I worked on a grant this spring about vocational discernment. Vocation is often used in a religious context, but in secular higher education vocation can be understood as “meaning and purpose.” How does higher education help a student identify an academic and career pathway that adds meaning and purpose to his or her life? In the course of writing the grant, I was introduced to the vocational cycle: the idea that this search for meaning and purpose is ongoing throughout one’s life, that vocational discernment is a process one moves into and out of from childhood until beyond retirement.
We’re misguided if we think that higher education can, within four years, make students discern their vocations. Instead, effective higher education should give students tools for navigating the vocational cycle throughout their lifetimes: the ability to be self-reflective, to seek outside counsel, to try and fail, to remain curious, etc. etc. etc.
The vocational cycle is, for me, a small revelation. I’ve often thought of my minor but perennial job angst as a failing, but now I see it as a strength. The fact that I sometimes wonder if this is what I’m meant to do, or if there’s another more meaningful pursuit waiting for me, just means I’m on the vocational cycle. If I’m lucky I’ll be on it until the day I die.
I’m in a class. In the class we read Organizational Rhetoric by Charles Conrad. The title and cover image made me think I would hate it, but I loved every page. The best chapter is about the myth of leadership, and the damaging ways our society creates and rewards “leadership” to maintain social order. I would like to quote the whole chapter, but barring that I’ll just tell you it blew my mind and you should all borrow my copy.
The concept of leadership is so pervasive, it’s like the hydrogen atoms of the cultural water in which we’re swimming. Though we are confronted by leadership at every turn, the actual meaning of the term remains opaque. In fact, Conrad argues that leadership is defined solely by the current fashions in business, or the culture of whatever organization happens to be using the word. Leadership is utterly meaningless outside of a given social construct.
Conrad goes on to make a compelling case that the idea of leadership as some special, singular skill set makes us less likely to take issue with the widening and shocking wage gap between CEOs and everyone else (on a related note: did you all see this amazing Twitter thread by Walt’s granddaughter, Abigail Disney?). It makes us willing to ignore what in other situations we might call sociopathy.
All of that to say: I’ve stopped believing the leadership myth. It’s been a liberating few months without it. I’m no longer attempting to strengthen any elusive “leadership” skills within myself, nor am I feeling kowtowed to those who supposedly have them.
My sister told me to read Women Talking by Miriam Toews. All the reviews you’ve read are true: it’s incredible and devastating. It’s also one of those books that, once I finished, I had to go back through again and just look at the pages to see how Toews did it. It’s nearly all dialogue, and yet there’s so much movement and character development. It’s amazing writing.
At one point in the book, one of the characters mentions liminal space, and I finally took the time to look up what that phrase means. I have a vast, half-wrong vocabulary in my mind made up of all the words and phases I’ve never bothered to look up. I’m sure my life would be richer if I spent more time learning the real definitions of things. I’m glad I looked up liminal space, because it turns out it’s related to the vocational cycle and the leadership myth in strange ways.
We have to allow ourselves to be drawn out of “business as usual” and remain patiently on the “threshold” (limen, in Latin) where we are betwixt and between the familiar and the completely unknown. There alone is our old world left behind, while we are not yet sure of the new existence… This is the sacred space where the old world is able to fall apart, and a bigger world is revealed. If we don’t encounter liminal space in our lives, we start idealizing normalcy. The threshold is God’s waiting room.
–Father Richard Rohr (source).
Liminal spaces offer opportunity to find meaning and purpose, to resist normalcy in whatever form it may take, including and especially “leadership.” I’ve hated the liminal spaces in my past; they’ve caused me great anxiety and stress. Not knowing is hard for me.
How is it that springtime in the Ozarks is exactly what I need? There are so many things about this place I don’t like: conservatism, racism, religion masking patriarchy, or maybe patriarchy masking religion. If one were to measure life success by distance, I have failed miserably: my home is seven houses up the street from where I grew up. And yet, there is springtime in the Ozark Mountains, reminding me that all is well.
Two weeks ago the redbud trees were at their peak. Every spring the redbuds surprise me: there are always three times as many redbuds as I expect, and they are all more vivid than I remember.
It was an overcast day, which is the prettiest kind of spring day. All the flowers look brighter against the gray. I was feeling anxious about something, as I tend to do, and then I walked outside and it was like that line from that Elizabeth Bishop poem—rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!—except, in this case: redbud, redbud, redbud! A feeling of peace came over me, and I was happy just to be outside with all the redbuds, in the air that smells– all over the city, all spring long– vaguely of lilac.
I don’t know how to find meaning and purpose, but I believe in trying. Liminal spaces are easy to spot when physical distance is involved, but I have to believe, do believe, that liminality can occur in places with which one is intimately familiar.
Here is what the redbuds and the lilacs and the conservatism and the Elizabeth Bishop poem have taught me: a moment of peace every once in a while is all I need, is just enough to carry me through to the next moment, whenever it might come. Happy springtime, Ozark Mountains. I love you.