A Vocationless Life?

One of my wandering, meandering musings follows, as I wade into matters far outside my ken. You’ve been warned.

What happens when experts, teachers, cultural leaders, and others tell people that they have no vocation and can not have one? When a generation is informed that not only can they not follow the paths of their fathers and mothers—especially fathers—but that such plans and dreams are outdated and pointless because the world has changed and the now-vocationless are doomed from birth? When there is no other option suggested, or perhaps no option that does not mean becoming dependent and being reminded of that dependence on a near-daily basis? I would posit that we may be seeing that today in the US, and possibly Europe as well, although various parts of Europe have their own problems that date back to WWI if not somewhat farther.

One of the important aspects of certain branches of Protestantism and Catholicism is the idea of a vocation. Not a calling to become a monk, nun, priest, or minister per se, but that people are given a task and a job, something they are meant to do for the good of the Kingdom, and that they need to do in order to be fulfilled and spiritually whole. Some are called to be businessmen, some to be mothers or midwives, some to be teachers, others to be pilots, or industrial chemists, or garbage collectors, or to clean houses, or to serve in politics [although I have a few reservations about claims to that effect], or to serve in the military, or something else. The vocation might change over time, or looking back, it might prove that one was preparation for a later, more difficult or complicated task. Certain Protestant denominations are well known for their emphasis on secular vocations, and doing the best you can in whatever your chosen (or predestined) vocation in the world, in order to achieve a spiritual benefit for yourself or others. Vocations don’t have to make sense, and often don’t until after the fact, or perhaps when we all face the Great Editor and all those odd footnotes and strange plot-twists are clarified.

Culture often favors one sort of vocation over another, or encourages certain basic habits and calls. Traditionally, men were called to support their families, to earn a living through some way in order to keep a roof over the heads of their wife and children, while women focused on children and home and the vocations associated with them. Sometimes the callings were different, and most people regarded those called to an odd-seeming task as either a bit touched, or to be pitied a little because of their hard road. And anyone who announced that “G-d is calling me to become a prostitute so I can comfort the lonely” would probably be sent straight to their local clergy for help discerning their vocation a little more clearly.

So, when you have a culture with a basic set of vocations and duties, and that encourages people to pursue vocations, what happens when the people are told, “There is no such thing as a calling from Above. You are hurting the world by oppressing women/minorities and you are outdated/ignorant/isolated/inbred/a victim of society. Don’t bother trying to do better. Take this instead,” with “this” being a government check, or an application for a job that is obviously dead-end charity or that will make someone dependent on the largess of others?

I wonder, and this is something I’m groping at and not really sure about because it’s not something I know in my own life exactly, but when you tell someone, or a group of people, often enough that they have no calling, no purpose in life, and that their best hope is to depend on charity/the government forever and ever, if that doesn’t kill the spirit, if perhaps not the soul. The well-meaning experts don’t intend to do that, of course. The less well-meaning may indeed hope that happens, so that the broken person or group will suffer for some reason, and become dependent on the expert. But when people are told often enough, in enough ways, that they are trapped in a bad situation and have no hope of getting themselves and their families out of it, and that no one else can help them besides the expert, I cannot foresee anything good emerging. Especially when you tell that to men and women who have very little left other than their pride in being providers.

So I sort of wonder if a lot of the social problems that are reported to be occurring among middle-aged white men and others are in part the result of hearing once too often that “Your vocation is to depend on me/the government. You cannot change or improve your lot because you are too ignorant/old/young/poor/pale/Southern/Northern/proud and there’s no point trying to change because it won’t do any good. You can try, but you will fail just like your parents did.” Is there any wonder people seek an escape, if that has been going on in the background by drips and drops for thirty years and more? Not only are there no “good jobs” but there is no possibility of even having a job-job enough to fulfill a calling. Blue-collar jobs have faded and their wages have declined, in part in some regions because of the blind eye (at best) turned on things that undercut wages and erode the idea that physical labor can be honorable and dignified.

I know. Easy for me to theorize, since I have two jobs to do, I find my escape through story telling instead of things like alcohol or pain-killers, and I don’t have physical problems that keep me from working. My parents are still married to each other. I have access to the resources to learn new skills and do more work that brings in income. I’m in a state with jobs, in a town with jobs. I’m ignoring a lot of other things, like over-prescription of pain-killers thanks to government policies that emphasized “not in pain” over “minimum dose needed so as to prevent addiction.” I’m part of the “new economy” and not the old manufacturing economy. I’m “privileged by birth” so I play the game on the default easy setting, per a well-know author’s comments. And society has put too much emphasis on “job as vocation and identity” and needs to get back to something “spiritually better” like, oh, having people become artists or something.

Still, I wonder what happens when people —well-meaning or otherwise—deny the importance of vocation and calling, and drip, drip, drip for a generation that some people are just purposeless. There is no hope in this life, the experts minimize the possibility of another life, and what? Spiritual disaster ensues would be my thought, and social problems follow.

I have no solution, if this is indeed part of the problems I see in the news media. How do you re-ignite the desire for a calling and the need to look farther than just the material world without coming across like a hyperactive motivational speaker mouthing platitudes, or a really irritating social worker? Or someone who is about to ask for money?

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13 thoughts on “A Vocationless Life?

  1. Somewhat of a tangent, but I guess your “vocation” doesn’t necessarily translate as job or career. Something that gave me fits growing up (and I in turn gave my teachers fits, because I’m an argumentative sort) is all the teachers in school insisting that everybody needed a “career”, preferably doing whatever their passion was. I argued, and firmly believe that everybody does not need a career, many people simply need a job*. For the simple fact that many peoples passions are not self-supporting, in fact quite often they are expensive. So what many people in fact need is a job, one where they can earn enough money to follow their passion on their time away from the job.
    I believe that this insistence on a career doing what you love, rather than a job earning a living is detrimental to both individuals and society.

    *And despite my never having any intentions of having a career when I entered the workforce, I find myself partially self-employed at a business that could easily be viewed as a career, and partially working as a hunting guide, which would be following my passion. But there simply are a lot more people whose passions be they hunting, or playing sports, or music, cannot support more than a tiny fraction of the individuals who have such passions, so the rest need to find other ways to support themselves… and preferably that means not on my dime.

    • Yes. I’d nattered on long enough that I didn’t want to wander down the tangent of vocation =/= paying job. I tried to hint when I mentioned being a mother and a few other things. Vocations can be something one works in able to have the resources to do. Or vocation can be part of a career. The idea that your day job must be spiritually fulfilling and “doing your passion” is in some ways bass-akwards. You should do your work to the best of your abilities, yes, and if that is your calling, great! If not, you still do your best, and look to your vocation as the way you fulfill your spiritual and emotional needs.

      Like the character of the hard-shell Baptist preacher in Jan Karon’s Mitford series. He ran a grocery store, and preached. The grocery store provided his living and was a way to minister, just as much as the pulpit of the little North Carolina church was.

  2. Reducing .gov handouts WILL help people find those ‘vocations’ or ‘callings’, when they can no longer sit on their butts and get free cheese. Another point is that the left tends to denigrate any ‘calling’ that is service related, intimating it is ‘below’ one’s social status, even when generations of people have done that ‘service’ and made comfortable lives, e.g. plumbing, electrician, welder, and others. Another issue that I think plays into this is the lack of loyalty, up AND down the employment chain.

    • Yes. I was listening to a guest speaker today in church and thinking it’s a dang sorry state of things when you have to go through the TDCJ* or whatever they call it now to learn high-demand skills like plumbing, carpentry, and electrical work.

      *Texas prison system

      • Kind of funny, when a large portion of the lefts monetary support comes places like Laborers, Operators, and Teamsters Unions.

        Of course most of the Left is absolutely death an Tech schools, thinks everybody needs at least a four year degree.

        • Yes. There’s a seriously warped mindset that says “We need to keep the number of skilled tradesmen small so we can keep wages high and dues coming in.” Instead of “There is such a desperate demand for skilled trades that we need to encourage schools so we get more union members and fewer ‘undocumented residents’.” The guy who does the plumbing at Redquarters said that out of ten candidates for the master plumber license two years ago, one got through to the point of taking the exams. The combination of book learning, code learning, and grunt work kept most people at journeyman. And that’s out of how few who decide that they want to be plumbers?

    • My relatives would give their extra free cheese to my parents. I think it tasted much better than Velveeta. If someone can replicate the taste of government surplus cheese, I’m sure it would sell.

  3. Thank you! A great word that comes at a great time. I am currently trying to mentor two young men, one my youngest son, towards a vocation rather than a job. Hopefully sharing this will be encouragement to each of them. They have each agreed to take a step back from full time employment to pursue a hands on vocation in starting two new low tech but high potential enterprises.

  4. There is both much truth and much feeling in your essay.

    As loudly as the rebels of all ages have complained about the chafing of “society’s rules,” there has never been a successful society that didn’t lay out preferred courses for its young and urge them to feel “chosen” by one. There’s a hidden truth in there that even the canniest analysts tend to miss: the great majority of us are not nearly creative enough to design unique yet viable futures for ourselves.

    It’s an old observation that every man wants to be his own boss…right up to the moment he discovers what an unrelenting hardass that S.O.B. must be to keep food on the table. That’s another facet of our inadequate knowledge of ourselves: our propensity to superimpose our gauzy fantasies over the hard reality beneath. For most of Mankind, individual happiness and social utility are best served by conformity: i.e., by choosing from the menu of life paths presented by the world as it is, rather than imagining oneself as a trailblazer.

    Enter that lowest of all the emotions: envy. They who resent others who have made the accommodations reality requires for adequate happiness and security will do whatever they can to demean, discourage, and destroy the contented conformists around them. If the Omnipotent, Omniscient, Omni-Benevolent State, with its generous welfare systems, can be induced to help, so much the better for the resenters. If they must be in chains, let everyone be so!

    We few, we happy few, we band of storytellers, might be the luckiest of all men. We can contrive to have it both ways: a conventional life path that puts coffee and cakes on the table, and a “second life” in which the fantasies we harbor that reality declines to accommodate can run free. It’s a unique species of blessing, eminently worthy of a prayer of gratitude…right after I finish polishing this incredibly awkward first draft.

  5. The term “vocation” or “calling” presumes a caller. Your opinion of the ultimate will show how you identify the caller. The Atheist Collectivist expects Government to do the calling. One of this mindset says, “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.” This wait is proving to be like waiting for Godot. Conversely, the Theist looks for the caller in the Transcendent, be s/he G-d, Jesus, Allah, or Lakshmi. This requires faith and openness to do well by doing good helping those closest to us

  6. I’m of the belief that the reluctance of the Elite to have more people enter the trades is because those that do, have freedom from dependence on their Overlords. Too many independent people leads to the thinking that goes: Why do I need this ‘overeducated Bozo’ to tell me what to do?

    Overeducated in this case means someone with a useless degree – Liberal Arts, Humanities, even the Business degrees that don’t depend on calculus (and whose graduates may NEVER have actually owned a business, however small, nor sold a single nail through their own efforts).

    • I’m inclined to agree. About ten years ago, just as I was really hunting for jobs in academia, the word came out that major companies had instituted entrance exams, because graduates with a B.A. degree were not able to read, write, and cipher to a high enough level for entry-level corporate jobs. Something has gone dreadfully, terrible wrong.

      • Consider the end state of the Gramscian march. A population no longer capable of practicing democracy well enough to resist the rule of their rightful overlords. Incompetent students may be ‘going correctly’ for some.

        But those also seem to have been disappointed, as enough folk are picking up enough after they leave school to help keep things running. Thus the call to import voters ignorant enough to cause sufficient malfunction.

        On the other hand, it may be simple rentseeking and compromised oversight.

        The increased risk for employers could also be sufficient to drive more cautious hiring.

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