“(P)lease be steadfast in walking in the vocation to which you are called.”1
Spring Break may give us a little space to pause and reflect. So, let me ask: how much of your life’s journey has been due to your choice, and how much of it has been something not of your own making?
In the United States, at least, the narrative we often tell ourselves is that we are independent and “self-made” people who can overcome every obstacle to achieve our dreams. We trust all things are possible. This sustained optimism can indeed enable us to work through difficulties and continue to believe–and that is a good thing.
However, life often throws us curveballs. The coronavirus pandemic is not something anyone would have chosen. Nor is the unexpected death of a loved one, or other such difficult life challenges that leave us upside down. Even something minor like the untimely arrival of bad weather during an outdoor walk or picnic can be such a curveball. Much of our lives amount to responding to circumstances out of our control.
Furthermore, few of us are world class athletes, though we may have dreamed of hitting the perfect “10” on the balance beam, swimming a championship level butterfly, or hitting a game winning shot. And, few of us will author an award-winning novel, become a nuclear physicist, win an Academy award, or win a million dollars even though we may have fantasized what it might be like. Our lives are probably somewhat less remarkable. They are typically characterized by some degree of human limitation that is not of our making, nor our desire.
Further tempering the narrative of the “self-made” person, consider that our identity and the choices we make are shaped by our families, communities, and relationships. We are often required to balance our own needs and wants with those of others.
Learning to be led through the events and relationships that shape our lives, then, is at the heart of living with a sense of vocation and mission, both individually and as an institution. The dreams we have for our lives are tempered, shaped, and redirected by the realities and circumstances we face. Most of these are outside our control or making and not of our choosing.
Living with a sense of vocation, or mission, is a way of being, a way of journeying through our lives. We are not simply choosing our personal playlist, making everything exactly how we would like it. Our personal hopes and dreams are an important part of the big picture. But so is being receptive to what life offers and to what our reality enables us to do and to be as we respond to the challenges that unexpectedly arise along the way.
Being steadfast in living our mission and walking in our vocation may not mean that things work out exactly as we planned, or in a predictable manner. It does mean faithfully discerning each step we take along the way as circumstances allow. The story of our lives is as much about being led, about being receptive to what emerges on the journey, as it is about forging a path of our choice.
Perhaps this is what Vincent meant when he said: “Wisdom consists in following Providence step by step.”2
1 Letter 1824, To a Priest of the Mission, 2 January 1655, CCD, 5:256.
2 Letter to Bernard Codoing, in Rome, 6 August 1644, CCD, 2:521
Reflection by: Mark Laboe, Associate VP for Faculty and Staff Engagement, Division of Mission and Ministry
One thought on “Learning to be Led”
Thanks for this, Mark. Your points seem particularly apt in current times.
Your piece brings back a memory from 20 years ago of an interaction that changed my perspective. I was in a class studying different societal models and we were looking into more communally organized societies. An American peer said “I am so glad I get to choose my path and am not locked into expectations of my family or society. That would be so constricting!”
This was met with , “I actually feel sorry for those of you from individualistic societies. How exhausting to feel that you are constantly having to make your own way without support from others, and to feel that you are personally failing all the time when your career or other things simply don’t go as you planned. It must feel very lonely and alienating.”
This interchange has really stuck with me, and your essay on finding meaning and reward even in life’s unexpected troubles or disappointments brings it back and seems so wise. Thanks.