Thinking about vocation at the start of a new year

How an old concept is more relevant now than ever before

As waves of freshmen and upperclassmen return to campuses across the country this week, there is one word that should be increasingly on their minds — vocation.

The word vocation will be familiar to some, such as those who have had religious education or attended Catholic school while they were younger, but it may be foreign to many others.

The word comes from Christianity, specifically the Latin word for “calling” or “summons,” and was originally used in the context of entering religious life.

When priests, nuns and monks enter into their life of work, they take vows for life, which include collateral commitments, such as vows of celibacy. Taking such a vow is an incredible commitment. One which  requires large amounts of thought, maturity and deliberation, which is why the process of “vocational discernment” is so heavily emphasised in these spheres.

Although the word vocation largely remains annexed in churches, Catholic schools and Sunday school classes, it has a growing secular relevance.

As of April 2016, LinkedIn reported that there has been a steady climb in job-hopping over the past 30 years. The statistic currently predicts the average college student will have 4 different jobs in the first 10 years after their graduation, according to the report.

As of November 2006 — a decade prior — the Pew Research Center reported that 47 percent of Americans polled said they anticipated switching careers in the future.

“Today’s college grads don’t just change jobs, they often switch into entirely different industries,” CNN reported in 2016.

There is something to be said about variety, and this trend isn’t entirely shocking as young adults are becoming more exposed to an increasing variety of jobs with the advent of new technologies and industries. But, one may also suspect that this does not represent a society wide “occupational curiosity,” but rather a form of wandering, possibly coupled with moments of dissatisfaction.

For example, this trend has a corollary in other social spheres, such as marriage. Only half of adults are currently married, as opposed to just about 70 percent in 1950, according the Pew Research Center. This occurred as the rate of cohabitating with unmarried partners increased 29 percent between 2007 and 2016. This indicates there may be a general hesitancy when it comes to long-term decision making, whether in picking a partner  or committing to a trade.  

It is in this way that the concept of vocation becomes increasingly important. Whereas we may think of it as deciding what kind of career best suits us, it is really about understanding what sort of life we should live. For instance, a priest commits his life to his parish and a monk commits his whole self to his monastery. These are lifelong, world defining commitments to a way of life. It is with this sort of consideration for one’s entire life that one should begin to think about a vocation, and what sort of life they can best live.

When thinking about vocation in college, it is important to think of the choices one makes now — what to major in, what organizations to dedicate time to, what jobs to seek — in lieu of the rest of one’s life.

Finding one’s vocation is traditionally meant as finding the work that God has intended for you, but even for the atheist or agnostic in an increasingly a-religious society, the concept of a calling is important, because it can more easily lead one to fullfillment.

With a clear conception of what one views their role as, they are released to do that work unencumbered by the past or future. Thomas Merton, in his book “The Seven Story Mountain”, wrote about the feeling of freedom he felt when he found his calling.

“I was free. I had recovered my liberty,” he wrote. “The only thing that mattered was the fact of the sacrifice, the essential dedication to one’s self, one’s will. The rest was only accidental.”

One’s soul is in order and right when “even the smallest things be done with reference to an end,” wrote Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Aurelius was not a Christian himself — and at times a persecutor of them —  but this quote perfectly encapsulates working toward a vocation.

When setting out on a path of vocational discernment, there is one place to start — the self.

“In the hidden recesses of the human heart the grace of a vocation takes the form of a dialogue. It is a dialogue between Christ and an individual, in which a personal invitation is given,” Pope John Paul II wrote.

For a secular student, this should be read as a pursuit for self-understanding. With a better understanding of one’s self, more informed decisions can be made about one’s life.

These self-posed questions should not be overly ambitious and existential, such as “who am I?” or “do I even exist?” Equally important is that they are not too superficial, such as, “what do I like to do?”

There is a space in between these two extremes that should be investigated, with questions like “where do I find the most meaning?,” “what do I find myself admiring about people?” or “what do words like service and family mean to me?”

Only with a developing understanding of one’s self and what gives one a sense of fulfillment, can one begin to adequately see where their life may best lead them.

Another component for discernment is reflection. Students should ask themselves how they ended up at Allegheny and what critical choices in their lives lead them here.

By conducting a careful analysis of one’s past decisions, trends may emerge, and these trend could reveal preferences and personality traits which were formerly unknown to the individual.  One may even see these preferences emerge in choices they have made, such as what extracurriculars they invested their time into, or how they manage friendships and family relationships.

But, this is not the only way to discover one’s vocation and there is no single way of determining it.

“A vocation is a call that requires a free and responsible answer. Integral human development presupposes the responsible freedom of the individual and of peoples: no structure can guarantee this development over and above human responsibility,” wrote Pope Benedict XVI, in his encyclical, “Caritas in veritate.”

It is one’s own responsibility to make a persistent and deliberate practice of searching and questioning. This is a process that does not take days, weeks or months, but sustains across a lifetime.

Such careful deliberation and self-exploration may seem, above all, self-serving, and the concept of a vocation may appear to be a clever way of justifying one to do what they want, but implicit in the concept of a vocation is service.

It is a humbling way to envision one’s life. In thinking about an inner “call” or “summons,” one begins to commit themselves to something greater than their own ambition. To answer a call, one is led, not leading and therefore will enter a life of service.

Vocations vary drastically. For some, it means a life “dedicated to the service of the Church as the universal sacrament of salvation;” how the Catechism defines the call of those who enter religious life. But for the majority of people, their call is to something very different.  

For many, a vocation can be a call to form a family. For many teachers and professors, it is a call to serve future generations and involves a commitment to students. Many find a call to more abstract concepts, such as creating and building or forming human relationships. This can lead one to careers in carpentry or in the business world.

And for some, their vocation may be to work a variety of jobs across their lifetime. This may allow them to meet a wide array of people and learn about different social groups. Perhaps they derive their drive and meaning from these changes in work, and the new relationships they form, which is, after all, the reason for viewing one’s life through the lens of a vocation: it lends higher meaning to the work they do.

It is never too early to start thinking about vocation. The earlier one starts, the more clarity they will have when making decisions early in their Allegheny career; decisions relating to clubs, organizations, academics programs and paths.

Thinking about one’s vocation will prove useful for upperclassmen, as well. It will enable them to think more creatively and personally about possible jobs to pursue, and will help them better articulate their suitability and the skills they offer when applying, but it is not an easy process.

Maintaining a fixed view on the rest of one’s life is difficult when wading through the morass of everyday life. Our gazes are often drawn down to more temporal things, which may have more immediate impact but less lasting relevance. Poor experiences or jobs that one finds ill-suited for should not be discouragements. It is often in those moments when we learn the most about who we are, and in this way they play an integral role in the one’s journey for vocation.

Regardless of the degree of religiosity or faith on campuses, searching for one’s work through the lens of vocation is a meaningful way to embark on one’s life. As students are beginning to carve their way through the next four years or preparing for their last two semesters, we would do well to have the word vocation increasingly on our minds.