At Work

I Don’t Agree with Wendell Berry on Many Things, but His View of Vocation? Wow.

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I disagree with Wendell Berry on many points.

His view of free markets is too negative. His positions on some contentious social issues don’t match mine. At times he describes the life of a small farmer so romantically that I forget about all the worrying and sweating my childhood neighbors did while tending their rural acreages.

When I read Berry I want to get a few acres myself and maybe take up farming. But I don’t, because I realize that really isn’t my calling.

My reluctance to pursue Berry’s romantic notion of farming in favor of my true vocation is appropriate because vocation and calling are where Berry really nails it.

He does this clearly in Our Only World, a book of essays published last year. Toward the end of a rather lengthy essay, “Our Deserted Country,” Berry blames the abandonment of rural Kentucky on the rise of machines in industry. He claims this led to the shift away from vocation to the merely quantitative integer, “a job.” His diagnosis of this shift’s cause is debatable, but his description of vocation hints at its broader economic reality:

The idea of vocation attaches to work a cluster of other ideas, including devotion, skill, pride, pleasure, the good stewardship of means and materials. Here we have returned to intangibles of economic value. When they are subtracted, what remains is ‘a job,’ always implying that work is something good only to escape.

It is all too easy to slip into selfishness and greed when our job becomes all about making money and nothing more. If we care only about the size of our paycheck or the goods it buys and neglect the process of our work, our goal will always be to get a bigger check. We won’t care all that much about doing our work well, or better.

Vocation allows us to delight in the process of work even if we aren’t getting rich while doing it. The work itself is part of the reward when we’re doing what we’re called to do. We need to work at something that enables us to meet our needs, but if meeting those needs (and our wants) is the only purpose for our work, we’ve missed something.

One difference between viewing work as “just a job” or as a vocation is that vocation causes us to look outside ourselves. Paul urged the Philippians to have this outlook in Philippians 2:3-4:

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.

According to Berry, vocation enables us to look out for the interests of other people by helping us see how our work impacts their lives.

Vocation is a central theme in Berry’s novel, Jayber Crow, where the title character lives his vocation as a barber in a small Kentucky town. Crow is a town fixture. His shop is the center for locals who get together and sometimes even get a haircut. Crow serves others by cutting hair and hosting the nightly social conversations.

Crow is forced to retire when the health inspector shuts the shop down for lacking running hot water. But people keep showing up at Crow’s little shack down by the river, and he keeps cutting hair. Although he gives cuts for free, people still leave donations. Barbering isn’t what Crow does for a living. It’s how he lives and adds value to his community. It is his vocation. The community honors  his contribution by keeping him housed and fed.

It’s a beautiful story. It’s a fictitious account, but it’s a good illustration of vocation.

When work is just a job, we can’t wait to get away from it. When our work is a vocation, we can’t see ourselves serving others in any other way with as much satisfaction.

That’s why I’ll keep doing what I’ve been called to do. As much as reading Berry makes me wish tilling the soil was a part of my vocation, I realize that right now writing reports and meeting with people is how I’ve been equipped to add value to the world.

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