Finding Our Place
If you’ve been around this blog for any length of time, you will know that I am a big fan of Frederick Buechner. I admire the way he writes, the way he pries open a space for faith in a cultural context often characterized by skepticism, doubt, and even hostility to God. His book of sermons, Secrets in the Dark, is often one of the first places I turn when I am feeling like the well is dry and the inspiration just isn’t coming.
Having said that, I have always had a bit of an ambiguous relationship with what is perhaps one of Buechner’s most famous quotes:
The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.
I don’t remember when I first encountered this quote, but it taps into a theme I have spent most of my adult life wrestling with, namely, that of vocation. My first memory of this probably comes from my mid twenties or so. At the time, I was working on the family farm. It was a job that I didn’t feel terribly well suited for. There was plenty of manual labour, plenty of dirty work with livestock, plenty of extreme temperatures to contend with, whether tramping through fields in the blistering heat of summer, or feeding cattle in the bone chilling wind and cold of a prairie winter. The work was hard, certainly, but that wasn’t the problem. It wasn’t that I felt I was “above” manual labour or was averse to demanding work or anything like that. Mostly I just felt that I wasn’t much good at it, and that it probably wasn’t the sort of work that I was “wired” for. I was (and remain) utterly useless with mechanical tasks, I frequently made rather boneheaded and expensive mistakes, and just had generally very little interest or ability in the basic tasks of farming.
I liked to read and write. I had the itch to study. But I how could I justify going back to school and spending tens of thousands of dollars on an expensive education when there were people starving in our world? What right did I have to expect or pursue a “fulfilling” career when so many people in the world and in my own community didn’t have the luxury of such expectations or pursuits? Back and forth I went, agonizing about the right course to take. Eventually, I was convinced by a number of people in my life that pursuing higher education was both morally permissible and, indeed, commendable. I had an obligation to use the gifts/abilities that I had been given, etc., etc., so off I went.
A decade or so later, I have a few shiny degrees in my pocket and a job that probably fits better with my interests and gifts, but I still periodically find myself reflecting upon the same questions that my 25-year-old self was tortured with. Is this what I was made to do? Is this the place where my deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger are intersecting? Are these even legitimate questions to ask?
The thing is, the ability to even contemplate such questions is a profound reflection of our social location and privilege. The expectation that we ought to be able to spend the majority of our time pursuing things that are enjoyable, fulfilling, and uniquely suited to our individual gifts and abilities would be laughably absurd to most people for most of human history. They would be equally absurd in many parts of the world today. I doubt that the woman picking through garbage for recyclables with two kids on her hip in a slum in Mumbai has given much thought to job satisfaction. I doubt that the young man who spends an hour slogging through mud and debris on a hillside in Colombia just to get to the shack where he sells cell phone minutes to impatient and grouchy urbanites has wondered much about his deep gladness or the world’s deep hunger. These people are more concerned about their own hunger and the hunger of their children, thank you very much.
But we need not dwell only in extremes. I think of the immigrant woman who I often see cleaning tables at the food court in the mall… or the guy selling irrigation parts at the dealer beside our church… or the older gentleman who pushes a broom at Canadian Tire… or the guys who work at the slaughterhouse that I used to haul hogs to… or any of the innumerable women and men around the world who spend their days in sterile cubicles typing the memos and filing the paperwork that prop up the soul-crushing bureaucracies that apparently make our world go round (or at least regularly supply us with injustices over which to grind our teeth in rage.)…
I try to imagine asking these people, “Do you feel like what you are doing represents the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet?”
And then I laugh out loud. Or repent for my arrogant presumption.
No, this is not a question for everyone. This question is a luxury to even contemplate, much less expect to become a reality. It sure sounds good, but it doesn’t fit. Not in a world like ours.
So, do we abandon Buechner’s ideal altogether as either impossible or immoral? I don’t know. I’m not suggesting that people shouldn’t seek out jobs where they will find fulfillment. Not by any means. I am not even suggesting that we should abandon “call” language or that some people are not uniquely gifted and appointed for specific roles at specific times and places. I am simply saying that we need to exercise caution and compassion in how we speak about these things, and that we not set up impossible expectations for ourselves along the way.
Perhaps, like in so many other areas of life where we are continually conditioned to demand more, more, more, we could stand to re-learn the value of enough. If I were forced to answer the vocational question of what my deep gladness might be, I would probably respond with, “writing.” I love to write. This is what gives me fulfillment, joy, challenge, struggle, reward… probably like nothing else. I also know that I will likely never make a living as a writer. There are so many words out there, so many books, so many writers (real and imagined) clamouring for space and time and money and attention. Virtually every week I come across fresh warnings of the perils of trying to make a career out of writing (see here, for this week’s example). The prospects seem bleak, to put it mildly.
But the paths I have chosen and taken thus far have given me space to pursue this gladness, and to learn other important skills and competencies along the way. Do I love everything about my job? Of course not. Nobody does—at least nobody that I’ve encountered! But at my best I am grateful both for the opportunity and blessing to write as part of my job (and, I hope, intersect with some hunger in the world, whether deep or shallow!) and learn and grow and mature through the things that frustrate, stretch, confuse, strain, bewilder, and drain me—lessons that may not be learnable in any other way. At my best, I am learning the value of enough. Does my career/calling/vocation uniformly represent the confluence of my deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger? Well, not always. But with all due respect to Buechner, I’m not convinced that this is even the right question to be asking.