The Art of Loading Brush. Many of us who think carefully about vocation and teaching vocational discernment love Berry’s writing, and this collection reminded me why. He explicitly discusses vocation in the context of creating life-giving local economies, and in thinking through his argument I found a useful way of talking to students about vocation: making a distinction between being a consumer and being a producer, and the value of thinking of oneself as something more than just a consumer.
It would seem that the apocalypse, whether religious or environmental, would lay to rest questions of vocation. But questions of purpose and meaning are front and center in many of the popular post-apocalyptic films and books with which our students are familiar. In fact, the post-apocalyptic genre presents excellent opportunities for thought-experiments that force students to consider the foundations and driving forces of purpose, meaning, and vocation. I do not wish to talk directly about the environment, Anthropocene, or end times and will leave fears about climate change and cultural decay, or, alternatively, hopes for sustainable energy and cultural renewal, to experts in those areas. But environmental concerns as well as cultural anxieties spurred by mass shootings, heightening racial tensions, and immigration-related issues weigh heavily on students’ minds. These anxieties are yet further reasons why teaching vocation via post-apocalyptic film and literature will resonate with students. I also think this genre is valuable because of its capacity to instill deep gratitude and a sense of responsibility for the world that is still there when a student closes a book or when the credits role on a film.
The recent Vocation of a Lutheran College conference energized participants over three days with robust conversation sparked by plenary speakers and concurrent sessions focused on diversity, equity, and inclusion. Dr. Guy Nave, Professor of Religion at Luther College, Dr. Monica Smith, Vice President of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at Augustana College, and Rebecca Bergman, President of Gustavus Adolphus College, challenged listeners to consider things like “equity-mindedness” when it comes to institutional identity and collective goals. They asked questions about the ways we are and are not using structural privilege to the advantage of all students, faculty, and staff, and offered deeper reflective definitions of the very terms of the conversation itself.