Being in college, our metaphorical springboard into a vocational world with options, the following question is all too pertinent for each of us: What is my calling? “Vocation,” which comes from Latin vocare, meaning “to call,” is a word that we don’t hear too often nowadays. In American culture it has been deemed equivalent and synonymous with words and phrases such as “career” or “successful life.” Certainly Americans assume too much.
In a discussion about priesthood, a student of mine asked a series of questions like, “Do priests get paid? How much? Where do they live? Do they have houses?” All of them were questions a person might ask about a doctor, an offshore fisherman or a firefighter. The questions went on like this until I had said, “Priesthood is not a career. It is a vocation. It is a lifelong commitment to service in a community that is not taken up for its pay but for the job itself.”
For a while the students were stunned. They had never heard of such a notion. I could almost hear their thoughts. “What the fudgeling?! You mean there’s some other reason for doing things than to earn a paycheck?!” I don’t think I’ve ever felt so ashamed to be an American. However, at the same time, I can’t say I’m surprised.
A former priest of our parish, an American priest, had a notion similar to that of my student but with much more destructive consequences. He’d complain that he had so many more hours than the typical nine-to-five, that he didn’t get holidays off and that the pay was too little. This so troubled him that he tried to set up those kinds of hours for himself. When he realized that such a thing could not be done in this line of “work,” I’d venture to say, he became depressed. He was a priest that was happy to retire. With much ambivalence, I was happy he retired as well. If a priest would make such a mistake, how much more erring was the rest of America?
However, take an employee of a “drive-thru” establishment. I once walked right up to the register, and this lady was all smiles. She would use all kinds of terms of endearment like, “darling,” “baby” or “honey” as she took my order, and while I waited for the food, she’d give a brief explanation about how her day was going. I wondered how she could be so cheery and sincerely wish me a nice day after all the crap. But for whatever reason, she enjoyed her job. That is what I call making the world a better place.
What seems to be the problem is that America sees everything in life as a means to an end. In a sense, we are living not just for the future but in the future. The sentiment is, “I hate the job, but since it will eventually buy me my dream car and earn me a great retirement plan, I’ll do it.” It never occurs to anyone that at this point in time, this is what we are doing now. However, it’s not what we do, but how we do it that defines us.
These conclusions only seem to bring about more questions. Just for what end does America tend to devote all of its effort? Is it wealth, liberty and freedom, justice, some combination of these or none of these at all? If it is any of these, what kind of wealth, or what kind of freedom? Do Americans seek so much wealth that they never have to work again? Is that the American dream and American freedom we so desperately pursue?
If so, then it seems that we place ourselves in bondage to earn the freedom found in retirement. What kind of freedom is that? However, if we listen and discover our calling, there is a lifetime of freedom available to us. The paycheck won’t have power over us anymore. Why become a teacher? Why a nurse? Why an investment banker? If your answer is anything other than to teach, heal or bank (hey, whatever floats the boat) then maybe there is some other direction you need to take.
Listen to whom or to what? That is your prerogative. If you want to listen to your paycheck, then you can pretty much disregard everything I have just said. But if you seek true freedom and liberty, find out for yourself who or what you are going to listen to, why listen to that and what is being said.
JEREMY MALLETT is a question-talker. Does he want you to send him an e-mail? Yes he does. Send them to email@example.com.XXX