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Next time you encounter a college senior, you will inevitably be tempted to ask, “So what’s your major?” and “So what are you going to do with that?” Before you utter those words, please stop. Be gentle. Think of something else to ask.
Why? Because in the words of one of my dear current seniors: “Everything is uncertain, and I am tired.”
I’ve just finished putting nineteen tired Calvin senior English majors through their last round of “vocation discourse.” By senior year, they’ve had more vocation discourse than they can stand. I make ‘em do it one last time because thus it shall be according to the student learning outcomes of senior seminar courses across the college. While my seniors are not happy about this exercise, they gamely oblige. And this semester, as always, I’m impressed by their feisty wisdom and faith-filled courage. I am inspired by them every time.
Here’s a glimpse, based on their recently completed vocation essays, into how a small, notably eloquent group of Christian young people grapple with the uncertainties of their future.
They perceive the contradictions.
We talk about vocation in contradictory ways. This is so not only at Calvin, of course, where the word vocation (one student noted) appears on our website 1450 times.
On the one hand, we emphasize that vocation is “responsive, discerning, and dynamic” as our Educational Framework aptly describes it. It’s a whole-life matter of seeking God’s will. As one student wrote, “Seeking God’s direction before making plans is an important part of living a Christian life, and Calvin does well to try and espouse this mentality.” Students do deeply appreciate when their professors and mentors and pastors and parents help them bring faith to bear on life choices. They truly do.
However, “vocation” is a tricky word. It means so many things that it can easily “die the death of buzzword-y oversimplification.” What sticks in our students’ collective craw is the habit in some Christian subcultures (including Calvin’s) of collapsing the term so that vocation equals the perfect major that leads to the perfect internship that leads to the perfect career, a career that earns you money, relieves your parents’ worries, fulfills your gifts and passions, and pleases God. Vocation becomes a magical singularity that you “find” and “discover” before you graduate.
Our admissions materials and career services materials and departmental websites do tend to imply in this direction. Students are savvy to the fact that vocation can almost become a commodity the college sells. We promise that students can “discover their vocation” here, like a trophy they can pack off with them in a suitcase on graduation day.
Vocation does not equal arrival.
They’re not buying it. At least not this group. Oh sure, says one student, “In a perfect world, it would be convenient to figure out that annoying vocation, then get on with living an awesome life.” This view of vocation, says another, “seems to demand a fuzz-free, two-step process: 1. Figure out the thing. 2. Do that thing until you croak.” This “vocation as arrival,” the student continues, is an “utter fallacy.”
In an especially feisty mood, an otherwise cheerful student chastised the college directly: “You have put the idea of ‘vocation’ on a pedestal. You’ve worshiped it. You’ve said: ‘look, helicopter parents…, if you send your children to me, I will make them successful, I will make them have a good vocation, and then they will be blessed.’”
“That is not the way the world works,” she continues. And even more devastatingly, “That is not the way God works. Get over yourself.”
Vocation as perfect singularity, the secret of your life that you must wrestle out of God, is a notion that causes enormous anxiety in earnest young people. I’m here to tell you: I have seen this over 25 years of teaching and it’s not getting better.
“The discourse of vocation has hurt me,” one student confesses. “And pressure from family and Calvin to find my vocation has made it worse.” She waited for her vocational “epiphany,” and when at last it seemed to come—could it be writing?—her father disagreed. Now what?
I might classify the many anxieties expressed by my students under three headings: choice anxiety, performance anxiety, and epistemological anxiety.
Choice anxiety is about getting it wrong, or about having to choose only one thing. “What if I start a job that’s not what God is calling me to do? What if I royally flunk out of life?” One curious student with a lot of hobbies and interests remarks that doing one thing all her life “sounds like a fairly dull life.”
One student offered a snappy response to the famous Buechner quote: “I have lots of joys. The world has lots of needs.” So there.
A couple students offered crucial insights about our largely unspoken hierarchy of vocations. “We normalize and praise those who have chosen the linear career,” writes one. She’s right. I wonder why we convey that it is somehow godlier to “discover” your vocation at age 20 and then live it out the rest of your life?
An aspiring writer noted that if you choose certain lines of work, you need not explain yourself; everyone approves. Propose that you might have a vocation in the arts, however, and people have no patience with the years of struggle it may take to seem valid in your work. “What do people expect, an award-winning novel fresh off the press by graduation?” she wonders. And then, she explains, “The process from developing-art en route to finished-product-quality-art is not as valued or cherished as a traditional entry-level job to engineering, nursing, etc.”
(You should know that for English majors, engineers and nurses are the nemesis professions. So straightforward! The grandparents approve!)
Performance anxiety is about not measuring up, and here we see some deep pain. It hurts my heart to read this stuff: “The expectations of others undermined my own precarious sense of purpose.” “I was evaluating my worth and life based on how well I was succeeding at my ‘vocations’ because I had been taught that those were the ways I could serve God.”
Here’s one from a student who realized how much pressure she was putting on herself to please God by getting it all right: “It is only now in my senior year of college that I realize something frightening about my beliefs concerning my vocation in God: it was all about me, and that could be my demise.”
Epistemological anxiety is about people expecting you to know things you cannot know. When people ask seniors what they’re going to do after graduation, “People expect a quick, straightforward answer.” But, writes another student, “I don’t have a direct telephone line to God, sorry to tell you.” And this: “Why can’t I just take things one step at a time? Why do I have to have everything planned out? Why do I have to know?”
Here is where college seniors beg us all to be more comfortable with not knowing things. One student seemed to be working on a series of mantras:
“It’s okay to not know.
Some things, I can’t know.
Some things, no one can know.”
And she settles here: “I think more people need to come to terms with what they cannot know. There is a great sense of peace and relief in letting go of needing to know and trusting that God has it all under control.”
So it seems my little batch of college seniors are in “vocation recovery.” They recognize that even for the lucky few who get their vocation epiphany in college and a nice career-launching job afterward, a lot of things can happen to derail a neat and tidy life. They know all about detours, mistakes, bumps in the road, and the many frightening unknowns in our world’s future. They are keenly aware of life’s contingencies. They’re also aware of their own privilege and grateful for their well-rounded liberal arts educations. Few people in human history get to agonize over vocation. They get that.
How do they cope?
They pull the emphasis away from career and onto whole-life discipleship: “I’m still aiming to have a career, but recognizing the worth of the ‘minor’ things in life greatly soothes my anxieties.” “This, then, is my concept of vocation: serving God faithfully wherever I find myself, doing good whenever I can, and finding joy in the little things in the meantime. And, should God call me to greater things, being ready and willing to say ‘Yes.’”
They resist the emphasis on what they’re going to do and throw their weight into where God has placed them now, and who they’re becoming, and how they’re going live. Wherever she may find herself, a student assures, God is saying, “For such a time as this, I have you where you are.”
They come up with good metaphors. Vocation is “a lifelong trust exercise with God.” Or vocation is the call to regard one’s life as a book God is writing: “I need to just keep turning pages and enjoy the story.”
They try to keep it simple: “Let’s be thoughtful about our life skills and direction, but not overthoughtful to the point of worry.”
They emphasize process over answer: “I hope to say alive, alert, awake to the work of ‘figuring it out.’ I hope to engage, and at best, to enjoy, the process of my life.”
They stumble upon the ancient metaphor of Christian pilgrimage. “Wandering brings discovery, experience, and answers. It allows me the freedom to find truth and growth.”
They surrender, as best they can, to trust:
“When I see my purpose in this world as something that I must create on my own, the task is far too great for me. If I think about it as something that God has in store for me and through which he will, with no fail, guide me, whether I want it or not, I can see myself living in a way that makes me a better recipient of grace.”
What to ask instead?
So if you do encounter a college senior on the precipice of full adulthood, remember that adulting is hard no matter how fine their alma mater and how practical their degree. Ask them what gives them joy. Ask what they will grieve about leaving college. Ask what helps them trust. Ask them where they think God might be guiding them to serve, just for that next small step.
Deep gratitude to my students for their generous permission to use the quotations in this piece.