Graduation season is upon us, and with it is sure to come a flurry of commencement addresses crammed with platitudes about self-actualization, self-indulgence, and self-fulfillment. Though accompanied by occasional urges to “change the world” and “make a difference,” all will still fit neatly within a much broader cultural aim: “finding ourselves,” “trusting ourselves,” and “being true to ourselves.”
“It’s about living the life you want,” Oprah says, aptly capturing the spirit of the age, “because a great percentage of the population is living a life that their mother wanted, that their husband wanted, that they thought or heard they wanted…Start embracing the life that is calling you and use your life to serve the world.”
Meanwhile, the real and tangible needs of our social and economic contexts swirl around us—present and future, seen and unforeseen—each of them held captive to the whims of our “passions” and “the life we want.” Overwhelmed by the distraction, we look inward, neglecting the moral foundations and social bonds that are so critical for communities and institutions to flourish.
The causes and effects are diverse and widespread, but as David Brooks explains in his book, The Road to Character, much of it begins with our basic cultural views about calling, vocation, and economic value. “Today, commencement speakers tell graduates to follow their passion, to trust their feelings, to reflect and find their purpose in life.” Brooks writes. “…Commencement speeches are larded with the same clichés…Don’t accept limits. Chart your own course. You have a responsibility to do great things because you are so great. This is the gospel of self-trust.”
Being a healthy and ethical person is important, to be sure, but our focus has instead turned to the indulgence of personal dreams and desires, regardless of moral obligations or situational context. “Giving back” and “doing good” are celebrated at the surface, but each is filtered backwards through the narrow lens of “self-discovery.” As a result, other people and social/economic institutions are viewed and treated as a mere means for our “meaning making”—a functional role in our business plan for personal happiness and prosperity.
Brooks summarizes this approach as follows:
When you are young and just setting out into adulthood, you should, by this way of thinking, sit down and take some time to discover yourself, to define what is really important to you, what your priorities are, what arouses your deepest passions. You should ask certain questions: What is the purpose of my life? What do I want from life? What are the things that I truly value, that are not done just to please or impress the people around me?
By this way of thinking, life can be organized like a business plan. First you take an inventory of your gifts and passions. Then you set goals and come up with some metrics to organize your progress toward those goals. Then you map out a strategy to achieve your purpose, which will help you distinguish those things that move you toward your goals from those things that seem urgent but are really just distractions. If you define a realistic purpose early on and execute your strategy flexibly, you will wind up leading a purposeful life. You will have achieved self-determination.
This is the way people tend to organize their lives in our age of individual autonomy. It’s a method that begins with the self and ends with the self, that begins with self-investigation and ends in self-fulfillment. This is a life determined by a series of individual choices.
Without a proper heart orientation that is at first upward and outward, such a perspective will manifest in shrugging ambivalence and social isolation, much of which we’ve already begun to see.
Yet if we reverse that order, Brooks continues, we begin to ask ourselves a different set of questions, aligning our imaginations accordingly:
In this method, you don’t ask, What do I want from life? You ask a different set of questions: What does life want from me? What are my circumstances calling me to do?
In this scheme of things we don’t create our lives; we are summoned by life. The important answers are not found inside; they are found outside. This perspective begins not within the autonomous self, but with the concrete circumstances in which you happen to be embedded. This perspective begins with an awareness that the world existed long before you and will last long after you, and that in the brief span of your life you have been thrown by fate, by history, by chance, by evolution, or by God into a specific place with specific problems and needs. Your job is to figure certain things out: What does this environment need in order to be made whole? What is it that needs repair? What tasks are lying around waiting to be performed?
Such an approach requires quite the opposite of the typical cultural requirements: self-denial, self-sacrifice, and the cultivation of an abiding, genuine love for others. Only with these will we discover true fulfillment, and yet only when these are seen as a good and moral duty in and of themselves. “A person who embraces a calling doesn’t take a direct route to self-fulfillment,” Brooks explains. “She is willing to surrender the things that are most dear, and by seeking to forget herself and submerge herself she finds a purpose that defines and fulfills herself.”
As Christians, more specifically, we are called to ground our sense of calling in obedience to God, first and foremost, from which flows the good of neighbor—and back and forth and back again. The Biblical story is filled with examples of God calling people to tasks, careers, and vocations that at first seemed largely misaligned with their gifts, talents, and “passions.” From Moses to Gideon to Jonah to Saul to Elijah to Peter, God routinely gives specific direction to specific people, and in doing so, confounds the designs of man, redirecting us instead toward new forms of service and sacrifice.
Discerning that path involves the type of “external needs assessment” that Brooks points to, but it also involves a basic acceptance of the Gospel, surrender to Jesus, whole-life transformation by the Holy Spirit, community among believers, active and attentive prayer, relationship, discipleship, and so on. It is not enough to simply “follow our passion,” but it also involves a whole lot more than selflessly assessing the job market and being sheer career chameleons.
As Benjamin Mann puts it, vocation is “a school of charity” and “a means of crucifixion.” In turn, our entrance into broader society carries with it a deeper, wider, more mysterious calculation and heart orientation. “Your ability to discern your vocation depends on the condition of your eyes and ears, whether they are sensitive enough to understand the assignment your context is giving you,” Brooks concludes.
As the latest crop of graduates enters the workforce, as well as a much wider range of family, social, and economic institutions, let us remember that it is not “passion” or “self-determination,” but a weight of moral vision and commitment that we so desperately need.
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