Sometimes I get the willies from vocation conversations, and I think this is why: Whatever the formal definition is, in practice “vocation” seems to be a mash-up between purpose and career—like, two of the most intimidating topics did the dirty and gave birth to this mutant problem child that ill-equipped young adults like myself must adopt wholeheartedly, or else.

I’m not opposing vocation itself, which could theoretically be beautiful, but rather our application of it, from which a few problems arise: the first, covered in more detail by Will, is that we—definitive failures—feel like we aren’t allowed to fail in whatever line of work God seems to have called us to, thereby exacerbating self-justification in a nation of workaholics.

Another issue is that vocation mandates a search—some sort of intense self-examination to discern what God wants from our lives. We proctor our own internal SATs to discover our life-purpose and how we can turn it into a sustainable job. The search itself can be agonizing, involving four or five mentors, countless personality tests, and persistent self-scrutiny until we effectively transform the gracious “call” of the Lord into something that looks more like a modern Christian dybbuk hovering over our errant consciences.

In opposition to this frantic internal spinning, Simone Weil advocates a general state of suspended thought, detachment and emptiness—which then leaves the mind ready to be pierced from the outside. She argues that the detached mind is ready to be “penetrated” by truth:

“All wrong translations, all absurdities in geometry problems, all clumsiness of style and all faulty connection of ideas…all such things are due to the fact that thought has seized upon some idea too hastily and being thus prematurely blocked, is not open to the truth. The cause is always that we have wanted to be too active; we have wanted to carry out a search” (8).

Sometimes I wonder if the search for vocation speaks louder than God himself, who will be quiet in his love (Zephaniah 3.17).

Additionally, this understanding of vocation encourages the idea that some work is more valuable than other work (as if I wasn’t insecure enough already). Consider the career of the truly admirable Mr. Bucket, from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory:

“Mr. Bucket was the only person in the family with a job. He worked in a toothpaste factory, where he sat all day long at a bench and screwed the little caps onto the tops of the tubes of toothpaste after the tubes had been filled. But a toothpaste cap-screwer is never paid very much money.”

It’s rare to find anyone who feels their vocation is to be a toothepaste cap-screwer, and there’s a lot of reasons for that—primarily identity issues, probably. But it’s also true that the mundane 9-5 is going out of style on both sides of the sacred/secular “divide” mainly because someone, either God or ourselves, is calling us to be spontaneous, to travel while we’re young, and to do what we are passionate about. To do what we want. Something is telling us to stay out of the factory, stay out of the cubicle, because you only live once.

DZ recently quoted Joshua Rothman from The New Yorker, who wrote:

“We have put autonomy at the center of our lives, economically, politically, and technologically; often when we think of what it means to be happy, we think of freedom from our circumstances. Unfortunately, we’ve taken things too far; we’re now addicted to liberation, and we regard any situation—a movie, a conversation, a one-block walk down a city street—as a kind of prison.

In 1934, Simone Weil flipped the tables and went to work at a factory alongside people who had almost definitely not found their vocation and probably never had the luxury to search for it. In her essay Prerequisite to Dignity of Labor, Weil reports that factory work was necessity-driven, not purpose-driven. She worked there until her illness prevented her: and she said it was the most challenging time of her life. At that time, social mobility was nonexistent. In her experience, work meant earning only what one already had, which was challenging, not only because of the physical conditions, but because the lack of purpose resembled slavery: “In exchange for his life, he would exhaust all his energies all day, everyday, as a slave, with nothing on which to pin his hopes except the possibility of not being whipped or killed.” The only good objective was existence itself, and when existence was “starkly stripped of everything,” “indeed it [became] evil.” “Evil” here connoted antagonism, and pain.

And we can relate to all of this because the daily grind isn’t just about factory workers: it’s about anyone who feels purposeless. It’s about survival. “It’s about making it to 30, or 50, without wanting to shoot yourself in the head” (DFW).

Contemporary Christians are looking for purpose in vocation, but a quick look around reminds us that purpose is a luxury, not a right. For people such as those workers Weil observed, purposelessness is inevitable, and:

“there is no stratagem, no procedure, no reform or reversal whereby purpose can enter the world in which workers are placed…. But this entire world may be connected to the one true purpose. It may be linked to God.

Imagine you work in the purposelessness of a nasty, monotonous early twentieth century factory: According to Weil, the only person willing to meet you in such a grimy place is God. It’s in the position of near-humiliation from which workers are emptied of themselves, and God, in his grace, enters.

Weil continues in Prerequisite to Dignity of Labor that because the workers aren’t trying to figure out what their vocation is—they just work—God allows them to find their purpose in him. She writes,

“The condition of the workers is one in which the hunger for purpose that is the very being of all people cannot be satisfied except by God. And it is their exclusive privilege. They alone possess it. In all other conditions of life, without exception, specific aims govern activity. And there is not a single aim, including the salvation of one or many souls, which may not act as a screen and hide God…For workers there is no screen. Nothing separates them from God.”

For Weil, God is the prerequisite to the dignity of labor, because he is the pre- in every circumstance: because he is before all things, and through him all things hold together.

David Graeber wrote a rather blistering piece about how society should eradicate jobs where people don’t feel purposeful: “Hell is a collection of individuals who are spending the bulk of their time working on a task they don’t like and are not especially good at.” I won’t deny that that sounds like hell, but I’m grateful to remember the creed which says that Christ descended into hell, and on the third day he rose again. I still haven’t figured out my vocation, and I will inevitably feel pangs of purposelessness in the everyday drift from sun-up to sun-down: but the fact that God already presides over my existential floating is good news. So I will continue turning oxygen into carbon dioxide.