Sunday, October 23, 2011

What I Would Have Said: The Vocational Life, Part One

I spoke at a men's retreat this weekend. It was a small group of guys from a local church; I was at least their second choice for a speaker, but that didn't scare me off. I spoke about "a day in the life of a disciple" and focused on disllusionment as a portal to discipleship in the interior life, the intimate fellowship and the vocational life. Except that at the last minute I decided to junk my prepared talk on vocation and went another way. I'm glad I did, both because the group needed to cover some different ground than my talk covered and because now I have two or three blog posts for Loud Time. You're welcome, America.

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The vocational life—what we make of the world we find ourselves in—can be immensely rewarding, both materially and emotionally. We are coached and trained and encouraged toward a particular career throughout our childhood. Kids get asked all the time, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” (Note: not what do you want to do, but what do you want to be.) Kids’ most important decisions are tailored toward their vocation: good grades and a good mix of extracurriculars are critical if you want to get into a good college so you can be set up for a good life. More risky interests such as the arts or academia or athletics are fine for our kids, so long as they have a good backup plan in place. We want our kids to be happy, and we associate their happiness with the kind of security and fulfillment that we expect a job can offer them.

Once we enter the workforce we spend the lion’s share of our week, over the course of our professional lives, at work—as much time as (and perhaps more time than) we spend sleeping or looking after our kids. We get judged for what we do at work and rewarded with paychecks and raises and job promotions and notoriety. Sometimes we get penalized but we know what we did wrong. Except when we don’t.

For all the rewards and security that our worklife purports to offer us, the facts on the ground tell us something different. Nine percent unemployment, with millions of people long-unemployed. The financial crisis that fed the unemployment rate is only one piece of the puzzle. I work in publishing, an industry that is in dramatic transition on a variety of fronts—from its delivery systems to its aesthetics and even the possibility of its obsolescence. New technologies subvert whole industries, and new cultural trends send whole professions reeling. Economic realities send jobs overseas. Suddenly the thing we spent our whole childhood preparing ourselves for, the thing we’ve given a full third or more of our everyday lives to, abandons us.

Even if we manage to survive the turbulence of a professional life, eventually it ends dramatically—if not with our death, then with our retirement. Honestly, my boss is praying that he’ll die at his desk, mainly because he’s afraid of the jokes we’d make at a retirement party. Retirement is stark. There’s a commercial right now, for some financial planning company, that consists of a series of photographs of the sun coming up on a person’s first day of retirement. It’s very inspiring, except that for so many freshly retired people it’s the first day in decades that they have no idea what lies in front of them. Retirement, beyond the mere financial vulnerability of it, can be something of an existential crisis. Here’s a little bit of a song that Ben Folds wrote about the phenomenon of retirement, its impact on a person’s self-assurance:

Fred sits alone at his desk in the dark. There’s an awkward young shadow that waits in the hall. He’s cleared all his things and he’s put them in boxes—things that remind him: “Life has been good.” Twenty-five years he’s worked at the paper. A man’s here to take him downstairs. And I’m sorry, Mr. Jones, it’s time.

Depression spikes for men at retirement age. Lethargy can kick in; I know of a guy who spent the last fifteen years or so of his life sitting in a chair, despite his family’s best efforts to get him interested in something, anything. We’ve equated vocation with career, and once our career is over, what’s left for us?

To say nothing of the absurdity and frustration we encounter in the workplace. Bad decision making, political infighting and back biting, frustrating customers who are nonetheless always right, pet projects that go bad or delegated tasks that drag on our enthusiasm. In many ways our experience of vocation can be a prolonged, protracted experience of disillusionment.

But this weekend we’ve come to understand disillusionment as not a life sentence but as somehow life-giving, a dispersal of the illusions we’ve inherited from others and cultivated in ourselves about who we are and how life works, in order to invite us into a more fully real experience of the world God made and is in the process of bringing to its fulfillment. Vocation isn’t a manufactured word; it’s a word from God that suggests that we have been called into something bigger than ourselves, and when we’re called we’re simultaneously invited not to fear.

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