St. Odysseus and St. Antaeus

St. Odysseus and St. Antaeus November 20, 2013

A while ago I asked the wild world of Twitter what it wanted me to talk about, w/r/t the concept of vocation. One response was basically, “What’s the difference between discernment of vocation and navel-gazing?” That’s a pretty great question; the boring answer is probably “prudence” just like with everything else (BORING), but let me see if I have a bit more to say about it than that.

The “emerging adulthood” model, which has all kinds of economic, social, & theological/philosophical/ideological sources, is a model in which the best life includes a lot of wandering. We need to try on all kinds of lives, religions, sexual partners, homes, and eventually either one of them will reveal itself to us as the destination we’ve always longed for, or we will learn enough about ourselves that we can prudently settle down somewhere, little worse for wear. Trying new things, seeking, dreaming, travel: These are all valued much more highly than acceptance of the given.

It’s easy to fit vocational discernment into this model. Try out the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal! Ask if you are called to marry, like this abstract question is something you really need to introspect about. (I don’t think it usually is.) Travel, think a lot about your identity, assume that vocation is something you need to actively pursue and choose.

There are people for whom this is absolutely the right way to go about things. There are St. Odysseus types.

But the “quest” model of attaining adulthood, even when crammed into a Christian framework of vocational discernment, tends toward certain predictable problems. It pushes us to interpret dissatisfaction and suffering as signs that we are not living out our vocations, rather than as marks of the human condition which every vocation brings in different ways. It pushes us to try to fix things. Change something–do something–because you have not only a right but a responsibility to be happy!–even when you’re twenty-two and kind of a desperate mess.

The quest model also, of course, encourages a lot of rumination about who I really am, a lot of Delicate Plant Syndrome. (That’s the thing where you keep pulling up the delicate plant to see if its roots are taking hold, and so of course its roots never take.) One of the smartest things I’ve ever read by an anonymous jackass on the internet was a line something like, “Becoming an adult means caring less about your identity and more about your life.”

And the quest model may blind us to the vocations–the ways we can love and serve–in which we’re already embedded. Our most fruitful and sacrificial love may take place within our family of origin. With the friends we already have. In the places we’re already sick of. This adulthood-through-acceptance model isn’t much discussed and is even stigmatized (and I’m sure it has its own problems, since everything does), but it’s worth asking whether you’re more a St. Antaeus than you realize; or than you’d like to be.

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