Tuesday, April 08, 2014

On call

Lang Religious Studies supplied the missing women to Orozco's "Table of Universal Brotherhood" at our last official event of the semester, a fabulous panel discussion of ex-students my colleague K put together under the name Calling, Career, Commitment. The alums all work in caring professions, and had enormously insightful accounts of how they found their way, how they understand their work, and how they care of in very emotional demanding work. They spoke of the importance of "lineages," support networks, humility, and how to keep enough distance between your own life and that of those you are working with to be effective - and take of your own needs, desires and relationships.

I have all sorts of reservations about monolithic ways of thinking about calling. In my experience categories like "calling" often make students panic. If only they could all have been there for this discussion which showed much more multi-pronged, open-ended and clear-eyed approaches. The great discussion continued over dinner. How does one, as an idealistic young person at a liberal arts college like Lang, make one's way in the world? All three stressed that they have many interests and no intention to give all the rest up for the one they were currently pursuing. One thought many young people might resist "being defined" by a specific goal since they'd be ashamed if unable to achieve it. Another noted that many social workers don't speak of their work as a "calling" and consider those who do self-important. All three acknowledged that decisions and even dreams are heavily shadowed by economic factors - one can forget that getting a degree also usually means taking on a considerable debt. Living out a chosen calling is something not everyone has the privilege to be able to do, and there is wisdom in the experience also of those who find meaning in lives they have not chosen.

The oldest of the alumnae was particularly full of wisdom. When someone asked how she related to people who had experiences she had not had, she said that those were the times she was most effective; when the experience was too close to her own, her own unresolved feelings could get in the way.When someone asked what to do if you felt someone with your background didn't have the right to do some kind of work you managed to get hired to do, she said: think of it as a privilege, an honor. And in some connection she said that people should think of their first few jobs as teaching them what they didn't want to do.

The picture that emerged from all the discussion was enormously helpful for me. It confirmed, and deepened, my sense - vicarious, since I got into the one-profession-for-life game just in time - that the contemporary economy, and culture, demand a more experimental and pluralist, less focused and high-stakes way of navigating questions of calling and career. And during dinner it became clear to me that we should be telling students that their experience as students at a college like ours - taking courses in several areas at the same time, some familiar and some new, and choosing a new slate each semester in consultation with friends and advisers - prepares them well for precisely this. Liberal arts provides valuable "vocational training" after all!

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