Vocation and occupation.

Two different but related words. There are few days when I am not drawn into a conversation with someone about the ways that they orient us, forming who we are and what we do.

Yesterday, for example, I had lunch with a long friend who has been making music for most of his life, being a creative and prophetic voice for many people in many places. But things are changing, for lots of reasons, and so we talked about what a vocation is, and what an occupation is. The former is the longer, deeper story of someone’s life, our longings and our choices and our passions that run through life like a deep river; the latter is what we do day by day, the relationships and responsibilities we occupy along the way of our lives, more like the currents in a river that give it visible form.

Every one of us has to make peace with the reality that in a now-but-not-yet world the two words, and the realities they represent, will never ever be exactly the same—even as we hope for more coherence between the two.

Coherence is part of the story, and continuity is as well. For every son of Adam and daughter of Eve, the things that we cared about when we were five year-olds somehow make sense of what we cared about when we were 16 year-olds, just as the educational choices we made as 20 year-olds connect with the vocational choices we make when we are 30 year-olds. I think about this as threads that are woven into the tapestry of a life.

For none of us is it neat-and-clean. This was this, and that was that, therefore…. I spend my days as a butcher, a baker or a candlestick-maker. We make choices, and our choices do have consequences; that is a true truth. But sometimes in a wounded world we make choices we don’t really want to make, and sometimes there seems to be little relationship between what we long to do, and what we end up doing. Even the creation groans.

A month or so ago I was in Toronto as a guest on a television show focused on the challenge of the twenty-something years, especially of finding work that we care about. Most of the time getting a job isn’t so hard; it is seeing our lives as a vocation that is harder. That is as much a problem for Canadians as it is Americans—and for Filipinos as it is for Italians and Kenyans.

But a vocation is what my friend wants as he sees a change coming; it is what we all want, in and through the transitions of life. It is why words like coherence and continuity matter to us. We yearn for the things we love to be the way that we live, even as we realize that the two will never be the same, completely and absolutely. We long for what we do to grow out of who we are, for our occupation(s) to be rooted in our vocation. That is the hope of everyone’s heart.

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.

Meet Steve