Vocation is What You do when You’re You

Halfway into my three year graduate degree, I had a problem: I  hated what I was doing. But I was getting paid to do it. I wanted to quit, but I couldn’t walk away from a free education. Several of the other Woodruff Fellowship students in my class were in the same quandary. We didn’t like coming to campus each day, but we couldn’t justify quitting.

I didn’t stop caring on purpose. It just… happened. But even on autopilot, my grades never dipped below A-. I appeared to be a put-together, invested student. Because I was very good at doing what I hated. But I had didn’t care what happened in the campus, in the classroom, in my thesis. I opted to do a thesis my third year purely because it was six credits I didn’t have to do in a classroom. I chose my class not by “courses I want to take” but by “professors that won’t make me want to drop out eight times a day, even though I’m only four months from graduation.”

Somewhere in that final year, working with professors who were entirely reasonable (if, for some unfathomable reason, committed to a bureaucratic school in a hell-hole of a Southern city), I realized: I hated seminary–I didn’t hate life. In fact, life was far more interesting than seminary. So I started hanging out on the couch of the new Colombian family at my church, practicing my Spanish with a kindergartner instead of doing my homework; I spent weekends at the detention center in South Georgia, visiting undocumented immigrants with my still-sloppy Spanish and learning to harvest fresh pecans at the hospitality house and singing karaoke in a sleepy town with bad food; I went to court trials; poetry slams; I biked to farmer’s markets and bought 50-cent peaches and learned how to cook them eight different ways; I went to Colombia, skipping the first week of class so I could visit the American embassy in Bogota and talk about the drug war; I sneaked into community gardens and weeded the beds; I wrote papers in cafes, learning how to make friends with baristas; I brought coloring books to class, making color-pencil sketches of Japanese prints instead of taking notes.

In short: I made a vocation. I checked off the boxes of seminary and in my spare time, threw myself into the world to make sure I still cared about something. I didn’t consider it vocational work; I considered it survival of the soul. But that’s what vocation is: letting your soul–the part of you who is strong enough to absorb pain and transform it–flourish. Vocation is not a career. Vocation is being your best self in public. I learned new ways to have relationships, and that was my vocation: to make better relationships with people I had only just met.

In seminary, I found myself in a place where the thing I restructured my life to do, the thing I had moved across the country and accepted a paying fellowship to do, was not the thing I wanted to do. The strange paradox was that once I resigned myself to checking off boxes, I was free to live outside of the box. That was what got me through seminary, the life I lived outside the box.

Now, I meet a lot of adults–and teenagers–who are in this space. Who are mostly checking off boxes, going through the motions. And this is the challenge, to learn how to have a vocation in the middle of all the other stuff that just needs to get done. Going through the motions is not a bad thing–it’s a place we all find ourselves. Going through the motions is the signal to find new ways to care. To seek new space where you invent new motions, where every day is enlivening. Christians complicate vocation by spreading the implicit idea that the only “true” vocation is the one who works 16 hours a day in underpaid service or missions. Vocation has nothing to do with choosing the right profession. Vocation is about choosing to be yourself, seeking space where you can be alive and affirmed. Vocation is the practice of caring while you are off the clock. It’s remembering how to be alive in the spiritual sense while you go on being alive in the boring, bill-paying, adulting ways.

The summer after I graduated, I mostly sat on porches drank beer with new roommates who were Ph.D. dropouts and had rarely gone to church, women who alternated between laughing at me being a pastor and laughing at me for biking our compost to the community garden. That summer was an internship in its own right, a learning how to be kind with the world again. I learned as much in that summer as I had in the classes that embittered me. It’s not I had to suffer the pain in order to have joy–that’s bad theology. But that in that pain, I learned something that would serve me when I walked back across joy’s threshold.

As August turns into September, I have a handful of friends starting seminary. I want to tell them it might suck. It might be awful. But none of us goes to seminary for seminary. We go to seminary because we couldn’t say no to God any longer, and maybe what God wasn’t intended was for us to be honors students or get a dream job in the Admissions office. Maybe God just intended to get you to the place where you could find your vocation, where it’s okay that the thing you came here to do isn’t actually the thing you came here to do.

A classroom is always going to be a classroom. An office, a paycheck, the tedium of stay-at-home motherhood or unemployment–it’s the place you are. It’s not who you are. You–you are growing into something new.

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