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Essay

Dignify the toil! More on vocation….

By January 30, 2012 One Comment
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As someone who fretted over “figuring out what I’m called to do” for many years, I appreciate the emerging dialogue on vocation here on the site. I enthusiastically agree with many of the points that have been made. Yes, discussions of vocation often reflect the privilege of choice. And yes, definitions of vocation can get overly focused on the sort of work for which one is paid, and too often neglect the manifold callings that accompany or transcend employment. Yes, the concept of vocation needs to be used more broadly and less pretentiously. Yes, we should refrain from imposing the expectation that everyone should seek and find deep fulfillment in work that aligns with a particular sense of divine summons.

Looking back, I sometimes wonder if the anxiety of ‘figuring out my calling’ was heightened by living in the Dutch, Christian Reformed, west Michigan culture: as with money, food, time, education, and anything else providentially given, one’s gifts and talents were not to be wasted!

One of the more comforting moments I recall was when I sat amidst the model tractors in the office of Dale Cooper, Calvin College’s chaplain at the time, and he first shared with me Frederick Buechner’s description of call:

“The place where God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

The concept of finding my place in that intersection felt and still feels more life-giving and less burdensome to me. Of course, there are still myriad ways in which I, and I’m sure many other people, could envision serving with gladness in response to the world’s abundant needs.

I want us to hang on to vocation, warts and all. Despite its tendency to accumulate elitism and angst, the vocation conversation is still worth the trouble. Vocation is valuable, if for no other reason than to serve as a crucial reminder that human beings are made to be more than just cogs in an economic machine.

Rather than analyze how vocation does or doesn’t work, I want to focus for a minute on the flip side, on how distorted our culture of “work” can be, and how vocation can be a force to counteract the devaluing and depersonalizing of human life that unfortunately is still an occupational hazard for millions if not billions in the working world.

I’m talking about things like the scores of Chinese workers threatening suicide lately because of their deplorable working conditions in the factories where Apple products are made. Ironic, that the same iPhones and iPads which allow many of us to stay conveniently and endlessly–even begrudgingly–connected to our vocational and avocational lives, originate in the hands of people who put up with inhumane circumstances in order to eke out a living.

I’m talking about a political culture here in the US where the refrain “jobs, jobs, jobs,” is, let’s be clear, not really about cultivating Americans’ innate gifts and talents so that they can find meaningful and fitting occupations. It has a lot more to do with shoring up the limping economy and ensuring that the cycle of spending and consuming and producing can continue profitably. What’s all this about “creating jobs,” as though out of thin air, when we all know that we created plenty of jobs in recent years? We just created them overseas, where bigger profits could be made because workers would settle for drastically lower wages and conditions that even the worst-off American wouldn’t tolerate.

Our politicians talk about “putting people back to work” as an end in itself, for the most part completely disregarding the soberly and timely opportunity to examine our national values when it comes to work. I want unemployment to abate as much as anyone else, but maybe now is the time when we should be talking more about whether the jobs we’re creating are contributing to the well-being of employees and consumers (not to mention the environment) instead of just the economic bottom line. Maybe now is the time when we need to figure out more ways to support creative and energetic Americans in pursuing and sustaining their sense(s) of calling. Make education more attainable and affordable. Make workplaces more accommodating to the needs of those who are called to be parents and caregivers (go ahead, Google comparisons of US and other developed nations when it comes to maternity and paternity leave and prepare to feel very disenfranchised!). Maybe it’s time to count the costs of linking healthcare to employment, rather than making access to care simply a function of residence or citizenship as in most other western countries. Maybe we don’t want to continue perpetuating a society where getting your body cared for is a reward for putting in enough hours a week.

Let’s not forget that it wasn’t all that long ago that our forefathers built a strong economy on the backs of people who certainly weren’t free to do what they were called to do. Slavery may be in our past, but entwined in the roots of our country’s obsession with growth and revenue is the lingering impulse to use people as means to an economic end.

I suppose we labor under the shadow of the curses that Adam and Eve heard after they overstepped their human bounds and alienated themselves from God. The relationship between our created gifts and the work of our hands, meant to be joyful and harmonious, was indelibly marked with sweat and toil. As John Calvin put it in his commentary on Genesis 3,  “Therefore the Lord had placed [Adam] over a garden which was to be cultivated. But, whereas in that labor there had been sweet delight; now servile work is enjoined upon him, as if he were condemned to the mines.”

Of course Calvin goes on to say that the toil is useful for making everyone, even the most pious, very sorry for their sins–it helps to subdue the flesh. There’s also a fun bit on how our lingering instinctive fear of snakes must be a remnant of that wretched encounter with the serpent.

I’ll leave it at that for now. As people who believe God invites us to participate in reconciliation and renewal, I hope that vocation can find ongoing expression in helping us influence the conversations and culture of work.

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