To believe that we are called to our work is not necessarily to see work as an end in itself and to martyr ourselves for the cause. Rather, a vocational framework can help us see work as a path that is not good for us if it does not lead us towards self-realization.
The COVID-19 pandemic has shifted our perspective on a lot of things, not least of which may be our relationship with our work and workplace—and hence our sense of vocation and how we communicate it to our students. Even just two years out, I’m startled by memories of things most of us did to make pandemic learning successful: the late-night sessions making Screencast-o-Matic videos, the “check-ins,” the on-the-fly attempts to share audio via Zoom without creating a cringe-worthy feedback loop in the physical classroom. Even if those memories seem distant, though, I—and I’m guessing I’m not alone—still feel bruised by the demands of the last few years. Based on the number of articles about “quiet quitting” that have recently cropped up in my news feed (perfectly timed to coincide with the start of classes), we are only now gaining some clarity about the pandemic’s rippling effects.
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?
Shahn’s program for educating artists is ultimately idealized because his program assumes that access to it is a matter of will or volition. His program glosses over real, socio-economic or socio-cultural barriers to its access.
One of my favorite texts, written more than fifty years ago, is The Shape of Content (1957) by Ben Shahn (1898-1969), a Lithuanian-born American artist and a lecturer at Harvard University. Originally presented as the annual Norton Lectures, The Shape of Content begins with this sentence: “I have come to Harvard with some very serious doubts as to whether I ought to be here at all. I am a painter; I am not a lecturer about art nor a scholar of art. It is my (calling) to paint pictures, not to talk about them.”
The photojournalist turned his camera toward the angry protesters, freeze-framing their raw rage and shouts of protest over stay-at-home orders… What does all this have to do with the calling to educate for meaning, purpose, responsibility, and commitments to the common good? How about the central vocation that Christians share with other religious and nonreligious people of good will—the calling to love and serve the neighbor in need?
My vote for the press photo of the year would be the one taken by Joshua Bickel on April 13 and circulated widely since. Covering a Coronavirus response update from within the Ohio Statehouse, the photojournalist turned his camera toward the angry protesters with flags, red Trump hats, and masks outside—freeze-framing their raw rage and shouts of protest over stay-at-home orders.
The photo captures some of the painful divisions and complex ironies of our political/economic/cultural fabric—including, here, the irony of “law-and-order” conservatives defying local laws and taking to the streets, the President goading them on. One hopes that the new activists will gain some measure of empathy for more experienced protesters within Black Lives Matter, MeToo, or immigrants’ rights movements. One hopes, too, that liberals quick to relish in their anger can see also the real pain and anxiety underneath it. We may yet find ways to connect.
During this unprecedented pandemic that has evacuated our campuses and sent us all home, we may not be able to offer sophisticated vocation programs. But insofar as vocation is about “whole personhood,” those of us committed to vocation in higher education are more than equipped to offer and to encourage this basic practice: to meet students where they are. In order to do that well though, we must be able to meet ourselves where we are.
In preparation for helping my congregation both think about and live into new ways of being the church, I have been re-reading Barbara Brown Taylor’s An Altar in the World. It is a lovely text—accessible yet profound, grounded in deep knowledge of the Christian tradition and also of the earth. Many chapters have spoken to me, but especially timely is “The Practice of Saying No.” It meditates on the gift of Sabbath practice and how difficult it is to choose to engage in such a practice when our world is calling us constantly to either produce or consume. How radical it is just to stop, to sit, to observe, to breathe… to say no to the cycles of production and consumption that dominate our society.
Now that many of us have been forced by the Covid-19 pandemic into a withdrawal from our usual activities, the chapter reads differently than it has in the past. On the one hand, social distancing and shelter-in-place orders have slowed our participation in commerce and literally called us home. On the other, most of us have moved our jobs from our offices into our homes, in some cases right next to family members and their work. How do we manage the contradictions and blurred boundaries brought about by this collective upheaval? There are some striking reflections making the social media rounds about the silver linings of this crisis, specifically how it might bring us back to some simpler ways of living and sharpen our eyes for what is truly important. Especially notable is Lynn Unger’s poem Pandemic, which explicitly names the calls for social distancing and sheltering in place as opportunities to reconsider the practice of Sabbath.
Should work be construed in the terms of passion or of duty? This is the question posed by a recent piece in the New York Times. The author, a philosopher by training, suggests the Stoic wisdom of Seneca as an antidote to our culture’s obsession with finding meaning through work. If we approach work in terms of duty, as Seneca advised, rather than as an expression of one’s passions, we will be less likely to fall prey to the threat of what another writer has described as “the religion of workism,” and the accompanying burn-out that could eventually develop.
What lies might groups with different forms of privilege come to believe about themselves? When those lies are about their abilities and the horizons of possibility for their futures, how do they affect their sense of calling? These questions were posed by Christine Jeske of Wheaton College to a packed room of higher-ed professionals during a session held at the recent NetVUE gathering in Louisville. Trained as an anthropologist, Christine has previously worked on attitudes toward and myths about work in the South African context, where there is a stark disparity between rich and poor. But what myths about work do we convey here in the U.S. when we talk with students on vocation? And what are the unintended consequences of those problematic narratives? How can we tell a different narrative, one that more accurately represents the world in which our students will live?