Graduation season is almost here—Wheaton College will be holding its 157th “commencement” in a little over two weeks—and it dawns on me that some of you may soon be shopping for a meaningful gift to give a new college graduate. If so, I have a couple of recommendations to share.
Most graduates have a palpable sense of heading into the unknown, and the lifelong questions “What will I do?” and “Why will I do it?” will seem unusually relevant, even urgent. This is why I often give graduates a book that will help them think Christianly about vocation. There are two that I especially recommend. Each is short, inexpensive, challenging, accessible, and wise.
The first book is Visions of Vocation: Common Grace for the Common Good, by Steven Garber. The author heads up the Washington Institute for Faith, Vocation, and Culture in Washington, D. C. He writes from an explicitly Christian foundation, but graciously, winsomely, and non-dogmatically, and I would not hesitate to give this book to anyone wrestling with questions about the purpose and meaning of life.
The book hinges on one simple, haunting question: “what will you do with what you know?” Knowledge always comes with moral responsibility, Garber insists. This is one of the key truths imbedded in the account of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in Genesis chapters 2-3. The questions “What do you know?” and “What will you do with what you know?” can never be divorced, as much as we might like to pretend otherwise.
From this initial premise, Garber observes that the hardest thing we are called to do in life is to know and still love. Knowing and persevering in love is rare. To know those around us truly is to know the brokenness of the world and to share in its pain. To ease our pain, our natural response is to build a wall around our hearts made of stoicism or cynicism. The stoic trains her heart not to care about the world; the cynic convinces himself that all efforts to help are naïve or futile.
Visions of Vocation is filled with stories of men and women who have refused to give in to stoicism or cynicism. Garber describes his teaching philosophy as “come-and-see” pedagogy. “We learn the most important things over the shoulder, through the heart,” he writes, and so he doesn’t waste much time on abstract assertions. Because “words always have to be made flesh if we are going to understand them,” he spends most of his time introducing us to people he has walked with, individuals who have become “hints of hope” to a hurting world by choosing to know and still love.
Two convictions distinguish these men and women, Garber finds. First, they refuse to accept the delusion of individual autonomy that shapes the modern western world. They realize that “none of us are islands. . . . We are we, human beings together. Born into family histories, growing up into social histories, we live our lives among others, locally and globally, neighbors very near and neighbors very far.” Second, in acknowledging this relationship, they have accepted also that they are obligated to others and implicated in their suffering. In sum, in acknowledging relationship they have accepted responsibility, and after accepting responsibility they have chosen to take action.
The second book is Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation, by Parker J. Palmer. A couple of years ago I led students in an informal book discussion centered on this book, and for a long while I kept a box of extra copies in my office to give away as opportune moments arose. It’s a great book on many levels.
The author has long been one of my favorite writers. Although I have not always agreed with him–and still do not–I find him wonderfully challenging and provocative in the very best way. Palmer began his adult career on an academic track, earning a Ph.D. in sociology from U.C.-Berkeley. Although he left the Academy after a few years, he has devoted most of the past four decades to writing and lecturing on the nature of education and the relationship between the intellectual and the spiritual. I first encountered Palmer in the pages of his 1983 book To Know as We Are Known: Education as a Spiritual Journey, a work that still informs my approach to teaching and my views on how education shapes the heart.
Let Your Life Speak can sound a little “New Age-y” if you don’t understand where Palmer is coming from. Like most of the great Christian writers who addressed the concept of vocation during the Reformation, Palmer believes that our talents and passions are valuable clues to our ideal vocations. When he counsels the reader to listen to the voice within, he can sound like a secular humanist (or a script-writer for the Hallmark Channel), but he is absolutely not advising us to look within our own hearts for the ultimate guide to wise living. Instead, he is urging us to take seriously the truth that God has designed us with specific abilities and desires, and that our life’s vocation should unfold at the intersection of those personal traits and the needs of a hurting world.
We must understand vocation, Palmer writes, “not as a goal to be achieved but as a gift to be received.” He goes on to explain,
Vocation does not come from a voice “out there” calling me to be something I am not. It comes from a voice “in here” calling me to be the person I was born to be, to fulfill the original selfhood given me at birth by God.
In sum, “we are here on earth to be the gifts that God created.”
With refreshing candor, Palmer reminds us that, “despite the American myth,” we simply cannot do or be anything we desire. “There are some roles and relationships in which we thrive and others in which we wither and die.” One of our goals, then, should be to learn our limits, distinguishing between the limits that are a product of the nature that God has implanted in us, and the limits “that are imposed by people or political forces hell-bent on keeping us ‘in our place.’”
Finally, I would note that Palmer intersperses his observations with intimate reflections on the path that he personally has traveled. These include hard-earned insights from two extended bouts with depression as an adult. Refreshing in its honesty and transparency, Let Your Life Speak will be encouraging both to those seeking direction for the future as well as to readers trying to make sense of suffering. I heartily recommend it.