Expectation affects program.

Those words ran through my mind over the last couple of days, as I entered into conversations with good people from all over the country who gathered together to think about vocation and the missio Dei. The first evening I framed the time by reflecting on a summer’s study with a philosopher, Surrendra Gangadean, in the summer of 1976 in the Valley of the Sun.

The conversations have had consequences. I would bike to meet him, early enough in the day before the sweltering heat of Phoenix set in, and he took my questions seriously, allowing me to range the universe, wanting clarity as I did about things that mattered to me and human beings across history. Most of my life later I still think what he said was true; the longer I have lived, the more true the words are to the way the world is.

What we believe about the future affects the way we live, and this is true for human beings wherever they are, whatever they believe about the deepest things, the things that matter most. For example, through civilizations and centuries there has been a strain in the human heart, living life amidst the ruins, that has concluded, “Why not just eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die?” The Old and New Testaments of the Bible both record the poets of the day offering that as a reason for being—and thousands of years later the rock star Dave Matthews has said the same thing in one of his best-known songs. If we understand life to be a certain way, if we understand history to be this-and-not-that, then the poets of every generation have simply been honest about what is and what isn’t—and we should all say, “Why not?”

Whether one identifies as an evolutionary materialist, a Marxist or Maoist, a Hindu or Buddhist, a Jew, a Muslim or a Christian—whatever we conclude about the meaning of life –expectation affects program. All have different ways of answering the question of the future, and therefore of the present. Is there continuity over time, from beginning to end—or is there radical discontinuity, “tis all in pieces” as the poet John Donne put it at the dawn of the modern world? The word “eschaton” is sometimes offered to explain this, i.e. the future of human history is going to be…. this. And I will live for that. And I will make decisions because of that. And I will love in light of that.

As I became a teacher, listening to my own students, I began to ask a question that grew out of what I had I learned. Do you have a telos that is sufficient to meaningfully orient your praxis over the course of life? “Telos” and “praxis” are the harder words, ones we rarely use, but they mean everything. The one is a word that addresses the point of life, and the point of a person’s life; the other is a word that gets at the way we live life, the practices that make my life this and not that. So the question is asking us, “Do we live life in light of what matters most to us? Are we making choices about life, forming habits of heart and living by them and into them, in light of what we believe is most important?”

I was intrigued to hear from the folks I spoke to on Wednesday night that the words made such sense to them. That night and the next day people kept coming to me, saying in their own different ways, “Yes, I see that. That sums up what I see when I look at the world, and when I look at my own life. It is that way, for all of us.”

Expectation affects program. Still. For everyone everywhere.

Steven Garber is the Senior Fellow for Vocation and the Common Good for the M. J. Murdock Charitable Trust. A teacher of many people in many places, he continues to serve as a consultant to colleges and corporations, facilitating both individual and institutional vocation. A husband, a father and a grandfather, a he has long lived in Washington DC, living a life among family, friends, and flowers.

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