The Shadow of Vocation

images (6)“They sit on the couch and look at walls.”

I had never heard that one before.

To be honest, she wasn’t entirely off base: the philosopher likes to look. She likes to gaze. She likes to observe. Aristotle had his horse. Descartes had his candle. Heidegger had his hammer.

But unlike the scientist, the philosopher’s observation goes beyond what is observed. She gazes at something to look past it. She aims to stare “the beyond” in the face. Plato’s famous analogy of the cave captures this best. The philosopher begins with appearances, but she doesn’t stay there. She walks around the appearance, the shadow, to observe what casts it. Whereas many don’t even perceive the shadows, the philosopher sees them for what they are, and hopes to see what is making them. She seeks the thing behind the thing.

This is what she does, and it’s not that special. She doesn’t make anything; she simply exposes what is there.

My friend’s remark got me thinking. Is what I do what I’m called to? Is the philosopher’s vocation the philosopher’s task? Is the philosopher called to what the philosopher already does? What is the philosopher’s calling?

That’s a tricky question.

The common response I hear is “to think.”The philosopher thinks. But is thinking the philosopher’s calling or the philosopher’s task? Is she called to think or does she think? If she is called to think, how is her calling any different than yours? After all, we all think. Perhaps we take the etymological root of the word: the philosopher is a lover of wisdom. The philosopher is called to love and pursue wisdom. Again we’re faced with the same question. Is wisdom her unique calling? Don’t we all pursue wisdom, as Aristotle noted, even though our wisdom may be foolishness?

Indeed. My barista thinks and loves wisdom—behind and beyond the counter.

Latte_at_Doppio_Ristretto_Chiang_Mai_01She pursues and applies wisdom in making my pour over every morning. She makes it with a world of expertise, deliberate technique, vast experience, and creative insight. The beans are ground for fresh flavor, poured into a ceramic mug that facilitates purity of palate, pragmatically set on a saucer to accommodate my groggy morning dribbles and add an aesthetic appeal that makes me feel distinguished. All the while she engages me in a brief, but deep conversation, indicating how she values our friendship and appreciates my patronage. She could do her “job”and interact with me much differently. Instead, she does it wisely. Outside of work, she reads what I read. She wants to live wisely amidst the mundane, banal, routines of her day-to-day. She aspires to be the sage of her own life, working with an idea of the beautiful that finds expression on her walls. She experiments with how to govern and order her domestic endeavors. She has a view of the afterlife. Everyday she thinks about aesthetics, political philosophy, and metaphysics.

She is a philosopher in her own right.

Yet she is a barista and I am a philosopher. That’s what we do. That’s what we’re paid to do.

But this limited kind of thinking makes understanding my vocation tricky.

Philosophizing is more than thinking, wondering, and pursuing wisdom, and the philosopher is called to more than thinking, pursuing wisdom, or wondering. Vocation, in general, is more than what we do.

I know quite a few people who are restless, anxious, and burned out because they have no idea what their calling is. They can’t figure it out. I don’t say this to them, but I think they can’t figure it out because they misunderstand calling. Many of us misunderstand calling. Hence the current splurge of books on vocation. These books only perpetuate confusion; they only draw attention to the shadows.

Our idea of vocation is misguided. This is partly because it is rooted in a functional deism. As we see God’s action as an interruption in the created order, we see calling as an interruption in our patterned lives. God is out there waiting to interrupt our situation and invite us to move on to something bigger and better. What he offers isn’t something we already accepted. It interrupts and possibly violates our life as it is. When he calls, it is assumed that we will hear him. His message will be clear, disruptive, and we will understand it.

We will understand exactly what to do.

Framing vocation this way skews our expectations. We look for something that we will never see. We wait for something that will never come. It’s likely that many of us haven’t heard this expected calling because we’ve already accepted it. We accepted our calling when we accepted our existence. Camus proposed that suicide is the one truly serious philosophical problem. I submit that suicide is the only one true denial of vocation.

We live callings bigger than we think, wonder, or pursue. We are called to far more than what we do. We must not confuse what we do with what we’re called to. Limiting our calling to what we do minimizes what is possible, sows misunderstanding, and leads us to ignore our call.

I am called to more than what I do. I am called to this moment, this place, this time, this presence, this thing. My calling is to my world. Even more, I am called to God in this world. I am called to him. I am called to meet him in and show him to my children, my wife, my health, my city, my friends. My vocation as a philosopher is inextricably bound up with my world. What I am called to do is inextricably bound up with who I am called to be.

The places and communities we live and others live—our plots in the ground—these are our vocations as well. Sometimes this involves doing things: going to work and making things. Other times, it means having no job and nothing to show for one’s labor. The calling is not primarily to a thing or a task, but how that thing or task relates to the world we are called to. We must not forget this. Our calling has its basis and goal in a world, our world. It is wrapped up in the intricacies of who we are and what we bump into everyday.

Everyday, our “vocations” bleed out into other aspects of our lives because these other aspects of our lives are part of our vocation.

bricklayer2We need to look beyond the shadow of vocation. We need to see what is casting the shadow. We need to ascend from the hollow, narrow underground chamber and see the larger picture—what God is actually calling us to.

Philosophy matters for how I change diapers, schedule meetings, eat food, and use social media. Philosophy cannot be compartmentalized. Vocation cannot be compartmentalized. When we identify our vocation with our industry, sector, job, tasks, or labor, we not only unweave our lives in a way that isn’t true to our experience, we miss the opportunity to see the grand scheme of vocation.

Vocation is far more comprehensive and integrative than we think.

We are called to life, our lives, and everything that images, bears, and facilitates life. We are called to the world, our worlds, and everything that affirms, redeems, and hopes for the goodness of this world. We are called to God’s kingdom coming into this world. We are called to the ordinary, everyday, banal, mundane being of reality. A reality that he created, governs, redeemed, and will one day restore. We are called to be.

Kyle David Bennett teaches philosophy part-time at Caldwell College and occasionally teaches religion at the King’s College. He is also a homemaker and guardian of Thing 1 and Thing 2. He’s currently writing, and drinking. Visit his website here

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