Assorted Thoughts on Vocation:
As it is time for me to wrap this series up, here are some notes:
Those goods which are explicitly aimed at in work—services, products, and compensation—are largely future oriented. But the future is not enough. A present existence that is wholly future oriented is devoid of meaning. Because of work’s relationship to the future, it is hope which invigorates it, but hope can only perform this function within the framework of faith and love. Faith and love, along with hope, provide the true framework of personhood.
A worker is nourished by experiences and relationships because they engage the worker as a person who has roots in the past, the present, and the future. Ultimately a person must be rooted in God who is Himself the root and foundation of human vocation. Being rooted and grounded in He who was, who is, and who ever shall be, one comes to know a God who truly is All. And as All, God may be occasionally discovered to be in all.
Our Three-Personed-God bestows and clarifies our calling to personhood. Through God, work can become an arena in which the development of personhood is extended, but we only become capable of hearing and responding to this calling through the Person of Christ. Christ is the personal source, model, and aim of our vocation; He is the vital point of contact for any encounter with personhood. The realization and pursuit of human vocation begins and ends in an encounter with him; faith, hope, and love are the virtues through which such an encounter occurs. In a like, but secondary manner, they are also the virtues in which we are called to be present in the world. Without the Theological Virtues, life, and as a result, work, is reduced to production and fails to be an arena for personal living.
An Arena of Personal Living
Work can serve as an arena for the personal. ‘Personal’ here must be understood in the fuller sense of the word—not referring simply to a private individual, but also to a complex relational being in community with other such beings.
Imagine a twenty-eight year old biochemist. She did not sprout from a cabbage patch. She has discovered a range of values, interests, and skills within the context of a community and a long education, both formal and informal. Thus her present existence and future hopes are contextualized by roots in the relatively distant and immediate past.
Let’s imagine her working on the improvement of diabetes medicine. She has a number of channels from which to draw energy and satisfaction. She can take heart in the purpose of her efforts; be invigorated by the intellectual challenges and puzzles she is confronted with; gain satisfaction from being able to support herself (and possibly others); she can use her finances to purchase further opportunities for satisfaction or service. She can delight in how aspects of her life, her history, and her character are put to use; she can have time for vacation and have the weekends off to recharge and do with as she pleases.
Such a career can serve as a real support to her, not merely as a biochemist, but as a human being. And of course, this is focusing on what work does for her. But the same structures which provide for her, from which she can draw energy, satisfaction, and hope, simultaneously open up avenues for her to serve others. The real energy and satisfaction of such a career, and ultimately any career, is discovering the privilege of usefulness and service to others. Therefore, the structures which dignify the individual also encourage a whole matrix of connections and experiences which can enhance the lives of many.
In the previous posts we have discussed less than ideal work situations, but the truth even the ideal is not enough. Work is no guarantee of personal or social satisfaction.
An Arena is not Enough
Unless one is rooted in God, grounded in the a Love who continually and graciously nourishes and redirects one’s heart, unless one is drawing from such roots, one is prone to settle and to relapse into dissatisfaction and existential indifference (and even those with such roots go through existential-spiritual malaise).
Without God and the gift of faith, hope, and love, a career (any and every worldly blessing) ends in becoming yet another empty and absurd obligation, or another notch on one’s belt. There is only so much energy a person can draw from the world. An individual cannot help but grow weary of worldly blessing, unless those blessings participate in something greater than the world. Gratitude needs continual renewal and resuscitation. And while there is a way of being at work which is open to such renewal, work itself can never generate this gratitude. For if gratitude were the direct result of hard work, such gratitude would hardly have a right to call itself such. It might be a kind of satisfaction, but as such approaches weariness and almost a bored disappointment.
Gratitude is a personal response and one which is directed to a personal God. In gratitude, freedom from the need to generate purpose or justify one’s own existence exists, and it simultaneously becomes possible to recognize others as persons. In other words, our neighbor is given the freedom or space to emerge in the horizon of our awareness when we are in a state of gratitude, when we no longer feel the need to be producers of our most essential spiritual and psychological resources.
Our neighbor who is other than us, but also like unto us, is strangely enough an object of faith. Just as gratitude is a response to the gracious and mysterious person of God, attention is our faith response to our neighbor. For we cannot see our neighbor as a person without trust. Without trust, even in the most obvious of abstract truths, our neighbor is just an object or a collection of behaviors, a creature of a certain status or possessing certain needs. But when we find ourselves attending to our others as equals, as persons possessing the same essential desires, longings, fears which we ourselves possess, we indeed act implicitly upon faith.
In the realm of economics and work, one of the great gifts we can give is that of human attention, the reminder that those at work are not in essence workers. Even when thoroughly meaningful work cannot be attained, we can remind ourselves and others that they have not fallen short of meaning or value itself.
A Work/Essence Distinction
A great part of the anger of the protestors in Baltimore stems from the fact that they lack fulfilling social and economic opportunities and structures. It is not that there are no jobs, but there are no jobs which offer an outlet for the human being as such. It is not that there is no urban community, but these communities have little personal structure left. The possibility of bread remains, but man does not live on bread alone. To exist is not enough, we desire life and life in abundance.
In both cases, that of the rich and poor, there is an existential crisis in which the meaning of the individual and the community is swallowed up and depersonalized. Labor becomes an end in itself, rather than a means to an end. Work was never meant to provide meaning, but to serve those individuals and relationships which are ultimately meaningful. Simone Weil describes the alienation which occurs when work becomes the sole end, when one lives to labor, rather than labors to live:
“The Great hardship in manual work is that we are compelled to expend our efforts for such long hours, simply in order to exist. The slave is he to whom no good is proposed as the object of his labor except mere existence. —Simone Weil, Gravity & Grace
Necessary vs. Sufficient Grounds of Personhood
One way to sum up what has been said is that work is a necessary condition for human existence, but it is not a sufficient one. It is necessary to have a car to drive somewhere, but a car is not a sufficient cause of driving. An individual needs the motive and vital force to drive. In a like manner, work can serve as a vehicle for personal engagement , but cannot itself cause the emergence of the person.The establishment of just economic structures and healthy communities can only provide an arena, but cannot provide the life or vision which call the individual unto life.
A person only emerges in response to the Word of God, within the context of free and creative Love. God’s life giving word is the ground of grateful personal living. His Word calls and recalls us, reminding us who He is, what He has done, and who we are. Everything else is secondary to this Word and to this life. One hears this call in the context of faith, hope and love.
The centrality of this experience relegates work and all other endeavor to a secondary plane. Paradoxically, it makes one aware of the participation of work and our endeavors in the meaning of the Word. Therefore, if work is to have meaning for one, it must in a certain sense become much less important. It is in this context, within the relational virtues of faith hope and love, that the true relational or personal value of work emerges.
As discussed in the previous post, work must be viewed as a role which we inhabit loosely and freely in order to inhabit it as people rather than simply as laborers. There must be a clear identity apart from work in order for a worker to flourish.
The Context of Career
To have a job means being put in relationship with others. The grocer relates to others through supply of food and sales; the writer relates to readers, editors, maybe to computer tech, the folks who help him understand WordPress; the warehouse worker relates to supervisors and co-workers; the doctor to patients, nurses, receptionists. The field of connections travels further than we often realize. Depending on location, suppliers, local business and community, a job can mean getting to know all sorts of groups and individuals. In each case, the depth and mode of interaction can be unique. Relationships develop over time. The mailman, the grocer, the doctor, the writer each get to know each other one day, one month, one year, one interaction at a time. But we are called not simply to know one another, but to love and serve our neighbor. We are called to know one another as more than our labor or social roles—through other roles and structures, all which are grounded in Trinitarian personhood..
Work as service
Works is a limitation of the self. When we perceive it as doing something for us, making us important, providing for certain needs, etc., we willingly, even energetically enter into it. But ultimately, the self is not a satisfying end, and the energy we are willing to put into such a life dissipates. Only grace allows us to gratefully enter into work, not as a right or duty, but as a privileged service. Only then is the limitation of self, our self-righteous martyrdom transformed into loving sacrifice. All the paralysis of choice, all the resentment of absurdity, and irritation of self-limitation can be occasionally illuminated in the context of grace. It is in the context of Gods life-giving and cruciform grace that we follow, however imperfectly. It is God who saves us from our projects and plans and restores us to persons. Such restoration allows us to to occasionally participate in the humble activity of seeing a need and responding to it:
I was hungry and you gave me meat; I was thirsty and you gave me water.