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One of the hottest topics in Christian colleges these days is vocation (and it has been for about a decade). How do we prepare students for their work in the world, but for more than a job? This past semester, the students in my gateway course read and discussed several pieces about vocation, and I also asked them to interview someone in a field they were interested in pursuing. At the course’s conclusion, they synthesized all of this into a reflection paper.
What a rich collection of papers. And what a joy to see the deeply thoughtful people that are in college today.
I was so delighted with the papers that I thought I would use the blog today to share one with you from rising junior Hannah Meijers from Barrie, Ontario. Hannah brings a much-needed student perspective to the rhetoric we present in our classes and orientation schemes and marketing efforts. It may even surprise you what she says.
The second semester of my freshman year I had Professor Christina VanDyke for a history of philosophy survey class that stretched from the Pre-Socratics right up to Thomas Aquinas. She had purple hair, and she always kicked off her shoes before teaching. Her lectures were somehow wildly funny, and everything she said seemed to make clear and perfect sense. Sometimes, walking back to my dorm afterwards, I would feel like I was floating because of all the new ideas that swirled in my head.
Just yesterday I had a final oral exam for my metaphysics class. I was sick-to-my-stomach nervous about it, but once I actually started talking about chairs and why I don’t think they exist my hands (mostly) stopped shaking. It was sort of fun. I think I could have talked for even longer.
A week before that I went to a talk by a student here, Daniel Camacho. His speech was on race, gender, and a theological view of the body. On the desk beside him was a large stack of books, and as he talked, one by one, he sailed through them all—weaving his way through Hauerwas, and Butler, and Heidegger, and Smith, and other people whose names I didn’t recognize but which I wrote down to look up later. With them he painted in large strokes a broad outline of something brilliant, something beautiful. And now I’m excited because there’s still so much to fill in. I bought a copy of Gender Trouble, and I’m going to read it over the summer.
I could probably talk about all of this excitement in terms of vocation. I could talk about my great happiness and the world’s hungering and divine kingdom work. I could, but I’m not convinced I should. In fact, sometimes I wish I could go back in time to where my Grade12 self was skimming a Frederick Buechner wikiquotes page and violently distract her. I wish I could tell my freshmen self that orientation was optional, and there were some talks I really should skip. Not, of course, because there is anything so wrong with vocation, but because there is something deeply wrong with me.
Vocation is about sanctifying the ordinary and exalting the commonplace with the realization that it is kingdom work. But I think my ears have grown distorted from being told I am special too many times, and so, in vocation-speak, I always seem to hear not the promise of the holy-ordinary but the extraordinary, the promise of instant meaning and job satisfaction, the promise all my talents will be used to their fullest extent, stretched to their fullest potential. I picture happiness and hunger meeting as some glowing dot in the future—a bright little orb where two lines intersect, and all the narcissistic little bits of me just want to contemplate it. However, in all this contemplation of glory, the line-part, the now part, and all the struggling hard work and boring parts seem to be lost.
I’ve been reading Simone de Beauvoir for my Philosophy of Gender course. In the last chapter of her book The Second Sex, she talks about the strange combination of narcissism and inferiority complexes that prevents most women from ever achieving greatness or transcendence. They think, as they have been told, that if greatness is to be found in them it must be something intrinsic. It is something they are owed. At one point, speaking of authors she writes, “Writing and smiling is all one to them.”
Of course, Beauvoir is talking about women in the 1940s, but I think a lot of what she says can ring true for a lot of the “snowflake children” (i.e. you’re all so unique!) of the present. We don’t need any help elevating the ordinary. Every single smudgy finger painting we’ve ever brought home has been hung up and oohed and aahed over. Everyone has always been so proud of us, and it seems the whole world just “can’t wait to see what God is going to do in our lives!” We just need to smile.
This semester, however, I had the chance to listen to Professor VanDyke talk about what it looks like to pursue a career in philosophy, and it turns out it takes more than smiling and vague empty gestures of scholarship. To get into grad school one needs a writing sample that is top notch and which says things that are brilliant and new. One needs amazing recommendation letters, and great grades, and good scores on the GRE. Even then, unless the school offers to pay your whole way in addition to accepting you, you really shouldn’t go. Because, of course, there just aren’t many jobs in philosophy out there.
In fact, the job market is so bad, that going to grad school as nothing more than a means to a glowy tenure-track end will most likely end in nothing more than disappointment. If you’re going to go you have to love it for itself. You have to value it for itself, for the journey, for the line part. You have to think that a degree in philosophy is a worthwhile thing to have even if you end up teaching Grade 10 kids Geography or stuck as an adjunct professor the rest of your adult life.
I don’t know what I want to do with my life. I’m not sure if philosophy is something I want to pursue or not. But in exploring what a career in philosophy could even mean, I’ve started to realize that thinking about it in terms of the spiritual self-fulfillment and entitlement that my talk of vocation can so easily fall into just won’t work. Instead I’m trying to force myself to think in terms of discipleship.
Discipleship is far less flashy than vocation. It’s a lot dustier, and there are long stretches of just walking and sore feet. But to someone who has been carrying around the burden of specialness and the all-too-crushable promises of instant meaning, I think there is some comfort in its struggle. In discipleship you don’t look up so much as you look straight ahead at the person you’re following. Discipleship doesn’t dream about the perfect niche where one’s unique and beautiful self will fit just right, because discipleship isn’t bound to the cult of self. Discipleship doesn’t dream of shaping reality to match our loves. Rather, in discipleship we offer our lives that our loves may be shaped.
The grand vocation speeches that are given to incoming freshmen fill students’ heads with visions of being teachers. In their rhetoric engineering students want to build bridges, and pre-med students are surgeon generals. By the conclusion, I think I could already see myself in a business suit giving the Jellema lectures. But of course, I’d never taken a philosophy class. Most engineering students have little more than AP Calculus, and bridges take more than smiles. Sometimes instead, I wish they would have filled our minds with the much more counter-cultural visions of disciplines. I wish they would have told us to forget how very special and precious we were and just be students—students of giant traditions with a million things to learn, a million things to struggle through, and a million things to strive to understand.
Disciplines, after all, aren’t mountains for bright young things to master. They are things you submit to. You let them tell you how to form your sentences, and structure your arguments. You read their canons and learn their own unique nuances and contentions. In turn, they allow you to see the world in new and exciting ways. They give you the shoulders of giants to stand on and roots that stretch deep into history.
It’s true that snowflakes are all unique, and when you look at them under microscopes they’re stunning. However, when the concept of vocation becomes too caught up in icy individual patterns, I think it starts to lose its beauty. When our place in the Kingdom of God starts to sound like therapeutic self-realisation I think we’ve lost something important. When the sanctification of ordinary life is done in the same happy tone as a mother praising mud pies, then I think we’re cheating ourselves and setting ourselves up for disappointment at the first bite.
Right now philosophy makes me excited. However for me to think about a vocation as a philosopher—all the things I could teach and write, all the things I could do for it, all the ways I want to shape it—to focus on these things would truncate my ability to be a disciple of a discipline. I need to learn the rules before I can consider changing them. I need to stop dreaming about a big picture and instead step into the nitty gritty work of learning.
For it’s when I do that that I think I’ll find what Buechner and everyone else was trying to talk about and which I was just too special to hear.
Hannah, this is one of the best reflections on vocation I've read–thank you for writing this, and thank you Jennifer for posting it. Just this week I heard college strategists plotting about replacing our "vocation" language with "purpose" language–to stay current, of course. I think "discipleship" is a much stronger option–not trendy, perhaps, but more descriptive of what we do and what we aspire to do. We don't need repackaging as much as perhaps re-conceiving the project.
Thanks, Kristin–I agree completely!
well, well said.
Calling has taken on connotations of self-actualization, while discipleship still keeps the focus on the one being followed.
Something is going very very right in your class, Jennifer. Thank you for sharing this. I hope Hannah is is willing to let this get wider circulation, because it is probably going to…!
I'm probably 45 years older than you, so looking at things from the other side. Trained in mathematics, spent my life in in service first, business, family, and congregational/denominational involvement. After all of this, I realize living each day to see God speak is all that counts. If one can do this, the only thing needed is to be sensitive to the next step. Perhaps this is what discipleship means. In the end what God puts in front of you is what is best. The issue is often having the guts to do it. For me this has almost always had to be a gift (grace) from God.
Over time, you will probably see the thin thread you've been following step by step without realizing the pattern.
Right on. Something about those shiny vocation talks at Calvin always made me uneasy, and Hannah has finally articulated it for me! Calvin grads of my generation are having to face the hard truth that in this job market, there is not much practical use for all our vocational musings. A perspective rooted in the concept of discipleship will teach the much more applicable truth that what we are called to may not always be easy or feel good, but that God works for the good of those who love him and who have been called according to his purposes.