Saturday, I attended a college graduation ceremony. The commencement speaker, Reverend Michael Rinehart, made a point to the graduates about vocation: Enjoy what you do. He said he’d met many people who boasted outward success but were suffering inside because they hated what they were doing. Wealth in itself is not a bad thing, he said, but cold pursuit of it without satisfaction produces misery.
As a college graduate facing dubious prospects in 2007, I appreciated Rinehart’s reassurance to these 2013 graduates, many whose foremost preoccupation likely isn’t job satisfaction, but getting a job period. As young people making their way into the world, they will struggle, as everyone struggles. But, as Rinehart pointed out, they’ll find something to do. Whether it’s something they enjoy, something they learn to enjoy, or something they don’t enjoy at all is largely up to them.
Graduating from college is one of life’s milestones, like a scenic overlook on the highway of life, a place to stop and survey the landscape behind and ahead of you. I wonder how many of the graduates pursued their degrees in the manner Rinehart advised not to pursue wealth, that is, with only the object of the degree in mind. (They could be forgiven that. It’s conventional wisdom that a bachelor’s degree is the ticket to prosperity.) I wonder if they feel any less satisfied than those graduates who weren’t just there for their degree, but really wanted to be there.
Actually, I don’t wonder. I know they are less satisfied. I know they wish they had more to show from 4 years of college than a piece of paper warranting a potential employer’s second look. I know they are more likely to stand at that overlook and have eyes only for the next overlook, not the vast, open space between. And if their next milestone is not in sight, they look on that vast, open space with unease.
Most of life is lived in those spaces between. To the relentlessly goal-oriented, it represents drudgery, tolerable when the goal is in sight and the road to get there is clearly marked. When the goal is out of sight, however, the shallows of life appear not free and open, but confining as a coffin. The graduates who fear this were the ones Rinehart was addressing.
One of the challenges of life is learning to flourish in the flats, to do better than muddle through until the next big thing comes along. Rather than make a change in how we live, sometimes we trick ourselves into accepting long-term misery for the sake of a distant payoff. While it’s true we borrow from the present to ensure a prosperous future, we miss the point that the future is not a fixed moment of crowning achievement against which our sacrifices are measured and justified.
No, the future is tonight, tomorrow morning, tomorrow night, the weekend, next week, next month, next winter, next year, etc. Except for the turning points, the milestones of life, the future is a projection of the present. Waiting for the future, we miss the future.
Further reading: “How to Find Your Vocation in College” by Gene Edward Veith in Intercollegiate Review.