“On the day after I retire from an active career, who am I?” That’s what many of us catch ourselves asking as we cross the threshold into elderhood, challenged with one of life’s basic identity issues. As a career counselor and interfaith spiritual director, I’ve often been drawn into this very conversation with fellow elders. For satisfaction, effectiveness, and happiness in elderhood, it all comes down to how I think about myself, talk about myself, and “brand” myself. Do I define myself by my job, career, or vocation?
The English word “job” comes from the Anglo-Saxon: “dchop” or “dchob.” That archaic word morphed into two modern words, “job” and “chop”. When I say I have a “job” it means: I’m showing up this morning with tools to “dchop” away at the soil or the tree or the nail or the computer keyboard, or whatever it is that you, my boss, have hired me to “dchop.” I do it expecting that you will pay me for what I do, so I can go home tonight and forget about my dreary, dull workday of “dchopping.” A “job” is a task that I do with my muscles, mind, and tools. I do it for pay and for survival, not necessarily because my heart is in it.
Then there’s “career,” which comes from the French “carrière,” which in turn derives from the Italian “carriera.” Originally, it meant racecourse – the circular track used for racing vehicles (chariots, bicycles, autos), animals (horses, dogs), or human athletes. From those linguistic roots come, not only the name for a very cool Porsche sports car, but also the English word “career.”
My career is my chosen craft or professional role in life. It requires attaining a certain level of expertise through training and mentoring, culminating in authorization or certification to serve others. Examples include teaching, engineering, medicine, piloting aircraft, and hanging wallboard, among dozens of other crafts and professions. A “career” is one step up from a mere “job”, for which no special advanced training or credentialing is necessarily required.
And yes, pursuing a “career” is much like circling a racecourse. Craftspeople and professionals do their work within defined limits (think the sidelines of the track), they pursue defined goals (much like crossing a finish line), and compete with fellow professionals for financial reward, excellence, and notoriety. So we show up each day at the starting gate (the workplace), the gun goes off, and we race for the prize. Some days we win; but even on days when we come in number two or five, we still have a career, to which we return tomorrow to try again, rounding that professional track one more time, competing to succeed.
Until one day, when the race begins to lose interest because I’ve reached retirement age, matured, been laid off, or claimed new life goals. Or when I look around and notice that I’ve been “going around in circles” for years, and ask myself: “Is this all there is?” Such times are opportunities to transcend job and career entirely by discerning my deeper purpose in life. This would be my “vocation” or calling. It’s “vocation” that we become free to name and claim as we enter elderhood.
“Vocation” comes from the Latin “vocatio,” which means “calling.” Such as when I call your name or call someone on the phone. It’s the root of English words like “vocal chords” and “vocabulary” and “vocalize”, all involving communication. My “vocation” is what I am “called” to do by other persons and social structures larger than myself. My vocation is who I am and what I’m capable of becoming at the deepest level of my being. When I articulate my vocation and pursue it, in a sense I am finding and being my own true self. Claiming a “vocation” takes me up to the next level from “job” and “career.”
My “vocation” is larger than life. It’s what the Universe uniquely equips me to do and to be at a particular time and place and in a particular community. My “vocation” can’t be summed up in a mere job description, nor am I always paid for it. Rather, it’s the intersection point where my gifts and talents, my spirituality, my family’s and community’s needs, and my own greatest satisfaction all come together. My vocation is bigger than I am. It is rooted in my created and creative identity, it’s embedded in my station in life, in my social network, and it drives me to focus on the spiritual energies that are calling me forth beyond “self” to service. It’s “the place where my deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” (Frederick Buechner)
To have and to pursue a “vocation” is to live all of life – not just work life, but also family life, community involvement, and recreational time – in light of who I am at the deepest level. Spirit calls an elder every day to invest our energy and giftedness, with purpose, for others, in a life of service, hope, and vision.
While it’s always great to be paid for pursuing one’s vocation, pay is never what it’s all about. Satisfaction in a vocation comes simply from being who I am called to be, and doing what I am called to do, while staying true to myself and true to the spirit flowing through me. During my working years, if I can find a paying “job” in a “career field” that matches my “vocation”, well so much the better! But in elderhood, it’s my “vocation” that I now want to embrace.
Job, career, vocation… Which will it be? As elders, it’s especially urgent for us to grow our thinking – if we haven’t already – moving beyond jobs and careers, to grab hold of our sense of vocation. This is one clue to satisfaction in elderhood, to being in tune with the flow of the spirit through our vital lives.