This particular exchange was brief. We had already spent several days traveling together, an important manager and myself, driving and discussing, intermingling business, family, and reflections upon life. He, within the past few weeks celebrated being a first-time grandfather, and now excitedly adjusting to his new role. A few days earlier he talked of retirement, something, that for him, was only a couple of years away. Then the comment came from deep within, evidenced by the result of agonized reflection, a regretful introspection, ‘I’ve often wondered if I’ve wasted my vocational life.’ Cold and stark, the comment was freighted with emotion. In his younger years he had considered medical school, surely a far nobler endeavor, ‘At least every day you save the world just a little bit.’ But now, after almost forty years in the tooth and nail of the corporate workplace it came down to this, ’Who really needs what I do?’
As humans we are what we do. There is profound significance attached to the work that we perform. Everyone from ‘Bob the Builder’ to ‘Bill Nye the Science Guy’ identifies themselves by what they do. Since we are what we do the common second question in polite conversation with strangers is usually directed at vocation. Our internal ontological collision comes when what we do is far less noble, or far less altruistic, or far less heroic than we’d hoped. We want to be known for who we are, and we want who we are to be greater than who we’ve become. In essence, for most of us, who we’ve become falls far short of whom we’d hoped we’d be.
In his wise and helpful book, Visions of Vocation, friend Steven Garber writes about living our lives ‘proximately.’ As an unquenchable ideologue I first chafed at Steven’s suggestion. His premise is that we presently live stretched by an inherent tension - a vocational now and not yet - what we experience and know now contrasted with what we ultimately think could be. We have the ability to see the world through an idealistic and ideological lens. We know the world is broken, but through this lens the world can be seen and made right, if we only have the right tools and enough time…. In the time since I’ve read the book I’ve given Steven his due. He’s convinced me that our lives must be lived cognizant of this tension lest we be consumed by regret. In our vocational lives we live surrounded by fallenness. We, ourselves, bear the marks of fallenness. In everything we do the mark will always be missed. In this tension and where we live now our vocation will only be proximately redemptive and we will experience only proximate fruitfulness. And while vocationally we must ‘kick at the darkness ‘til it bleeds daylight’ Milton was right, paradise is not found in this life.
My friend was feeling the tension. He saw the disparateness between what he had become and what he could’ve become. The specter of Thurber’s ‘Walter Mitty’ hangs in the background as a haunting reminder to those of us whose imagined lives don’t square with reality. We’ve ignored the tension and to our peril have avoided the proximate. Close isn’t good enough so in our minds everything else is wasted. Throwing ourselves headlong toward the not yet we’ve rendered the now unimportant. We’ve unwittingly adopted the mantra of Mitty – If only.
Steven’s book paid off. I had enough sense about me to remind my friend that what he does is important. The people he interacts with as a manager and the equipment he helps sell are both serving a grander purpose. Without his managerial skills our business unit would be in chaos. Without the equipment he sells pharmaceuticals could not be made and many industries would be far less efficient. In spite of his vocational disappointment there is ‘common grace for the common good’ in what he does. And while it may be more difficult to see what he does is as important as what a physician does, in a very real sense he is saving and improving lives proximately. Truthfully, in a broken world everyone’s vocations are only proximate.
This should give us hope. In our pilgrimage toward the not yet, and in the smallest of tasks, in the most mundane vocation, or in the most menial of legitimate labor we are by incremental measure proximately contributing to the common good. Our vocational lives, our callings, are important because in the proximate now we are assured of the perfect not yet. For the Christian there is a redemptive purpose behind it all. The deep-freeze of Narnian winter is over, and the persistent and proximate drip-dripping of spring has begun. We are no longer caught in an endless cycle of vocational frustration or the merciless tyranny of If only. To be faithful in the small things as we value the tasks in front of us and to be faithful in doing them is to enable us to recognize that simply by doing them we are contributing to the common good, albeit proximately, and incrementally the darkness is in retreat.