“To the extent that man does not use his freedom, he is not himself. In order to emerge from that indeterminate state, he must utilize his freedom in order to know and be known as himself.” – Fr. Dimitru Staniloae
Vocation is a luxurious word. The very heart of the consumer economy is its ability to offer the individual a wide array of choices. We perceive those choices as yielding power and identity. Almost every child in the modern world knows the great existential consumer question: What do I want to be when I grow up?
It is an amazing thing to ask. Butcher, baker, candle-stick maker – every child can grow up to be President. What do I want to do? What will make me happy? What will make me fulfilled? If I am devout – what would God want me to do?
For we draw God into the consumer’s conundrum, even giving Him credit for such a wide array of choices as though such decisions are natural and the normal way of things. But through most of human history, people have had very few choices. Work was something someone did in order to survive. Opportunity was rather narrow. For most, the work that was readily abundant provided almost the only choice. My grandfather was a farmer as was his father before him and his father before him, etc. My grandfather eventually turned his talent for mechanical things into a job as an auto mechanic. My father was an auto mechanic as was his brother as well. There were other choices, but doing what was at hand seemed to them the thing to do. My mother’s father was a farmer as were his ancestors as far back as I can ascertain. Her father could still conjugate a Latin verb in his 80’s – he had finished high school – rare in his generation. But he did what his father did and probably never asked what he wanted to do.
The nature of our economy requires a mobile population – mobile both in where we live as well as mobile in what we do. That you will get a job at a company, work and retire is no longer an option for most – companies will need you to leave or become something different long before a career is finished. Cultural Christianity has obliged this changing market place and created a theology of vocation that gives Divine sanction to our vocational mobility. Indeed, the failure to know “what we want to do,” is almost never seen as a failure of the marketplace, a product of absurd dislocations and even more absurd educational planning. Instead, we view it as personal failure. “I never could figure out what I wanted to do,” the displaced, unplaced, unplaceable worker thinks.
My heart grieves for the false dilemmas that face young people today (and many others as well). How can anyone know what they want to be when they grow up? Be whatever you will, and I can assure you that at some point you’ll wonder whether you should have been something else.
The freedom God gives us – a foundation of our personhood – is not a gift designed to underwrite the consumer economy. To a large extent, I think it doesn’t matter what we do. Our vocation is not a job – it is the calling to be like our Father in heaven. St. Paul offers brief advice on vocation:
Let him who stole steal no longer, but rather let him labor, working with his hands what is good, that he may have something to give him who has need. (Eph 4:28 NKJ)
What should I do? Do something. And whatever you do, keep God’s commandments and with thanksgiving share with others out of the abundance that God provides. This is our vocation.