Everyone who has been through elementary school has been asked the basic question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Kids usually default to jobs like doctor, lawyer, fireman, nurse, police officer, and other professions that seem cool or adventurous.
When we ask that question, we are teaching children that your job is an important part of your identity. But how much help do we really give kids in figuring out why vocation is important? Often, we give little assistance in shaping that vision of vocation or giving an understanding of the difference between a job and a calling.
That’s why I have been encouraged over the last few years by the approach to vocation I’ve found in a series of books called The Green Ember, by S.D. Smith.
Although these stories are exciting, fantastical adventures about rabbits with swords, they powerfully reveal the importance of vocation.
Recently, I had the opportunity to interview Smith to ask him about the idea of vocation and the stories he has written.
Authentic Concern for Vocation
Sometimes stories that teach a lesson well seem preachy because they are forced. This is not the feeling the reader gets from the Green Ember series. The idea of vocation rises organically from the web of the story.
I asked Smith why the vocational choices of two main characters, Heather and Picket, were so significant. He responded:
I didn’t set out to make the vocational elements of the stories instructional, but I do think they are key features of many kinds of stories, including the “coming of age” kind. Heather and Picket find themselves in a society that honors vocation and they are invited into relationships of mentoring and camaraderie that foster their own flourishing within that culture’s needs and aims. I guess some of that reflects my own longing to see that sort of thing more valued in my own life and culture. (Not just to me, but by me.)
A Calling Ceremony
That high value of vocation in this fantastical world is made apparent through a public liturgy during a “calling ceremony.” Both master and apprentice choose one another; once that choice is made, their relationship is announced publicly. In The Green Ember, the reader is introduced to the ceremony as an apprentice is bound to a master, in which the master tells the young apprentice that he or she is accepted, and the apprentice acknowledges the calling. In that public profession, the two pledge themselves to mutually benefit each other through the relationship.
This scene is powerful, as it conveys the value of receiving a calling and the relationship that calling has to the common good. Smith explained why the calling ceremony was such a big deal in relatively short adventure books:
It’s a way of belonging and being valued that our main characters are hungry for. It does many things for the characters and the reader. I hope it moves the reader and engages them in the world I’m trying to share with them. I think the modern world is starving for rituals of weight and meaning, of stories we can find ourselves a part of, and the habits and codes those stories call us to. I also thought it was a cool story element.
Imperfect Vocational Choices
Despite the prominent place calling has in these stories, the main characters do not make a beeline toward doing the right thing for the right reasons. Both of the main characters, Heather and Picket, choose their vocations for different reasons. Picket chooses to be a soldier, which does not seem to fit his ability, but which he thinks will help him get revenge. Heather, on the other hand, chooses the vocation of healer, which appears to be suited to her abilities, but she also ignores her gifts as a storyteller.
I asked Smith what he was trying to communicate through the way Heather and Picket made their choices. His answer resonates with the way many of us find our calling in life:
I just think of the choices they make as reflective of their flawed desires and fears. I think Picket chooses the right vocation, but not for entirely the best reasons. Heather is safer, but less connected to her true calling because of her fears. I resonate with both characters in their particular failures. I do think there are varied routes to reach our callings, and that many of us find them walking sideways.
A Vision for the Common Good
Perhaps the most important idea that comes through the representations of vocation in the Green Ember series is that our personal calling is for the good of the whole community.
The setting for these stories is filled with the clouds of war, with wolves threatening to enslave and exterminate the rabbit protagonists. And yet, despite the existential threat, characters enter vocations like storyteller, potter, and farmer. Smith explained how concern for the common good influenced the representation of vocation:
War tends to sharpen focus. These characters find themselves in a society engaged in war (or war preparation) and so every calling is important. But, they are also deeply committed to retaining the values that make them long for the change they want to see and help create in the Mending. But the clarity of urgency means the community doesn’t simply indulge the whims of children, or the laziness of anyone. The community has needs and so each individual’s skills are called upon for service, not simply self-actualization. Then, in a less direct route, the characters may discover that they are most themselves when they become devoted to others, the flourishing of their community, and their progress (or noble sacrifice) in the effort to reach their hallowed aims.
In this case, fantasy has enabled Smith to present a rich and realistic vision of vocation and the common good that transcends the world of anthropomorphic animals to speak to the real world. I look forward to seeing how the contours of the Green Ember story play out when the third major novel is released.
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Illustration by Zack Franzen, used by permission from Josiah Smith.