This post continues an exploration of vocation. In part I, work (or career) was distinguished from our universal vocation to personhood. Yet, personhood, our primary vocation, is not realized in abstraction. In accord with its nature, personhood exists and develops in a social context. One such context is work.
Work is an arena in and through which we can live out our vocation, but work alone cannot sufficiently contextualize the person. Without sufficient context, work becomes yet another dehumanizing structure. It is God alone who frees the person, who through the person of the Son gives us life. The Son, the Word of the Father, calls us to a new and higher vocation. A corollary is that such life allows the individual to exist as a person at work and in other roles.
Vocation (calling) vs. Career (work)
Every man, woman, and child shares a calling to personhood. This calling is realized in the context of one another, in social relationships through and by which the individual comes to know, love, and serve one another. Whether we are old or young, at play or at work, alone or in group, it is possible to practice this calling.
Vocation, described in such a manner, is clearly distinct from career. No one is “out there” hiring persons. Companies hire managers, CFO’s, teachers, doctors, etc. Personhood is not strictly-speaking a job. And that it is not a job, an explicit commodity, an economic object, or a means to an end, safeguards the possibility of realizing our universal vocation. This is because a person can only emerge in the context of freedom. Human relationships are ultimately established through what John Paul the II refers to as a free and authentic gift of the self.
On the other hand, for a gift to have meaning it must answer legitimate needs or longings. A gift of self must understand, respect, and respond to social and individual realities. While personhood develops in the context of freedom, it is a freedom conditioned by human nature and social circumstances. Our vocation must conform in a Trinitarian manner to the social and relational roles in which we find ourselves. Personhood is conditioned by roles which provide structure for our actions and relationships. A consideration of roles will help us understand the nature of work and its relationship to the person.
An example of such a role is that of a parent. A parent may freely establish a relationship with his child, but will only truly do so when their roles (parent & child) are dignified. It is these roles which help structure the personal nature of their relationship. The parent can only truly give himself to the child by giving himself as parent. He or she must never cease relating to and providing for the child as a parent. The parent may be more than such, but never less.
Thus a parent who merely acts as a pal, but fails to provide for and protect a child has distorted and partly renounced their role. Such a parent may attempt to relate to a child as ‘pal’, but his true calling in this relationship is primarily through and in the role of parent. He not only fails to be a true pal, but undermines the real structure of the relationship. It is only through the parent/child role that the relationship will promote and develop personhood. While the parent role changes over time, it never ceases to exist. When such a role is abrogated or distorted, it is not one party who is injured, but both. It is an offense against the structure of reality.
The parent relationship is a binary which exists in the context of child. As such, the role limits the possible modes of relationship which these individuals can authentically and safely experience. Examples of other roles or relationship structures include:
- self/neighbor (other)
Roles are not exceptions to social relationships, but rather the standard structure of all social experience. While it is possible for roles to overlap, switch, shift, or co-exist with another role, it is impossible to have a relationship without them. It is not possible to experience ourselves or others outside the context of roles. Thus the manner in which we come to know, love, and serve is always circumscribed by context. It is only in the particular that the universal might be discovered.
There is something which may be disturbing about this. One may wish to experience the other simply as a person. Don’t these roles ultimately depersonalize us? And many of these roles seem lopsided; they lack social equality. It may be that we are looking for equality and personhood in the wrong way and in the wrong places. True personhood, humanity is somewhat hidden. Just as God was hidden in Christ, our humanity is hidden in Him. Personhood is discovered in individual limitation and in particular roles. Ecce Homo
When properly understood, such roles provide the groundwork for human connection. A parent who embodies the role of parent as distant, authoritarian, and morally superior, misconstrues the role. But the parent who infantilizes or sexualizes a child also distorts such a role. However, without these structures or roles, a relationship lacks context and meaning. A parent who discovers his role to help care for and develop a mature interconnected individual, can begin to recognize and treat a child as a true other. This is because the parent is simultaneously recognizing in his child what is same. The child is equally a person to be loved, served, and cared for, a person with equal dignity, potential, etc. It is through roles that we are presented with an opportunity to discover that our others are actually deeply the same. It is the pal parent who in treating a child as an equal actually looses sight of what makes that child truly the same. By trivializing personhood, such a parent relegates sameness to exterior elements, ignores otherness, and ultimately fails to discover the relational connections which truly bind and dignify. The person is ultimately an object of faith and not sight, even though we may occasionally experience or have a glimpse of such.
Roles gives form, meaning, and purpose to what would remain impersonal and abstract without such. As in a dance, each partner performs a role and it is the understanding and embracing of such roles that makes the partnered interactions graceful, fitting, and enjoyable. Indeed, the structure of all being is patterned upon a tri-personed God whose very unity and eternal happiness is structured by roles or the persons of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
It is in a similar spirit that we can encounter our work or careers. Just as an individual may play the role of parent, so too can they take on a role at work. This has several implications:
- enactment vs. identity
- humility vs. humiliation
- purpose vs. purposelessness
Enactment vs. Identity
To enact means to perform. It implies a certain separateness from that which one enacts. A parent is not only a parent, just as the child is not just a child. These are the roles which exist in the personal context of each other. While it is through these and other roles that individuals discover the self and others, a true understanding of such roles must, paradoxically, reveal that the individuals are more than just parent or child. Rightly understood, part of the enactment of our roles is to lead to this discovery.
A child is introduced to peers by a parent and thus the parent helps a child discover other roles. The parent meets other parents, interacts afresh with his spouse, comes to understand his own childhood and parents afresh. Roles become more like a wardrobe than skin. This is why it is so important to have relationships which call one into other roles, so that one may return to each role as a person rather than as a role.
There is a real danger of thinking of one’s role as one’s identity. The parent, the teacher, the fireman, the preacher who is merely such becomes one dimensional and loses the dynamic freedom which allows one to invigorate a role. Roles for such people become very serious and absolute because their identity depends upon them. The preacher who fails to be a parent, fails to be playful in the pulpit. The fireman who can learn ferocious heroism from the spouse, or technical attention from their job as an accountant.
By distinguishing one’s identity from one’s roles protects the individual and even allows the individual to bring life to her work in a way which would otherwise be impossible. Our vocation thus calls us into something larger and living. It does so through roles, while it is not itself merely a role. It is a Person.
The grandeur of our calling actually allows us to take ourselves less seriously. We become free to be enactors as human beings, rather than forgers of our identity as human doings. “For whoever will save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it” (Matthew 16:25)
Humility vs. Humiliation
We place a lot of stock in our pursuit of career. A certain degree, job, or salary is equivalent for many to being a worthwhile human being, a socially acceptable success. The opposite also holds true, the failure to succeed or attain means personal failure and unworthiness. This is of course untrue, but that has not stopped us from making career into a modern Law, a measure of righteousness before God and man.
For instance, if you ask students why they goes to school, you are almost certain to be told “to get a job.” One of the first questions we ask someone is “what do you do.” Our identity is powerfully tied to career. Our hopes and dreams are often centered around getting a certain job, or tied to certain work related accomplishments.
Rebecca J. Rosen: A central premise of your research is that work is about more than money—it’s also about identity and relationships, particularly within a family. How does work shape us beyond our bank accounts?
Allison Pugh: Work is a wellspring of identity in the United States. There’s been a lot of good research showing that Americans use the notion of hard work to separate themselves from others. It’s how rich people distinguish themselves from the middle class, how the middle class distinguishes itself from the working class, and how men distinguish themselves from women, particularly care-giving women. It’s like each of these different social groups is looking at others and saying, “Yes, but we work really hard.”…
Work is not simply a job one does, but a modern emblem of identity and value. While most people would recognize the absurdity of this at a cognitive level, we live as if this were true. Picture men jumping out of buildings during the stock crash preceding the Great Depression; consider what factors go into deciding whether to attend a high school or college reunion.
When identity becomes separate from career, not merely intellectually but at a gut or heart level, a person becomes free from the law of performance, a law which must always humiliate the person. The law crushes those who fail to uphold it; but less obviously, it enslaves and dehumanizes those who attempt or appear to uphold it. Those who experience their worth only through success and performance, through what should be enactment rather than identity, only experience connection through performance. Such a person cannot experience love, being known, or service because they have not emerged. They are not present to the world; their performance is. This is humiliating.
The naked self is an object of derision and disgust for one whose identity is tied to the law, to career, to appearance.
But for those who have discovered this, who have been freed from the law, what may be discovered is a self loved, known, served, and accepted despite and in its nakedness. This is the absurd and gracious love which God has for us all. A love which is life giving from within, and yet from without, from the vantage of the law appears to be humiliating.
The obvious irony is that those who have made career their law of identity, long desperately for love and acceptance; while, those freed from the curse of the law by grace, may discover that which the law always promised but could never provide.
In such a discovery, we see how we always feared humiliation and shame and so sought to be more than our peers. In grace, we can find comfort in a humility which takes us down from the heights and allows us to be just another fellow. It is a humility which is again and again rediscovered. For we all set aside grace from time to time, and give the Law just one more shot. This is why the activity of the Church is remembering: remembering God and remembering ourselves in Him. This is the heart of human vocation, to undergo a kind of self-forgetfulness in the calling of God. The person emerges in the costly, playful forgetfulness of God’s mercy, in which the Son bowed his head upon a cross, forsaken so that we might be found in Him.
The implications of the life, energy, and freedom such a one can bring to their career and to their other roles is obvious, but ultimately secondary.
Purpose VS. Purposelessness
This discovery, a self loved and cared for apart from the Law, and in ways which exceed the greatest imaginings which the Law ever stirred in our hearts is a discovery which doesn’t just reinvigorate the self. This discovery is not simply fuel for performance. It is not a return to the “project of the self” as they say over at mbird.com. This would be to transform grace again into law, and we have been set free for freedoms sake (Galatians 5:1).
Having experienced identity separate from career, or from any role or performance on our part, we begin to become persons, contextualized by Grace in our common humanity (creaturehood and brotherhood).
A receptionist can be more than information machine. He can become open to human connection throughout the day. While in the role of employee, he simultaneously can experience the other roles which are present (neighbor, brother, servant). Such an individual no longer has simply to perform a job well, or simply to survive the day; free from the law, he may be invigorated with real purpose.
There is no human being whose true purpose or vocation is receptionist. There are people who God has intended to work as receptionist, but it is only when such a person has seen this career merely as a role that he can properly be considered to have purpose. Others merely experience a shadow of purpose and a shadow of life.
In the next and hopefully final post on this series, we will explore the connecting points of career and personhood. Hopefully, it will become clear that while careers can be an arena of personal satisfaction, development, and connection, career alone cannot solve the real crisis of hope of which Baltimore was an expression.