Vocational Paradoxes

It’s a quite different thing to say that God is at the top of one’s list of priorities — a priority among other priorities, but the most important one — than it is to say “seek ye first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all the rest will be added unto you,” or that there is “one thing needful.” Or, to take a non-biblical quote, “purity of heart is to will one thing.” And it is a much, much different thing to say that “a man cannot serve two masters, for he will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other.” In that formulation it sounds like it’s not so much that God and money are both in the priority ranking, only God is #1, and money is #7 — I do not, in fact, know what it means. The fact of the matter is, the very instant I start to even stick my toe in “Life Planning” or even the much less daunting realm of career planning, I am immediately struck by a multiplication of paradoxes. I run into the “design process paradox,” wherein at the beginning a person has a great deal of freedom, but very little knowledge of what is being designed — and then later he has much more knowledge, but much less freedom to do anything about it. Michael Hyatt’s version of life planning probably works best around mid life: when one already knows one’s basic categories of obligation fairly well, but still has some freedom to relate to them differently. Otherwise one walks straight from the first part of the design process paradox (everything is possibility; nothing is necessity! [Kierkegaard])straight into all the paradoxes of Christianity: “he who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself for My sake will be exalted;” “he who will be great among you must be the servant of all” — and all the rest, which end with “Christianity has not so much been tried and found wanting, as found difficult and left untried” (Chesterton). A person can end up here even when doing something so seemingly un-paradoxical as choosing a career — because not only does one not know whether one likes or is any good at something until one has already put several years into it, but one does not necessarily know whether liking and being good at ones work is really the point until some time after that. What if the real point was to repent of sloth? In that case it may do no good at all to inventory one’s preferences, strengths, and best skills. What if the point is to be cured of a stubborn case of conceited pride? What if the real point was not in oneself at all, but lay somewhere else?

It is therefore quite likely that a young person can be knee deep in paradoxes within the first chapter of a practical, tool-like approach to Life Planning, and might wonder that the author does not even nod in his direction, nor acknowledge the paradoxes he sees coming at him from all directions. To take Miller’s approach (a narrative of someone who wants something and overcomes obstacles to get it), his life plan is beginning to sound a bit like this:

A fellow wanted… to keep the commandments and obey God… so he, I guess, tried to love people — only he was slothful and negligent, and the Commandments sounded very difficult, so instead he tried to go work in a bookstore, because he liked books, and perhaps write a little; but there weren’t any bookstores that would hire him, so he ended up picking watermelons instead. That was really hard, and he wasn’t any good at it; he still kind of wished he was working for the book store, but instead found a youth leader position, and that was also really hard and he wasn’t very good at it. In the meantime, though, his sloth was getting a little better, and he had written a story about picking watermelons, which was also not very good; he went off to wader about in Europe for a while, and found out that Europe is a lot like America, only with older, more impressive buildings, and that its air was no fuller of epiphanies than his own — so he came back, and studied physics for a bit, and was a little better at that, or that’s what his professors said. He taught high school physics for a year, and found out that it was really hard, and that the students didn’t much care whether he could write good essays on the difference between the ancient conception of Creation as cosmos, with a natural place and order, and our modern conception of universe, which has replaces natural order with laws of motion. The only student who was willing to read it thought that it was a little boring, so he didn’t try to publish it — but this helped his conceit a little…

*  *  *

There was, then this fellow who wanted to keep the Commands of God, which include repenting of things like sloth and conceit — but he faced the obstacle of not especially wanting to repent of them, because he was conceited and slothful, neither of which encourage repentance. So God sent him off to do difficult things he wasn’t very good at where people didn’t much care about the things he was conceited about to cure him of them… but he didn’t know this at the time, and thought that his life plan was going very poorly, since his had involved doing something he was good at and which was fairly easy for him, while being congratulated on his intelligence and educational polish. God thought that it was heading in the right direction, but would go much better if he would spend less energy thinking about the essays he wanted to write and the bookstore where he would sell them, and more repenting of the slothful conceit.

Meanwhile, he was rather frustrated because he and God also had different views on what his chief passions in life ought to be. He thought that perhaps his passions should be reading, writing, looking clever, being well liked, and rising as far in the meritocracy as he could without having to really overcome his sloth. God thought that this fellow’s chief passions should be to love God and his neighbors, and to be delighted by the beauty of Creation, as seen in physics, books, watermelons, and high schoolers.

This went on for some years, and God was more patient about it than the fellow. He stopped teaching physics and became a manager at a bookstore, but it didn’t help. He turned his article into a dissertation and got a PhD in the philosophy of science, but it didn’t help much. He edited his dissertation into a moderately popular book, so that people congratulated him on being clever, and other people criticized him for being rather too clever for his own good — and it didn’t much help. He became a professor of liberal arts, and taught people who were charitable to his work, even when they found it rather boring — and still he thought that he had not quite found what he was looking for, and that he might even be farther from it than when he was picking watermelons; at least then he would go out early in the morning before the field became blistering hot, and would exclaim in delight over the beauty of the golden morning light, over the crimson and gold clouds, over the green and brown reflections in the dew on the watermelons, and over the fresh sweet taste of a newly picked melon. Now the only melons he ever encountered had been sliced by a machine and spent two weeks encased in plastic on a refrigerated shelf.

One day this fellow was standing in church for the Triodion, composing a shopping list in his head, and heard, for the 57th time, the story of the Prodigal Son. Forgetting his shopping list he said to himself: What? Did I miss something? Oh, right… paper towels,  veggie crumbles, tofu burgers, soy cheese, cantaloupe… The What? part of that thought continued to bother him for a few days, however, until one day, as he was sitting in the library reading about how celestial bodies move in perfect circles eternally because that’s just the kind of stuff they are, he was interrupted by: I forgot the soy cheese! How am I going to make veggie crumble tacos without soy cheese? That’s hardly fit for pigs! Oh, right, and I should save something for Dave’s pot bellied pig… there was something… pigs? I heard that they cannot look up to heaven, because of the way their eyes are constructed… Jesus drove a pack of demons into a heard of swine, and they ran off a cliff, so the people in the village were angry…. “I have sinned before heaven and before Thee, and am no longer worthy to be called your son…” Right! That was it! I was supposed to be repenting, not feeding my conceit! It’s very generous that I get paid to read and write and talk about celestial bodies and all, but that’s not really the point.

And so he began to repent, and to go out on warm summer nights to look at the beauty of the celestial bodies and to exclaim over the beauty of the heavens, and of the dew, and of the color of leaves right before a thunderstorm again, as he had done as a watermelon picker. He was much happier, and realized that he hardly even missed the soy cheese on his tacos, and should perhaps work at listening better to the services instead of composing lists in his head. So he began to work on his inattention, where sloth had hid itself since he had managed the bookstore and become too busy to obviously waste time. He learned that the stuff he had not been listening to was actually beautiful and important, though, being overcome with conceit in his own well educated status, he had not expected this, and was delighted by it. So both his sloth and his conceit began to get better, and eh was much happier. One day, however, he wondered, not for the first time, what he had be doing with his life, and where he should go from there. He thought: what is it I most love and am passionate about? I thought that I loved philosophy of science, and so I do, but not entirely. It is almost nothing without lying in fields and singing psalms beneath the shining heavens. I had thought that I liked writing, and I do, but not entirely. It is almost nothing without the hope of an encounter of a beautiful, shining edge of Truth I had not seen before, and is sometimes worse than nothing, when I read nasty reviews and am hurt by them, or when I fritter away time in checking my blog stats and looking whether anyone has bought a copy of my book recently. I would most like to keep the Commandments of God, but I am very slothful and conceited… I wonder if, with God’s help, this might be overcome?

I had meant that to be an experiment of how a Christian might imagine their life as a narrative, as per Miller — so the first paragraph was meant to be actual (within the experiment), and then the rest was how this fellow might think out what some of the meaning of his life might be, so that he could make better choices — only I sort of forgot, and it ended up becoming something else.


4 thoughts on “Vocational Paradoxes

  1. Well, don’t get conceited, but I found it delightful and funny and perceptive. I was just thinking that being unemployed and other things I don’t like is a good antidote to being conceited. Just a couple of days ago I went fishing by myself at Silverbell Lake; I set my chair down and looked out at the water, then up at the clean blue sky which was accented by shiny white clouds which were edged with shimmery portents of sometime incoming rain from the Pacific Ocean. I thought: “wow. this is pretty! this is fun, too”. I even caught two little baby bluegills right on the lips and released them; and two larger sunfish which had swallowed more of the hooks. I released them but worried about their fates. One of them, I think, was soon speared by an absurdly slim and elegant white crane which took it away through the air for a meal. Earlier I had seen, I think, her mate, an equally elegant fellow who had gray and brown accents on his coat. I had managed to not think of myself for a bit, neither the negative clouds of self-loathing nor other bits of logismia (sp?). But of course I hadn’t managed this myself, it was rather a sequence of serendipitous events which I couldn’t have planned for the life of me. It was a time to think: “Thank you, Lord God. Life is good, but not just now because I had a petite epiphany, but more because I had remembered what it was to feel alive and not bothered and to go along not doing much, until it was time to pack up and go back to doing things.”

  2. What makes this so fascinating is precisely the fact that it is so difficult. I remember back a few years ago when I was struggling with the concept of “having a calling,” I gave up and sort of concluded “I don’t know how to figure this out.” It isn’t easy by any stretch of the imagination.

  3. As we read this we all start to wonder is this written about me? Are we all lost souls wandering through life endlessly? As I think of “ALL” the people I have met & know personally I am not sure I have ever met anyone who is not at this point. No one!!! I was watching this TV special on this young girl a century or more ago. Her name was Margaret and was an abandoned blind girl who may have performed miracles and led a life of wonders. Question is was she any different then any of us? She reportedly saw God and spoke to him. When pressed to the point she was told she only thought she saw him as she was blind she stated no I did see him. I share this because this is what we are all looking for. To see and believe where we are and where we are headed in life. Looks like she may have found her calling as she helped many people throughout her short life. Now while chances are none of us will see God or become possible saints hopefully we can discover why we are here on the big blue marble. Good luck to all as we continue are travels through life.

  4. Your story reminded me the biginning of the movie UP, with its wonderfully foreshortened and poignant poetic view of life and love and marriage and the further adventures of. There is also a New Yorker cartoonist named Jules Fieffer who has the long view sometimes in his cartoons; and Shel Silverstein in Lafcadio, the story of a lion. There is Kierk.’s Stages on Llife’s Way, and Alan Jacobs: Looking Before and After: Testimony and the Christian Life. All of these things are quite different of course. I also like the way you look into God’s intentions for this soul you’re writing about, and the humorous contradiction between our hero’s ideas and God’s. So, to put it shortly, I love this ‘form’ you are using–it fits your sense of humor and noticing of small but memorable idiosyncracies–the pig’s physique for instance–and the inner monologues of the fellow. What a nice little tale, told in a tale sort of form, like a parable.

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