“Vocational Awe” and the Awesomeness of Vocation

I don’t think I will ever forget the thrill that coursed through my spine as I walked behind a library service desk for the first time, or the moment of glowing pride I felt when the first patron looked at me and asked, “Can you check this out for me?” and I said, grinning ear to ear, “Yes, sir. Yes I can.” Having gotten a whirlwind twenty hours of training Thursday/Friday/Saturday, I will now be one day a week at the Chanhassen Library and two at the library in Victoria. What both have in common is that, for the first time in my life, I walk into a place to work because I want to work there, and the satisfaction of that for someone who graduated into the Great Recession is inexpressible. The facilities are lovely and my coworkers are welcoming and almost overwhelming in their generosity and helpfulness, but what truly makes the hours seem to fly by is the sense of accomplishment in service—that I have, by the grace of God, finally managed to put myself someplace where I can send my wife a text by lunchtime saying, “I have genuinely helped so many people today.”

I read an interesting article yesterday on “vocational awe” and the way it can negatively impact working conditions for library staff. It is a phenomenon I am very familiar with among teachers, and I am glad to see attention brought to it. Yet I keep the reservation  that, although I certainly want to see library staff well-treated, well-remunerated, and empowered to advocate for themselves, I would never want us to lose our sense that we are engaged in a sacred vocation—one that serves ideals upheld by all the world’s great philosophical traditions, both religious and secular. Fobazi Ettarh writes that “when the rhetoric surrounding librarianship borders on vocational and sacred language rather than acknowledging that librarianship is a profession or a discipline … we do ourselves a disservice.” She is not wrong when this is presented as an either/or dichotomy, but it is the suggestion of dichotomy that troubles me. As she notes in the paper, Martin Luther defined a vocation as “the ways a person serves God and his neighbour through his work in the world.” Some version of this formula for understanding the dignity of labor can be found almost universally across the world’s traditions, I think precisely because it reconciles its two halves. There is service to God and neighbor, and there is work in the world. Much as with Jesus’ teaching on whether a servant of God can render taxes to Caesar (Matthew 22:21; Mark 12:17; Luke 20:25), each must be rendered its due and, much as in Christology, the fusing of the two natures into the one person of “vocation” does not annihilate their particularity.

Librarianship will, as Ettarh argues, not be sustainable if it is not addressed from the outside as a profession comparable to any other at the same skill level. The library will, however, not be the magical place it is to work in (or for patrons to visit) if it is not felt, from the inside, as a vocation. This past week, the feeling that has suffused me has not merely been that this is a job that matches well to my skills, or that presents me with interesting and enjoyable tasks, though both those things are undoubtedly true. It has been, rather, that I have entered into a place that I am meant to be, and that the work I do is no longer merely an economic support to my life, but is instead a part of my human flourishing—calling me to overcome myself in the acquisition of new skills, new visions, new understandings, and new ways of healing the world in the best sense of the Jewish tikkun ‘olam. Librarianship is not the only work that can do this. Indeed, any work can do this for a saint, as reflected in the Buddhist saying, “Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water; after enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.” Most of us, however, find it easier to draw close to God and our neighbor in some kinds of work than others. Library work, I find, is the work that works for me and, all other considerations aside, discovering a vocation is, quite literally, awe-some.

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