Prerequisite to Dignity of Purposelessness

Sometimes I get the willies from conversations about vocation. Whatever the formal definition is, “vocation” […]

CJ Green / 8.4.15

Sometimes I get the willies from conversations about vocation. Whatever the formal definition is, “vocation” in practice seems to be a mash-up between purpose and career—as if two of the most intimidating topics were rolled into one, and ill-equipped young adults like myself must deal with it, or else.

I’m not criticizing vocation in itself but rather our application of it, from which a few problems arise: the first, covered in more detail by Will McDavid, is that we feel like we aren’t allowed to fail in whatever line of work God seems to have called us to. So you get more self-justification in a world already defined by it.

Another issue is that vocation mandates a “search”—an intense self-examination to discern what God wants from our lives. We proctor internal SATs to discover not only a life-purpose but also how we can turn it into a sustainable job. The search itself can be agonizing, involving three to four mentors (personally speaking), countless personality tests, and persistent self-scrutiny. We effectively transform the gracious “call” of the Lord into something dogged, grueling.

In response to a similar frantic internal spinning, philosopher Simone Weil wrote about a general state of suspended thought, detachment, emptiness. Detachment, she argues, leaves the mind ready to be pierced from the outside, 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).

The search perpetuates the idea that, to God, some work is more valuable than other work (as if I wasn’t insecure enough already). Consider the career of the 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. But it’s also true that the mundane 9-5 is going out of style on both sides of the sacred/secular divide, because someone, either God or ourselves, is calling us to be spontaneous, to do what we are passionate about. Something is telling us to stay out of the factory, stay out of the cubicle, because you only live once.

David Zahl 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 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 said it was the most challenging time of her life.

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.”

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 seeking purpose through vocation, but a quick look around reminds us that purpose is a luxury, not a baseline. 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 monotonous factory: God will be with you there. In the position of near-humiliation, in which workers are emptied of themselves, God, in his grace, enters. Weil continues that because the workers aren’t trying to figure out what their purpose 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: he is before all things, and through him all things hold together. I still haven’t figured out my vocation, and I will inevitably feel purposelessness in the everyday drift from sun-up to sun-down: but the fact that God presides over my existential floating is good news. So I will continue turning oxygen into carbon dioxide.