Note from Michelle: As some of you may know, I’m writing a book about spiritual formation at midlife for Moody Publishers. It’s scheduled for release next spring. Today, I’m sharing a bit of a chapter I’m working on right now as it fits with our identity and vocation theme this month at The Perennial Gen blog. If you read to the end of this post, I’m announcing here for the first time the title for this book. You’ve been a part of this process maybe more than you could ever know, so I wanted to reveal the title to you all first!
I never imagined my five high school BFF’s and I were a clique. We were bound to one another by the excitement of our newfound faith in Jesus, and tried hard to invite others to know him, too, which meant that the boundaries of our social circle were fairly porous. But we also played an outsized role in one another’s lives as we faced those first big decisions about who each one of us was going to be as we moved beyond high school. Nowhere was our cliquishness more evident than when we each had to make decisions during senior year about where to attend college and what major to choose.
Because our high school was the magnet school for all of the deaf students in the northwest suburbs of Chicago, we’d always had sign language interpreters in our classrooms, and our school offered courses in sign for interested hearing students. The hand dance of the interpreters mesmerized quite a few students, and the opportunity to learn to communicate so we could befriend the deaf students drew most of us to study sign in my “we’re-not-a-clique” group.
Each one of us was animated by a God-given desire to make a difference by serving others, which mixed with the missionary zeal of our newfound faith and our unhealthy reliance on one another as a sort of surrogate family. When it came time to choose a college and major, all six of us us felt God calling us to attend Illinois State University and major in special education or a closely-related field.
It’s hard to believe that no one in our lives seemed to question this seemingly-miraculous congruence of callings, but I doubt any of us would have listened anyway. I was a young believer from a family hostile to my newfound faith, and my high school friends shared with me the joy of falling in love with Jesus. In some ways, we all fell in love with him together, and our bond was very, very deep.
God knew we served as one another’s training wheels as each of us rolled toward adulthood and graciously permitted all six of us to begin college in Normal, Illinois. Of the six, two graduated four years later with degrees in special education. One has been in the field for over thirty years and has earned a doctorate along the way. Another led a classroom of deaf students for several years before moving to a mainstream elementary school classroom, where she continues to teach. A third received a degree in recreational therapy and worked in that field for decades. The three of them found career paths that were a good fit for them.
The other three, including me, never completed our undergraduate degrees. Though my high school pals have maintained some level of connection with one another through the years, our paths diverged as each of us moved into young adulthood. One of the first lessons we all had to learn was that there was no one-size-fits-six answer to the questions each one of us faced about how to build an adult life.
None of us had begun to explore an even more essential question than that of career choice – the question of vocation. Most use the words “career” and “vocation” interchangeably, conflated to mean “an occupation, preferably with opportunities for growth”. This may be true of career, but the word “vocation” literally means “calling”. As a teen, I knew I wanted a career that would help others. But I had no idea how to begin thinking more deeply about why I’d been created, and what God had called me to bring to the world.
At least, not then.
After I dropped out of college at the end of my sophomore year, the future loomed before me like the Grand Canyon. I felt I had to come up with a Plan B, stat! If I wasn’t going to be a teacher, what could I do? I looked at myself in the funhouse mirror of other people’s lives, and used those inaccurate reflections of myself as clues that would help me discern a career path.
For instance, I had a friend who was a bank teller. I decided if banking was a good career for him, it was obvious that it would be a good career for me, too. I was so poorly suited for the job that when the person training me told me that it didn’t seem like I was catching on and would need to take the unusual step of going through at least another week of “remedial” training, I told her that I didn’t think forty years of training would turn me into a good bank teller. I thanked her for her time, apologized for wasting it, and resigned.
I looked at myself through the mirrors held up by the people at my new church, too. There I learned the highest form of Christian service was to be a missionary in a foreign land. For a while, I entertained this as a career possibility because I wanted to do Big Things For God, and there didn’t seem to be any bigger thing than getting off a plane in a foreign country and telling people about Jesus. It took me a long time to admit that my zeal to become a missionary had more to do with being able to answer people’s questions about what I was planning to do with my life after I dropped out of college than any sort of deep care for people living in a distant place who didn’t know Jesus…
Question, PerGen readers: What vocational or career path did you first choose as you entered young adulthood?
Oh, and the book’s title?
Becoming Sage: Cultivating Meaning, Purpose, and Spirituality in Midlife
I’d love to hear your thoughts!