by Michelle Van Loon
We learn from a young age to have a ready answer to the question, “What do you want to do when you grow up?”
The question trains us to think about vocation solely in terms of career: “I want to be a firefighter…a teacher…a veterinarian…a landscape designer…a pastor…a writer…a rock star.” Our education during the first half of our lives tends to focus on gaining skills, knowledge, and certification that will allow us to do the job.
At midlife, some of us find that we’ve outgrown those first-half jobs. Others discover that the focus of our lives has shifted, perhaps from focusing on parenting to trying to figure out what comes next now that the nest is empty. Still others begin to name a longing to do something new – the teacher who decides to sell real estate, the secretary who pursues a theological degree in order to become a chaplain, the exec who decides to launch a business born from an area of passion.
That period of outgrowing, focus-shifting, or searching for new direction can be mighty perplexing and disorienting. But those feelings can help us learn to ask better, wiser questions of God, ourselves, and the world around us. To borrow a cliche that fits perfectly in this context, we can discover we really aren’t human doings, but were made in the image of God to be human beings. Our vocation should flow out of who we are, not what we attempt to do.
Educator Parker Palmer has written a pithy 109-page volume that’s become a modern classic on the question of vocation. Entitled Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation (link below), the book offers an extended meditation on the nature of vocation versus job. Palmer notes that in the first half of life, we tend to bring a lot of unopened baggage to the question of vocation. What did our parents value and dismiss about us as we were growing up? What will bring us affirmation from those around us? What will make us a “success”? Those questions, and the haunting fear we are not enough that fuels many of them, drives us away from the kinds of questions we rarely ask of ourselves until we hit a wall of some kind – often at midlife.
Palmer describes the construction of his false self as an activist in the mold of Martin Luther King, Jr. or Dorothy Day. It was a noble-looking life, but he came to realize that it was a life built on untruths about who he really was. He’d created a front that was driven by those questions and ambitions:
So I lined up the loftiest ideals I could find and set out to achieve them. The results were rarely admirable, often laughable, and sometimes grotesque. But always they were unreal, a distortion of my true self – as must be the case when one lives from the outside in, not the inside out. I had simply found a “noble” way to live a life that was not my own, a life spent imitating heroes instead of listening to my heart.
Today, thirty years later, “Let your life speak” means something else to me, a meaning faithful both to the ambiguity of those words and to the complexity of my own experience. Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you. Before you tell your life what truths and values you have decided to live up to, let your life tell you what truths you embody, what values you represent.
I found great value in both his wise insight and his willingness to share his journey of false-self deconstruction leading to a deep understanding of the nature of vocation as something flowing from identity. It is the kind of book that contains some gold nuggets, but also material that may not speak to you. Palmer is a Quaker, but this book isn’t a “Christian” book in the traditional sense of the word. It is worth noting here that some seminaries and spiritual direction programs use Let Your Life Speak as a rich jumping-off point for discussion and reflection. You may find it of help if you are at midlife, trying to figure out how to answer the question about what want to do when you grow up, and wonder if maybe there’s some new questions you should be asking instead. You may also find it of help if you are mentoring a young person who is asking those questions for the first time.
Have you read Let Your Life Speak? If so, what did you think of it?
If you use the link below to order the book from Amazon, your purchase benefits The Perennial Gen: