There are threads that run through our lives.

Yesterday I was given a tour of the Cornell University campus, and we stopped at the Johnson Art Museum, designed by I.M. Pei. As we walked through, I saw a sculpture, the Walking Man of Alberto Giacometti, and thought of years ago when I wrote about it in my master’s thesis. Hoping to understand many things that mattered to me then, I titled it, “What Is It To Be Human? Understanding the Relationship of Philosophical Anthropology and Psychotherapy.” Those years of study still shape my life in the world.

In the thesis, Giacometti took his place alongside Bob Dylan, especially his song “Thin Man.” My argument was that in the 20th-century human beings were feeling increasingly alienated, not having a place in history and the cosmos that oriented them/us about who we are and why we are—and that these artists felt that in their work, sculpting and singing about the “thinness” of the human condition. Pretty interesting, huh?

And so here I am, most of my life later, lecturing within the Cornell community for a weekend, still thinking about the conditions of human flourishing, of what it means to be a human being. The direction has changed some; no longer am I looking at the implications for psychotherapy. Rather I am fixed on the question of vocation, of who we are and how we live—situated within commitments we make about what we believe and what we think it all means for history. That nexus is the heart of all I do, viz. faith, vocation and culture. That what we believe about the deepest things of life, shapes the way we live life, and that has consequence for life—for everyone everywhere.

Here is what the museum says about the Walking Man.

“After WWII, Giacometti turned from his earlier Cubist and Surrealist work and became especially interested in creating figures that would always appear to the viewer as if from a great distance, no matter how close one stood. He achieved this by paring the figure down to its essential components, and by making the figure as lean as possible. But Giacometti’s fragile men and women are also inseparable from the post-war attitudes that were crystallized in the writings of Jean-Paul Sartre. An ardent admirer of Giacometti, Sartre believed that it was naive to hope for any higher purpose in life since man, though free, was alone and responsible only to himself for his actions. Giacometti’s emaciated, post-Holocaust figures, with their eroded, crumbling surfaces, suggest the antithesis of heroism or nobility, associations traditionally linked to European sculpture.”

Walker Percy was right one more time. The Enlightenment, audaciously self-named, created the conditions where we are lost in the cosmos. Not much of a sense of vocation is possible, of being called to a life that matters, in that very alienated world. Lonely and alone we are, without a God and without a reason to live.

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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