Picture me aged 72, charitably described as balding, either "wiry" or "paunchy," depending upon the point of view, looking back many years on someone I knew at a nearby school in the Class of 1978. To protect identity, I'll give her the fictional name Magna C. Laude, but we'll call her "Mag" for short.
From the name you can tell she was an honor graduate, but in absentia. Her firm needed her quickly and she got a head start by going to work at once. In her absence both of her friends back on campus sent greetings. Not having heard from her at Christmas both dropped her. But the alumni office never lost track of her, for she advanced very rapidly in her career.
Belonging to the Class of '78 had certain advantages in the literature of her day. Among other things, as an undergraduate she had already read Passages and thus was able to have her mid-career crisis 22 years early. She read Power! How to Get It, How to Use It; Success! How Every Man and Woman Can Achieve It; Winning Through Intimidation; Looking Out for No. 1; and the other academic best sellers of her vintage. Having read The Woman's Dress for Success Book, she wore the proper three piece skirted suit, bag by Gucci, suit by Pucci, shoes by Tucci. She began immediately as the assistant associate executive expediter before her classmates had even unpacked.
By 1983, the fifth anniversary reunion of her class, she was unable to find time to get back, but she did read how the others were doing. She remembered from Kahlil Gibran about keeping space between herself and others, and from Fritz Perls to do it her own way.
Mag was having a little trouble, though, bereft of some of the therapies that got her started so well. Est and Scientology had failed her. She had forgotten her TM mantra, and never had time to meditate anyway. TA was long past, since it involved groups. She dropped getting her master's because it took twenty minutes a day. She read books on all the latest therapies, including the perfect orgasm, but had no chance to use it. By then she was associate executive expediter.
In 1988—only twelve years ago — she became executive expediter, and had her first breakdown. People were puzzled because they noted that her lip was always firm, her chin jutted as before. Her company helped out by giving her a trip to Norway to see the fjords. She came back ten days early with her report on expediting in Sweden. Her therapist prescribed leisure, so she compulsively bought season tickets to symphony, ballet, opera, and theatre, and then raffled them off at work because she got restless between the acts.
In 1990 she was aged thirty-three and her counselor advised her to marry so she could have a permanent relationship. She was told to prioritize her marriage and maximize her childbearing potential. In those days the norm was 1.8 children; so she aimed for one, and had none. Four years later the marriage broke up, even though she tried contact lenses and her husband switched brands of scotch to match hers.
In 1996 she was named "The Indispensible Employee" and was promoted to vice president in charge of expediting. Honored as "Alumna of the Year," she sent a representative with a letter she dictated. It was signed, "Sincerely, Magna C. Laude."
The Short, Unhappy Life of Magna C. Laude
Two years ago Mag started losing her battle with her career. "Old M.C.L.," as they called her, noticed heart trouble, ulcers, endocrine disturbance, alcoholism, and other—what my colleagues call —specifically Christian diseases. We lost her recently. Her former husband arranged for her cremation and, in lieu of flowers (Mag never did care much for flowers), gifts for the employees' recreation fund.
Looking back, I followed the path of her career through these twenty-two years, and I am going to say something now that sounds very cruel, but I hope you will understand. I, too, have read John Donne and I know that anyone's death diminishes all of us. But I have to confess:
I'm not sad because Mag died.
I'm sad because she never really lived.
What goes on here in this little biography?
Parents must think I'm being subversive. You are wondering why there is no pep talk about hurrying up and getting a job and paying off a little bit. You might have noticed that this apparently irresponsible speech is not being delivered at a commencement at which any of my own offspring is graduating.
Others may think that you are hearing—ten years late—the last fossil from a counter culture, a leftover hippie handing out petals to flower children.
There must be employers, and executive employers, here who know—as I know—that work is an important part of life, and highly valued.
We are discussing here a problem that may not touch the lives of all of us. This is an age when many Americans are unemployed, underemployed, misemployed, and it would be insensitive to assume that careerism is the only problem before us.
Why choose Mag and her problem then? Why not concentrate on the majority of you who have life and career in proportion and in proper perspective? Most of the people I meet who graduate from schools like this do. The very fact that you have chosen a university where the sciences, arts, humanities, the liberal arts, chapel, graduate and professional schools all intermingle is in itself a commitment by you to life, and career, and education for career preparation. You do not want to follow lockstep, as W. H. Auden describes, where people "ply well-paid repetitive tasks in cozy crowds." ("Dowdy they'll die who have so dimly lived.")
Is it a false alternative I'm posing here today, career vs. life? The historian in me answers by locating your years and what future historians will see as a central problem of academic living in these years. The mid-seventies, 1973-78, your campus years, have three marks in the eyes of observers and critics (and until a commencement speaker locates something to be unhappy about, he cannot be happy):
Vocationalism —the bane of those who want to educate and not train, who run universities and not technical institutes, who wish to help prepare people for life and not task alone. These are the years in which students, to idolize vocation(ism), made mass communicators happy, and the rest of the world sad, by tearing pages out of books so that their competitor students could not pass tests, and burned themselves out in joyless pursuit of an advantage when times got rough.
Professionalism—the bane of those who would delight in the professional preparation of graduate students. Faced with the need to acquire competence, we have often seen students lose qualities of living; watching them become experts, we have seen them become sterile specialists out of context. I serve on the board of a "general" scholarly journal of social work and each quarter have to watch the birth of another journal for a particular subdivision of the profession. Some day there will be journals just for social workers dedicated to the service of left-handed, alcoholic, Latino, homosexual, unemployed males. Then profession exhausts the space life used to take.
Careerism — toward this the others point. Like vocation and profession, career is not the problem. The ism is, the overall and even total organization of living toward one end, for "where your treasure is, there is your heart also."
If we can in these minutes sort out how career relates to life, we will have served you well.
The text for what remains of our meditation comes from Jose Ortega y Gasset (who wrote back when "man" meant "person," so please mentally translate): "Strictly, a man's vocation must be his vocation for a perfectly concrete, individual, and integral life, not for the social schema of a career."
Ortega was what he called a "partly faithful professor," because he never let his profession define and confine all that he was. No one made more of an impression on the modern Spanish university. His students knew him as a great teacher and influence. But he supplemented his place in the institution with other ideas than just the "big deal" of being an important professor, and his journalism, philosophy, and lived life in a world of action helped him fulfill his calling as a professor. He prescribed a three dimensional life:
—concrete, which my dictionary reminds me is "not general, but particular," unmistakably one's own.
—individual, which did not mean isolated, for Ortega was a social thinker, but distinct in the midst of community. I have often noted that when community was rich, in biblical days or colonial times, a chronicler in three lines could depict a life and we would know that person more than we do some who receive three volume biographies for their career achievement.
—integral, which means "whole," not fragmented, torn from within, but knowing something of "shalom."
The Partly-Faithful Professor and Impure Thinker
I think as well of another "partly faithful professor," (Pardon me for illustrating with my own vocation, a profession that can easily corrupt one into idolizing the social schema of a career.) This one is Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy. Burdened by a German doctorate in law, he fought in World War I, worked for Daimler-Benz, edited the first factory magazine in Germany, worked in adult education, eventually taught law at the University of Breslau, but, more preoccupied with the tenor of life than tenure in career, organized work service camps in Germany until Hitlerism forced him from Germany—he was Jew and Christian, truly marginal and misfit man! — whereupon he made pit stops at Harvard and the suburbs of Dartmouth. He is remembered for shaping Camp William James in the Civilian Conservation Corps and for a score of remarkably offbeat books that have influenced people who influenced others. The despair of the provincial precisionist because he was unconfined and his discipline was not "pure" liked to brag, "I am an impure thinker." Yet he purified the thoughts of others.
Ortega, Rosenstock-Huessy, the administrators and managers you are likely to remember in the firms of which you will be part, the concrete-individual-integral people who will not impose themselves as templates but will inspire because they do not try to, all of them will have something of an openness that violates the edges of career. I think of economist Peter Drucker, a man of fulfilling career who never found it necessary to wind down: "Here I am, 58 years old, and I still do not know what I want to be when I grow up." These lives as I have described them might give the impression of fluttering, flittering, frittering distraction. Just the opposite. The people who lived them were on a trajectory that gave direction and shape. Each one implies competence, mastery, discipline, faithfulness, and the hardest kind of work. Happy the nation, university, or firm that could put them to work. The concrete life is precisely not the life of the chattering generalist, the dilettante. Ortega criticized idolatry of the schema, the diagrammed outline of a career, not the vocation.
Grace Notes and Breathing Holes for the Human Spirit
So we should have a word about vocation.
Let me speak out of the context of my own, not as a "partly faithful professor" of history or as an "impure thinker" among the historians, but from the sphere of theology. I should think that some of you must by now be urging, "Say something theological," for in this sphere it is hard to be prophetic without grounding oneself in Being, God, Spirit, Christ. My colleague Saul Bellow jars my kind: "Being a prophet is nice work if you can get it, but sooner or later you must talk about God." But this is not vespers or chapel, nor dare I presume to speak to or for all of you in this realm even on these premises. These cautions aside, it still seems to me that vocation takes shape best in the context of theology. If I were here to defend B-l bombers, neutron bombs, the Republican party or a large corporation, your commencement address would have to do with those spheres. Try this one:
A vocation is calling, a gift, hard work tinged by great grace. One day it occurs to us, there is no "age of Aquarius" waiting out there, and if there were we would be bored to death with it the first rainy Sunday afternoon. Economist Kenneth Boulding reminds us that Aquarius trudging across the heavens with his water pots, is the only sign of the zodiac doing work, and embodies the Protestant ethic itself. But you do not trudge in true vocation, for each day is lived as a new one. Einar Billing in a great book on vocation sets it in context: In such a life "nothing is too small, too neutral, too heavy, too light, too routine, too transitory, but all have a place. ... In these monotonous deeds of every day I am to put in from day to day not only my most eager interest, my strictest conscientiousness, but God's power and God's love. God is to continue to create, Christ to continue to redeem, through my daily work." And the inner-life will grow.
If you are to have a concrete, individual, and integral life, we wish for you:
1) Moonlight—hobbies, voluntary activities, supplemental work, anything that keeps you from becoming a slave of your sunlight occupations.
2) Wonder —that quality you brought to life, and that we hope your better teachers kept your worse teachers from killing off. (Nietzsche: You must still have some chaos in your soul to give birth to a dancing star. If you have wonder, surprise will find its way, and you cannot become drones and drudges.)
3) Space —E.M. Forster has spoken of the need for "breathing holes for the human spirit," which we have seen some people find in cramped lofts and garrets and assembly lines, but which is also available for us under the sky, where the wonder of the starry night impinges as always before.
4) Other people—we hope you will find yourself webbed with other people, who make demands upon your self. Old and funny shaped, beguiling and alluring, beckoning and hoping people who care little for your career and all for your living.
5) Creative schedule interruptions —the fine art of knowing when to forget the calendar, the date book, and the clock because people have needs.
6) Positions—yes, we wish for you jobs, professions, vocations, callings, demanding enough that they provide attractive careers and thus challenges for lives.
7) Grace —a life of grace notes that reminds you that all is a gift, and not that pushy sense of the self-made person who worships, his creator, the self.
A story that cinches this all elaborates on something the late Pope John is said to have said about the social schema of his career. Let us assume that running a 500 million member international organization is a demanding task, and that rising to lead it offers every temptation to idolize the current rung on the ladder of achievement, since hierachy is a nuanced and competitive pattern.
In this version John tells of his own "breathing holes":
"When I was a little boy and had a problem, I could always ask my parish priest. When I became a priest and had a project, I could consult the nearby monsignor. As I rose in the ranks, there was always the bishop on whom to lean. Then they made me a bishop, but I was secure since I could talk to the archbishop. Being an archbishop brought new duties and terrors, but in grave situations I could always consult the cardinal. But being cardinal was even worse, so it was necessary to take comfort from knowing I could talk to the pope. Now in all the terrible work of being the pope, I sometimes forget myself. The other night I had a problem and tried to reassure myself: 'Let me see, I must talk this over with the pope.' Then I remembered: 'My God, I am the pope. So I talked to the Holy Spirit, rolled over, and slept peacefully."'
And the whole world saw him refreshed the next day, ready for his vocation and life.
To be free from career for career, to lose your life so that you find it—this is your goal, your gift.