Identity and Vocation

Tyson Adams

I turned 42 today, which is my favorite number, since it's the answer to the meaning of Life, the Universe, and Everything. It was a good day full of contradictions. I taught an OLLI class ("life-long learning") on Wisdom and was treated like a treasure by appreciative students. Later I went to a meeting in which I was treated like crap by a colleague. And I had a phone conversation with someone important about a really big—like amazingly big—future project that may happen, and I really hope it does.

This day has led me to reflect on my conversation with a visiting speaker who came to campus last year, a senior scholar with an impressive CV who teaches at a small college. I asked him what it was like spending his whole career at one school, and whether he ever thought about moving (he could have at any point, I imagine). He said that he had family reasons for staying in the area, and that he had maintained his mental health by refusing to let his identity become tied to the micro-politics and limited perspective of the school itself.

What I took from our conversation was a reminder to maintain a broad horizon. This horizon will take the form of strong collegial relationships outside the confines of a particular department or school. It will mean having a healthy and balanced home life so that one is always something more than just an Associate Professor or a Committee Chair—a parent, a friend, a volunteer. This broader perspective will also contribute to a more effective career within that specific location.

And all of this requires sustained reflection about one's vocation. Who are you called to be? As a professor, my calling is primarily to be a teacher and, springing from that, to be a writer. I have many weaknesses as a teacher and I don't write nearly as much or as well as I would like. My success in these callings, however, does not depend on institutional support or external validation, but on the human relationships that I build in the process.

I am entering the middle part of my career, having taught 14 years already. I have paid close attention to senior colleague nearing retirement: some are happy and content, and look back on their Furman years with fondness; and some seem totally burned out, just done. What's the difference, I wonder? Everyone's situation is different, but I suspect that a major factor is whether their identity has become too closely tied to their job rather than their vocation.

I offer now two great unspoken truths that middle-career Associate Professors like me need to remember: 1) institutions change inexorably over time, and eventually they will change in ways that you do not like; 2) when you are gone, it's amazing how gone you are. Every now and then we get an email telling us that a retired professor has passed away, and I wonder, who was that person? Does anyone here remember what they did? How they poured themselves into that report or committee assignment? How many 8 o'clock sections they taught? As Qohelet reminds us, "The people of long ago are not remembered, nor will there be any remembrance of people yet to come by those who come after them."

So what's the point? To borrow again from the Teacher, "Whatever your hand finds to do, do with your might." Identify those things that matter most in life, that most closely embody your vocation, and do them. Don't let the business of everyday struggle cloud your horizon or claim your identity.

[Image via http://tysonadams.com/2012/08/30/the-answer/]