The End of the American Century?
Science and Facts

The Summoned Self

In the second chapter of David Brooks's The Road to Character, he writes about how the traditional concept of vocation is different from what many experience today:

In this scheme of things we don't create our lives; we are summoned by life.  The important answers are not found inside, they are found outside.  This perspective begins not within the autonomous self, but with the concrete circumstances in which you happen to be embedded.  This perspective begins with an awareness that the world existed long before you and will last long after you, and that in the  brief span of your life you have been thrown by fate, by history, by chance, by evolution, or by God into a specific place with specific problems and needs.  Your job is to figure certain things out: What does this environment need in order to be made whole?  What is it that needs repair?  What tasks are lying around waiting to be performed?  

This paragraph made me think of Gandalf's conversation with Frodo in the Mines of Moriah when Frodo laments the dark and dangerous path his life has taken.  Gandalf tells Frodo that he cannot choose the times in which he lives, but only what he does with those times.  

Sobering advice for those of us lamenting this week.  We had expected to live in radically better world than the one that has fallen upon us, yet our test will be what we do in this moment.


Brooks then explores some of the key ideas in Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning.  Frankl wrote about his effort to survive and find meaning while he was in Auschwitz.  Frankl understood that a moral and intellectual task was before him, and the task was to suffer well.  If you've not read Frankl's classic, I encourage you to. I usually use it as an illustration in my intro to philosophy classes.  Frankl quotes Nietzsche, "He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how."

Brooks writes that this notion of vocation as a summons or call means that "a person becomes an instrument for the performance of a job that has been put before her. She molds herself to the task at hand."  

The focal subject of this chapter is Frances Perkins, of whom I will write in a later blog post, at this chapter had material I wanted to respond to in more than one post.  After his discussion of her life, he returns to this notion of vocation:

Perkins didn't so much choose her life.  She responded to the call of a felt necessity.  A person who embraces a calling doesn't take a direct route to self-fulfillment.  She is willing to surrender the things that are most dear, and by seeking to forget herself and submerge herself she finds a purpose that defines and fulfills herself.  Such vocations almost always involve tasks that transcend a lifetime.  They almost always involve throwing yourself into a historical process. They involve compensating for the brevity of life by finding membership in a historic commitment.


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