I recently read Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and a Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance. The hillbillies referenced in the title are white, working class Americans of Scots-Irish descent whose ancestors settled in Appalachia. Though raised in Appalachian culture, Vance didn’t grow up in Appalachia proper; a few decades before he was born his grandparents had migrated from Jackson, Kentucky to Middletown, Ohio, attracted by the good-paying jobs at the steel plant there.

As with many other rust belt cities, the Middletown factory has been in decline for decades. The conventional explanation for the crisis among poor working class whites is economic: there aren’t enough good-paying jobs available. Vance, however, thinks that “this story of economic insecurity is, at best, incomplete.” (p. 13; all page numbers are from the large-print edition) He draws on the example of a summer job he had at a tile distribution center in Middleville. Though the work was stable and the pay was decent, the managers couldn’t find minimally reliable workers to fill open positions. Why the lack of decent workers in an economically depressed community? Vance wrote his book in order to explore “what goes on in the lives of real people when the industrial economy goes south. It’s about reacting to bad circumstances in the worst way possible. It’s about a culture that encourages social decay instead of counteracting it.” (p. 16)

In what follows, I’m not going to summarize Vance’s memoir; for those looking for such a summary, consider reading the review in the Washington Post. I’m more interested in exploring one aspect of the crisis, namely the difficulty those from working class Appalachia seem to have in finding a suitable master narrative.

The term ‘master narrative’ comes from narrative psychology (which is described well in this article), a branch of psychology which holds that our identities consist largely of the life stories we construct. Master narratives are like blueprints or templates we follow in constructing our life stories (and thus, in constructing our lives). Cultures typically provide one or more master narratives that a young member of that culture can use to structure her self-concept and guide her choices. In my case, I followed the master narrative that I had seen demonstrated by my father and grandfather: diligent at school, then a hard worker; family oriented; my meaning and purpose found in the Christian faith. Though the broad strokes of our enacted narratives were similar, there were differences in the details: unlike them, my story didn’t include service to my country as a citizen-soldier but did include a commitment to the intellect and life of the mind that wasn’t important to them. Neither they nor I authored the template we used for thinking about ourselves or living our lives; all the elements were drawn from our cultural setting.

So how have the working class poor lost a master narrative? Vance’s story includes numerous ways in which the master narrative that once held sway lost its relevance. For example, he tells of his grandmother (“Memaw”) and her brothers reacting violently towards anyone who threatened family possessions or honor–Memaw at twelve shooting a man who stole the family’s cow, for example, or Uncle Teabury making a man who insulted his sister eat her underpants. Vance reflects, “…these were classic good and evil stories, and my people were on the right side. My people were extreme, but extreme in the service of something–defending a sister’s honor or ensuring that a criminal paid for his crimes.” (p. 30) Defending personal and family honor was a component of their master narrative.

But what happens when you work in a factory and are expected to let minor slights to your honor go by rather than disrupt the workplace? Even worse, what happens if what threatens your honor is not some jerk talking about your sister but elites who look at you with contempt or corporations that cut your pay to the point that your family needs to rely on food stamps? You lose the ability to defend your honor and that aspect of the master narrative is no longer available to you.

Here’s another example. Vance’s grandparents both believed fervently in hard work and personal responsibility. Papaw labored at the steel plant every day, proud that he earned much more than did the relatives back in Kentucky. Mamaw told J.D. “Never be like those f*cking losers who think the deck is stacked against them. You can be anything you want to.” (p. 56,7)

But what happens if you grow up and the steel mill has stopped hiring? And you’re told that you should go to college, but no one in your family ever has and you have no idea of how to get there? Then, you’re likely to lose hard work and personal responsibility as part of the master narrative; you may give lip service to them, but you no longer live according to them.

Besides losing elements of their master narrative pertaining to honor, responsibility, and the value of hard work, the working class whites described by Vance have lost their master narrative regarding who or what they adulate or worship. Vance notes that “As a culture, we had no heroes.” p. 273) This is significant, for heroes are exemplars–people whose lives are worth imitating. Those without heroes are likely to drift through life with little sense of direction.

Regarding worship, Vance makes this striking assertion:

“Mamaw always had two gods: Jesus Christ and the United States of America. I was no different, and neither was anyone else I knew.” p. 275

I suspect this is an overstatement. A good portion of Appalachia is in the Bible Belt, and even casual Bible readers learn that the God of the Bible forbids his followers from worshiping anything besides him. Thus, at least the more devout in the culture would be motivated to avoid the idolatry of in elevating the nation to the point where it is a source of ultimate meaning. Even so, Vance has identified a real problem here: the master narrative of national pride has been lost. He notes that ” much of my family’s, my neighborhood’s, and my community’s identity derives from our love of country.” (p. 234) The country that they so loved let them down:

“Nothing united us with the core fabric of American society. We felt trapped in two seemingly unwinnable wars, in which a disproportionate share of the fighters came from our neighborhood, and in an economy that failed to deliver the most basic promise of the American Dream–a steady wage.” (p.. 273,4)

The master narrative associated with love of nation and with the American Dream no longer seems viable, and no other story has come along to take its place. Vance’s book has been seen by many as providing insight into the Trump voter. If this is so, perhaps it would be fair to see the Trump voter as someone desperate to reclaim a master narrative by which to live his or her life. Success at this project won’t be accomplished by deporting immigrants, repealing Obamacare, or enacting protectionist legislation. Ultimately it’s about restoring honor and making it possible for those who were disillusioned to have heroes again. It’s about lower class working whites being able to stitch together lives they are proud of.

I recently read an interview at the Atlantic website with Miya Tokumitzu, author of the book Do What You Love and Other Lies about Success and Happiness. In the original article out of which the book grew, Tokumitzu wrote:

Do what you love“There’s little doubt that “do what you love” (DWYL) is now the unofficial work mantra for our time. The problem is that it leads not to salvation, but to the devaluation of actual work, including the very work it pretends to elevate — and more importantly, the dehumanization of the vast majority of laborers.”

Most workers are dehumanized, in her view, because most work isn’t lovable–it’s dreary and mindless. Only those from privileged backgrounds have the luxury of choosing work they love rather than work they need to survive. And those eager to do work they are passionate about regardless of the circumstances are often mistreated by employers:

“Ironically, DWYL reinforces exploitation even within the so-called lovable professions where off-the-clock, underpaid, or unpaid labor is the new norm: reporters required to do the work of their laid-off photographers, publicists expected to Pin and Tweet on weekends, the 46 percent of the workforce expected to check their work email on sick days. Nothing makes exploitation go down easier than convincing workers that they are doing what they love.”

In the Atlantic interview Tokumitzu suggests that the impetus behind DWYL is the desire for happiness. She thinks that the WWII generation was still under the influence of the Protestant work ethic, which views work as a calling, but the Boomer generation discarded calling in favor of a culture of the self, characterized by “thinking about what makes me happy and how to improve myself.” She thinks that “the virtue strain of work and the self strain of work combined in the late 1970s and 1980s, and in a way pleasure-seeking became the virtue.”

When people seek work they love, are they just seeking pleasure, though? Tokumitzu thinks that DWYL is a form of self-indulgence, but I suspect it derives more from a desire for self-fulfillment. And self-fulfillment isn’t just a more acceptable way to speak about being self-centered. Charles Taylor suggests that there is a moral force behind the modern drive to self-fulfillment:

“What we need to explain is what is peculiar to our time. It’s not just that people sacrifice their love relationships, and the care of their children, to pursue their careers. Something like this has perhaps always existed. The point is that today many people feel called to do this, they feel they ought to do this, feel their lives would be somehow wasted or unfulfilled if they didn’t do it.” The Ethics of Authenticity, p. 17

For Taylor, what these workers are pursuing is not pleasure or happiness but authenticity. Taylor briefly traces the history of the moral ideal of authenticity from the Romantic era until recent times. A particularly important contribution was that of German philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder, who suggested that each of us has an original way of being human. We each need to discover our own way of being human, ignoring societal pressures that would distract us from this quest. Aren’t those who want to do work they love seeking to be authentic in this way? Aren’t they trying to be true to their unique nature in the work they do?

Taylor points out that this struggle for authenticity won’t succeed if it is just an inner quest. Defining our authentic selves requires interaction with others; it is a dialogic process. Also, defining ourselves can only be done successfully in the context of some “horizon of significance,” that is, some perspective on what constitutes a meaningful or significant life, whether this horizon comes from God or nature or science or some other source.

If Taylor is right, then it may make good sense to do what we love. We just need to be in dialog with others when looking for what we love. We also need to think of the horizon of significance in which that love operates. I wrote a few years ago about work and calling, pointing out that the idea of calling has been secularized and arguing for a recovery of a more sacred sense of being called for a particular purpose. Perhaps such an infusion of overarching meaning into the workplace would mean that in doing what we love we would be true to ourselves in a way that doesn’t make personal happiness the sole criterion of what we should do.

"The Hammock," by James Jacques Joseph Tissot.  Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington.

“The Hammock,” by James Jacques Joseph Tissot. Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington.

On my other blog, Beyond Halfway, which is devoted to well-being in the second half of life, I’ve been thinking about retirement—leaving one’s job and no longer working.   What is the appeal of retirement in the first place?  Why not just work as long as we are able?  For some people, it is because they’re tired of how work dominates their days.  They want unscheduled time—time to fish, golf, or take painting classes: time for leisure.  Why do we want leisure, though? Where did we get the idea that leisure is a good thing?  This seems to be the sort of question about values and lifestyles that I focus on in this blog, so I decided to write here about the ideal of leisure.

First, though, what distinguishes leisure from mere inactivity? Philosopher Alex Sager explains that “The English word leisure comes from the Latin licēre through the Anglo-French leisir, meaning ‘to be permitted or allowed’.”  Thus, leisure involves freedom, and the association between the two concepts makes us value leisure more than we do plain inactivity, even if leisure and inactivity may look the same to an outside observer.  Being free to do what one wants would seem to be a good thing, but freedom is often abused. Perhaps only some forms of leisure are conducive to human flourishing. The ancient Greeks certainly thought so.  They valued the freedom that leisure provided, but only if it was used in a particular way.

Plato and Aristotle both thought that some members of society should not work, but should instead have their time free for other pursuits.  Leisure among the aristocrats would provide advantages both for the individual and for society. In contrast, commoners did not have the qualities that would allow them to benefit from a life of leisure.  Those who worked for a living were debased by their work so that, even if they were to pursue on a part-time basis the activities that occupied the majority of the aristocrats’ time, they would gain only limited advantages. According to a journal article by Charles Sylvester of Western Washington University, Greek aristocrats accepted the superiority of leisure over work more than commoners did.  Though the upper classes distained work altogether, the lower classes considered toil to be worthwhile.  Even so, workers did aspire to spend some of their time in the activities associated with leisure.

The leisure sought after by the aristocrats was not mere inactivity or entertainment.  The Greeks used the term leisure in two different senses.  It could mean free time.  It could also mean time during which one is released from mundane tasks to pursue something more important.  What was more important was a liberal education, one that included the study of disciples such as philosophy or music that would lead to the acquisition of wisdom.  According to Plato, such an education prepared its recipients to lead.  The ideal ruler was the “philosopher-king.”

Of course, others have valued leisure for reasons other than the time it gives to pursue a liberal education.  Here is what Thorstein Veblen’s 1899 classic Theory of the Leisure Class says about the significance of leisure:

“Abstention from labour is the convenient evidence of wealth and is therefore the conventional mark of social standing; and this insistence on the meritoriousness of wealth leads to a more strenuous insistence on leisure. . . . According to well established laws of human nature, prescription presently seizes upon this conventional evidence of wealth and fixes it in men’s habits of thought as something that is in itself substantially meritorious and ennobling; while productive labour at the same time and by a like process becomes in a double sense intrinsically unworthy. Prescription ends by making labour not only disreputable in the eyes of the community, but morally impossible to the noble, freeborn man, and incompatible with a worthy life.”

In other words, if I constantly am engaged in leisure activities such as boating or golfing, doing so shows others that I have no need to work.  Leisure thus demonstrates that I am wealthy; by association, leisure thus takes on something of the sheen that wealth itself has.  Does this association still hold, though?  I wonder if over the last half-century the frantic work pace of the executive has become associated with wealth, while leisure has become associated instead with either unemployment or retirement, neither of which connotes wealth or status.

To conclude this post, then, it seems that leisure hasn’t been valued intrinsically so much as it has been valued for what it leads to, be that the capacity to benefit from a particular form of education or the suggestion that one has wealth.  Neither of these seems closely related to the modern value placed on a leisurely retirement as a reward for years of work.  So is leisure a desirable feature of retirement, or should we give up on the pursuit of leisure?  If we relinquish leisure as an ideal, what, then would be the rationale for retirement?  I’ll consider such issues in a future post on Beyond Halfway.


I changed jobs several times during my working life, as have many others.  What pushes us to change?  Are we seeking greener pastures elsewhere?  Are we wanting advancement and professional growth?  Or is there something outside us, leading us on a new stage of our life’s journey?  Is taking a new job a matter of spiritual discernment as much as it is a matter of professional advancement?  And how does the new job contribute to the development of my psyche and spirit?  Do the factors influencing such decisions change as we go from young adulthood to middle adulthood?

I had these questions in mind when I asked a friend and colleague, Lisa C., to talk with me about her recent move to another position.  Lisa holds a graduate degree in Psychology and is credentialed a Psychological Associate and as a Licensed Professional Counselor.  Earlier this year, she closed her private practice to take a position as director of clinical services for a psychiatric hospital.  Here is the first part of our conversation:

Bob: You recently moved to a new position.  How did that come about?

Lisa: I wasn’t actively looking.  There were things that were happening in my private practice that were leading me to consider whether I would be able to do that for the long term—changes in the mental health field and in reimbursement.  That led me to consider whether the season for that was coming to an end.  I still loved the job very much.  Working with the patients was very satisfying, and I saw God’s hand at work in the lives of my patients.  There was this feeling, though, that God had put me in a lot of experiences throughout my 50 years that weren’t being tapped into.  I wondered why I had gone through those experiences to wind up where I was.  I wasn’t using a lot of what I had learned in those experiences in doing therapy.  I don’t want to minimize the therapy, but I felt those skills and experiences weren’t being used.  It’s true that God was using me in the lives of those patients, but it wasn’t a challenge.  I began to pray on it.  There were little things too, like discovering that the people in the building were going to raise the rent—it was already pretty high—and my family’s needs.  I didn’t have a job with any health benefits or long term security.  I began to think “what else can I do,” and I saw this ad for a clinical director position.

Was it difficult to decide to go there when offered the position? 

Yes and no.  Difficult in the emotions involved, but I had been prayerful, asking God to shut doors if he wanted me to keep doing what I was doing.  Even when I saw the ad, I thought, this ad seems to be the perfect fit, but, Lord, I would be leaving family and friends, it would be a huge leap.  The odds were against my leaving, but every step of the way, God opened the doors very clearly, leading me to accept the job, so it was difficult emotionally but not difficult in having that sense that “OK, God, this is what you want me to do.”

So you were thinking this might be a place where God could use more of your training and experience.  How has that worked out?

I still believe that.  The environment is extremely difficult.  The inpatient environment is much different from how it was early in my career, with many more pressures.  I’m not happy with relationships that I thought might happen but haven’t, so it’s been difficult to have an absence of support. In terms of the actual job, it is clear to me, God is tapping into my experiences at an addictions residential community, at inpatient hospitals, with outpatient, with the educational experiences.  Even challenges in relationships are things I’ve seen before in other settings.  I’m traveling this spiral again, revisiting those issues at a different phase in my life.

You had told me that you couldn’t do the job if you hadn’t had all the experiences you had, is that right?

It is.  The challenges of the job are immense.  It’s not just the tasks of the job themselves, but that I’ve been able to do the tasks of the job because of those experiences.  Coming in with the staffing issues and the department being in chaos, if I hadn’t had those experiences, it would have been an abject failure.  I don’t think I could have learned those aspects of the job soon enough, but I already knew about them because of those experiences.

Our conversation continued, but I’m going to pause here to comment on the course that Lisa followed to her new position.  She experienced some dissatisfaction with practical matters such as lack of insurance and increased rent, but the most important factor propelling change was a sense of incompleteness.  She had had a wide variety of learning experiences that seemed to be preparation for something other than the work she was doing, but didn’t know what to do with those. When she learned of a suitable position, she had considerable uncertainty about whether to pursue it, and did everything she could to discern whether this was the path that God wanted for her.  Reassured about this, she took the position and found that, though the work was difficult, she was indeed using those skills and abilities that she previously thought were going to waste.  The pattern– absence of fulfillment, encountering something that might be fulfilling, uncertainty, seeking direction, and taking the plunge—is something I’ve experienced not only in my vocation but also in other aspects of life—friendships, serious relationships, volunteer activities, and the like.  I wonder whether going through this pattern multiple times is essential for our emotional and spiritual maturation.

The rest of our conversation was about that process of maturation.  In it, Lisa reflects on how she was changed by her work experiences.  I’ll be posting that part of our conversation on my other blog: you can access it at  









Last Labor Day, my local paper (the Fayetteville Observer) published this quote from Samuel Johnson:  “Labor, if it were not necessary for existence, would be indispensable for the happiness of man.”  I subsequently gave some thought to the connection between human work and happiness.

It seems that many in our society view their jobs as interfering with rather than enhancing their happiness.  I notice a fair number of my friends complain on Facebook about having to go to work or about how their work day is going.  Such complaints seem particularly common among young adults.  They would probably say that they work just for the money, but it’s also possible that work gives them a sense of purpose and increases their self-esteem even though they don’t particularly want to be there.  So, despite their complaints, there may be something about work besides the remuneration that contributes to their happiness.

Our culture is heavily influenced by Christian views of work, including the idea that work is central to what it is to be human.  This belief comes from the Biblical account of Creation: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.” (Gen. 2: 15).  The medieval church believed that, just as Adam was assigned by God to tend the garden, some individuals were called by God to fill a religious office.  These persons were said to have a “vocation,” the term being derived from the Latin word vocare, meaning to call or summon.   A person so called was to leave secular life behind and enter full-time service to God as a priest, monk, or nun.  The Protestant Reformation expanded the idea of vocation by claiming that it’s not only those entering religious offices who are called.  For Luther and Calvin, there was no distinction between the sacred and secular.  To them, all activities are charged with religious significance, and God calls each of us to serve others in some particular way.  Our well-being depends on us responding willingly to this call.  I suspect that Samuel Johnson, living as he did a couple centuries after the Reformation, was heavily influenced by the Protestant conception of work.  Thus, the “happiness” he alludes to in the above quote may have the connotation of fulfillment from doing what God intends for us to do.

The centuries that have passed since Johnson’s day haven’t been all that kind to the notion that human work is meaningful and fulfilling.  The industrial revolution replaced skilled craftsmen with automatons, drearily repeating the same mindless tasks.  The belief that work is a sacred endeavor gradually gave way to a more secular understanding.  Max Weber, the German sociologist, described the modern world as being characterized by progressive rationalization; that is, the basis for action has become efficiency, not morality, tradition, or religion.  The world of work is one of the primary places this shift in the reasons impelling action has occurred.  As Weber described it, the Protestant Work Ethic that drove European productivity was originally a means of serving God but eventually thinned into a belief that industriousness is a virtue.

Harvey Cox

Reflecting on this notion of rationalization led me to pull from my bookshelf The Secular City, an analysis of secularization in the modern Western world published in 1965 by American theologian Harvey Cox.  Far from lamenting the diminishing influence of religion on the modern worker, Cox thought that the process of secularization hadn’t gone far enough.  He wrote, “Even in technopolitan culture we still often hold to the proposition that having some kind of job is an indispensable character-building activity and perhaps even an act of religious devotion.”  He adds, “The pay we derive from our job is a pat on the head administered by Adam Smith’s invisible hand.  Since that invisible hand is the closest many people get to Calvin’s providential God (from whom it is directly descended), the job has a sacred value.”  Though clinging to the sacred might be harmless enough in a society where there are enough jobs to go around, Cox believed that modern technological society would increasingly be one in which a subset of the population could produce sufficient goods for all.  He believed that we would only be able to get rid of the outmoded notion that everyone should work if we stopped believing that work served a religious or metaphysical purpose.  Freed of its sacred component, work would also be freed of the expectation that we should all have jobs provided by the marketplace.  Those not needed for producing goods could then devote themselves to various activities that would human well-being.

I think that the problem is the opposite of what Cox claimed.  It’s not that we Americans see work as sacred; it’s that we don’t see work as sacred enough.  Everyone needs a purpose; seeing our lives as having significance to God is one of the most powerful sources of such purpose.  Having Adam Smith’s invisible hand make the sign of the dollar over us is insufficient to infuse meaning into otherwise vapid lives. Employees who have only a anemic and ill-defined sense that there is something besides a paycheck that gives value to their work are likely to be dissatisfied.  If, as Cox suggests, society needs to give to those for whom the marketplace doesn’t supply jobs other activities that would contribute to human welfare, wouldn’t a belief that such activities fulfill a sacred mandate be a powerful motivation for taking these on?  Whatever tasks we devote our days to, a conviction that such tasks have a sacred dimension would contribute to the sense of happiness that Johnson thought would result from our labor.

Many colleges and universities, including Methodist University, where I work, offer a class for first time college students to  aid their adjustment to the college environment and equip them with academically relevant skills.  I teach a section of that class to 17 freshmen.  One of the topics covered during our time together is career planning.  The advice given by the course textbook is fairly conventional—get to know your interests and abilities, then learn about careers that might be a good fit for you.  The text uses the term ‘vocation’ in a secular sense, neglecting its original meaning as a call or summons from God.  I made sure that my students knew the origin of the term and had the opportunity to consider whether they have received such a call.

Much of what I said about the subject came from Brian Mahan’s book Forgetting Ourselves on Purpose: Vocation and the Ethics of Ambition; I wrote about that book  previouslyMahan notes that in our culture we are encouraged to be ambitious—to strive for well-paying careers, positions of power, and public renown.  Ambition makes the self into a commodity; the young are encouraged to sell themselves to prospective employers.  Doing so, though, reduces one’s worth to no more than what the marketplace is willing to pay.  Mahan encourages youthful seekers to take another route–to consider lives not of ambition but of vocation.

The life of vocation involves a call to something larger than oneself; Mahan calls it a “life increasingly given over to compassion for self, others, and world.” He suggests that many people experience the call to such a life in the form of “epiphanies of recruitment.”   These are encounters that beckon the person to a life in touch with human need.  An epiphany is a manifestation of divinity or of some deeper truth, so an epiphany of recruitment is such a manifestation that includes an invitation to do something in response to what has been revealed. One of Mahan’s examples is of a young lady named Martha, who went to visit an orphanage with some friends.  She was introduced to a young boy and spent several hours interacting with him.  The crucial moment for Martha came when the boy turned to her and asked, “Martha, do you have a daddy?”  Now Martha cries whenever she thinks about the boy and the orphanage.  She feels a need to respond in some way, though she doesn’t yet know how. 

 I told my class of the epiphanies of recruitment that called me to volunteer for prison ministry, and also of the epiphany that occurred while I served.  I worked in prisons from 1979 until 1984, but eventually left prison work to gain broader experience in the mental health field.  That may have been the result of ambition rather than vocation, though I don’t regret the direction my life has taken as a result of that choice.  In any event, while was driving from North Carolina to New Jersey in 1995, I had a strong sense that God was going to again use me to work with prisoners.  I didn’t know what to do with that feeling, but, in 2000, I heard about Kairos, a prison ministry based on the cursillo movement that builds Christian community among inmates.  I learned that a team of men just happened to be finishing preparations to serve on a Kairos weekend at Evans Correctional Institution in Bennettsville, South Carolina.  I contacted the team leader, asked whether they could use another volunteer, and soon found myself at Evans welcoming guests (i.e. prisoners) to the weekend.

I experienced many epiphanies in the year I was involved at Evans, but when I took my job at Methodist, it no longer was feasible to continue volunteering there.  I thought occasionally about Kairos, but I never thought I had enough time to participate.  Last year, a group of volunteers was planning to introduce Kairos at Scotland Correctional Institute, quite a bit closer to my house than Evans.  Gus Brown, one of those volunteers, contacted me in mid-2010, asking if I was interested in serving.  “I’m too busy,” I replied.  This March, Gus contacted me again.  I still was awfully busy, and planned to say no, but decided that maybe I should pray about it first.  The next morning, I opened the devotional guide I was using and turned to the scripture for the day.  It was from Matthew 25 and described the last judgment.  In it, Christ turns to those on his right and says, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”  Epiphany.   I was immediately certain that I was being called to volunteer in prisons, and called Gus to join the team that was being formed.

I described to my class one of the many marvelous experiences that occurred when I was on the Kairos weekend at Scotland CI.  I was sitting in the chapel area with the other team members.  The guests were on the other side of a partition; we were giving them privacy while they opened letters from members on the team.  Each team member had written to each guest.  We could hear the occasional ripping of an envelope, but mostly there was silence.  A deep sense came over me that what was being ripped was much more than envelopes.   Defenses and barriers that had been built over a lifetime, resentments and bitter feelings that had kept others out, were being shredded by the words of care that we volunteers had penned.  I felt a sense of God’s presence, and felt small, as if all that I could do or say was being dwarfed by what was taking place in the next room.  I started to cry.  As I told my class, “Either I was just a sentimental old guy tearing up over nothing, or what Jesus said is true and the kingdom of God was near.”  When we rejoined the guests a little later, it was evident that many of them had been deeply moved.  One of them commented, “If being a man means not crying, none of you are men, because I looked around and there wasn’t a dry eye.”  Some epiphanies have a way of spreading.  I hope my students will be prepared when the tide of divinity splashes into their lives as well.

I recently read Forgetting Ourselves on Purpose: Vocation and the Ethics of Ambition by Brian J Mahan.  The book is based on a series of courses the author taught, first to undergraduates at the University of Colorado and subsequently to seminary students and high school seniors at Emory University.  The book seems geared mainly to achievement-oriented young adults. Mahan questions his students’ assumption that life should be lived by pursuing ambition and self-interest.  He encourages them to be receptive to vocation, which he describes at one point as an “interior consonance between our deepest desires and hopes and our unique gifts as they are summoned forth by the needs of others and realized in response to that summons.”  He notes that, even among those who reject the idea that life can be centered on vocation, many have had “epiphanies of recruitment:” experiences which have drawn them outside themselves and invited them to live a different sort of life.  He takes these experiences as evidence of a “shadow government” of compassion and idealism found even within those who have banished all outward signs of such a regime.

I do not think of myself as an ambitious person.  I am not pursuing promotion or greater recognition in my job, I’m not trying to make a name for myself in professional circles, and, at this point of life, I don’t see myself as in competition with anyone.  However, Mahan has convinced me that there is much more ambition in all of us than we recognize.  Following William James, he points out that all self-seeking—even “spiritual self-seeking” is egoistic, and, as such, partakes in ambition.  He points out the strategies—such as self-justification, rationalization, and strategic inattention–we use to subjugate our shadow governments of vocation and compassion.  He notes our tendency to use invidious comparison in order to maintain a sense of self-worth.  I admit to all of these.

Mahan’s ideas aren’t new to me, but the examples he uses certainly enrich my understanding of how such mechanisms work.  Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich provides an excellent case study of how striving for power and social recognition can lead to a life that is a lie but that, even as death nears, resists strenuously the dawning awareness of folly.  Nixon’s lawyer John Dean serves as a more contemporary example of lying to oneself in order to continue on a course aimed at achieving power and success.  Mahan also effectively describes a number of his childhood attempts to construct a sense of himself that is grander and more noble than what is warranted.  In the most memorable of these, he is entranced by an episode of Captain Midnight in which the good captain used a high-tech device that projected his image onto the clouds overhead so his companions could find him.  The device was offered for sale to the listening public; Mahan eagerly placed his order, but was of course disappointed in the outcome.  He reflects “I still try to project my image onto cloud banks,” but sees some progress in himself:  “Sometimes—a little more often than in the past—I simply watch the clouds as they pass by.”

Mahan recommends exercises from both Christian and Buddhist traditions to foster giving up the exaggerated self of ambition and strengthening the shadow government of compassion and service.  The two strategies he suggests the most are formative remembering and spiritual indirection. In the first, the reader is guided in selective recall of past experiences, both to better understand the nature of his or her self-strivings and to recollect epiphanies of recruitment.  To me, this approach seems to be a useful addition to what narrative psychologists write about constructing and revising one’s life story.   

Spiritual indirection, the second strategy Mahan recommends, consists of studying aspects of the self that interfere with living as one wishes, so that, having recognized them, it is possible to move past them.  Some of the exercises of spiritual indirection are derived from Walter Percy’s “self-help” book Lost in the Cosmos.  For example, Mahan quotes a passage in which Percy has his reader imagine that a neighbor had an incredible string of good fortune, to which the reader says, “Great, Charlie, I’m really happy for you.”  “Are you happy for him?” Percy asks, then goes on to suggest ways we might have liked to see Charlie’s good fortune diminished.    As with Percy, the understanding of the self Mahan presupposes seems permeated with Kierkegaard’s ideas.  In particular, they hearken to Kierkegaard’s The Sickness Unto Death, a book that explains with exquisite insight the dilemmas that result from seeking a self but being dissatisfied with whatever self we have.   The one fault I find in Mahan’s book is that he doesn’t acknowledge this debt to Kierkegaard or expand his ideas about the ambitious self using Kierkegaard’s concepts.  I do recommend the book as an excellent guide to self-examination and discovering vocation.

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