Vocations, Decisions, Tree Moss and Stars
You don’t need to know everything. You just need to know that, if you love God, you want to do his will.
“Choice” is, in many ways, the guiding star of our times. Sure, it’s a euphemism for abortion, but choice is much bigger than that. It’s the guiding philosophy of our times.
We all have some memories of advice people gave us as we were growing up. Some that I remember, from my older sister, was “maximize your choices.” I remember making a decision and picking a side. She challenged me, asking whether my selection was the best, suggesting I consider my lesser preference because “that way, you maximize your choices.”
Maybe. Maybe not.
We’ve spent decades maximizing choices. Are we really happier?
And what has it meant for vocations — especially the ones that define a life?
The conclusion to Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” captures not just the choices open to us but their consequences: “I took … one … and it has made all the difference.” The New Hampshire poet admits both are tempting yet both unknown. He can only see “so far as [he] could.” He eventually chooses “the road less traveled” admitting that, when the choice was to be made, each looked “just as fair.”
Does our “culture of choice” paralyze getting off the crossroads and setting off down a road?
Confronted by the two major life-defining choices — marriage or priesthood/religious life — “choice” is arguably driving people away from both. Each redefines a life and changes a lifestyle. Sure, each opens new possibilities … but it also forecloses others, both those to which one has grown accustomed (most especially doing what you want, how you want, when you want) and others with which one is unfamiliar. The paradox is that the effort of change is often checkmated by the inertia of familiarity.
One need only look at trends. The Census Bureau reports the average age of first marriage for men to be 30, women 28. The proportion of marrieds to non-marrieds in the population is skewing in the latter’s favor. Priesthood vocations are fewer, older, and generally after some first job.
In picking a vocation, whether for married or religious life, many people still seem to expect miraculous clarity, something akin to Moses atop Sinai, receiving the Ten Commandments amidst peals of thunder. The truth is that the clarity often comes more like it did to Elijah on Sinai, in a whisper — in the recognition of one’s abilities, inclinations, and feelings that make one apt for a certain kind of life.
Still, there has to be a decision.
Abilities, inclinations, and feelings — passions — often move people towards a diverging road … but a choice still has to be made.
The danger is that, rather than deciding, people often let themselves go on “auto-pilot,” letting events, inclinations and feelings carry them along in the name of “maximizing choices” by not choosing. The problems are two. When one hits a bump on the road, there is greater temptation to give up because there was never a real decision to commit. The long-term problem is the atrophy of making decisions: we let things “happen to us” rather than be our own agents of our change. Both problems present challenges to the long term perseverance commitments such existential vocation choices presuppose.
In responding to the signs of the times, then, human formation and spiritual guidance, especially as it pertains to life choices, seems to face a two-fold challenge. On the one hand, we need to strengthen the capacity to choose because — paradoxically — the “ethic of choice” inhibits actual choosing. On the other hand, we need to reframe people’s perspectives: making a choice is not limiting freedom but, actually, expanding it. Making a choice enables one to move from indecision and inertia to choices and opportunities, hopefully in line with one’s interests, abilities, and love.
“Choice” has sold people a false bill of goods, both in terms of decisions as restrictions of choices and the fear that people ought not to choose until they know all their options.
The truth is — we can’t.
Rarely can we foresee all the consequences and results of choices, certainly not life-defining choices. What seems to be the problem today, however, is the expectation that we can or at least should be able to.
The truth is: we don’t need all answers. We only need some, at minimum, one.
In an earlier age, when Scouting was a more robust part of the lives of youth, young people were often exposed to something about wilderness survival and finding your way in a forest.
If you wonder off the crossroads and get lost in a wood, you have three choices. You want all possible information, which is both impossible and unnecessary. You can have no information, in which case you’re stuck in place. Or you can have one piece of information, a fixed point.
Woodland survival skills presuppose getting a fix on one reference point. If it’s daytime, look for the moss on trees. It’s generally on the north.
Now moss is a primitive plant and doesn’t always grow on the north, so it’s not a certain reference point, and it seems odd pinning your interests on a spore-bearing plant. But it’s enough to get you moving, most probably in the right direction.
If you want another reference point, follow the sun. It’s going to be moving toward the west.
If you sat around paralyzed, “maximizing your choices” until nightfall, take hope: the Lord God fixed a Pole Star in the north. So, if you “follow the drinkin’ gourd,” you have some a direction (even if you now have to deal with the greater risk of nocturnal predators you might have avoided if you followed the moss and the sun).
The point is: you don’t need to know everything, but you can’t know nothing. You have to know something, at least one thing.
The same is true of a vocation. You need to know one thing: that, loving God, you want to do his Will.
If that’s the fixed point, the Pole Star, the rest can be figured out.
Take the Magi. Their fixed point was being open to what God revealed to them. They might not even have guessed what that might be, but “they’d know it when they see it.” (Not unlike Jesus’ open-ended answer to the inquiring Andrew: “Come and see”).
Well, what did they see? A star. As a reference point, it was somewhat ambiguous, not unlike moss. Their tradition associated it as a portent of a great king. Like the “moving” star that circles our sky every day, they followed it.
It was not an exhaustive source of information, nor did it even tell them what to expect. They thought it augured a king. It certainly did not give them insight into what their choices would bring.
The important point is: they decided to set out after it.
It was not without its bumps in the road. As T.S. Eliot reminded us of the Magi, “a hard time we had of it,” facing grubby villages, hostile cities, overpriced accommodations, and lots of other hardships at inconveniences. Admitting at “times we regretted” it. But, because a decision had been made, they pressed on in the night, even with “the voices singing in our ears that this was all folly.” In the end, perhaps they still lacked all the answers they came from, but there is one, powerful line: “this was a long time ago, and I would do it again.”
Because that choice “made all the difference.”