Julie Jansen, in Chapter 5 of her “I Don’t Know What I Want But I Know It Is Not This,” addresses a very basic problem in the selection of a career and particularly in the mid-life change of career process. She challenges the reader toward specificity in identifying exactly what motivations bring meaning into a life. Years ago a diocesan catechetical director told me a story about a major Midwest diocese in which a parish DRE was discovered to be an atheist. (There are dozens of questions to be raised here about vetting, but I digress.) When the DRE was confronted about this incongruent state of affairs, he stated that he found great meaning in his parish work “because I get great satisfaction out of administering organizations and making everything work.” He didn’t know the members of the Holy Trinity, but by gosh, the trains ran on time.
There are both religious and mental health advantages in addressing these issues within yourself. Jansen identified a number of value sets, and I took the quiz to see, if at 68, there were any stones I have left unturned in my quest for professional meaning.
Good return for services rendered. Many people, deep inside, need recognition and at least reasonable compensation for their efforts. Before you write this off as an inappropriate value for a religious employee or volunteer, consider Luke 10:7: "Stay in that house, eating and drinking what they give you; for the laborer is worthy of his wages. Do not keep moving from house to house.” Some career tracks will break your heart in this regard. Having worked for the Church for twenty years, and public health for a decade, my monthly Social Security check is a constant reminder to me that no good deed goes unpunished.
Interesting. There are folks who are hotwired with the need for an interesting life, where Tuesday is always different from Monday, as the saying goes. Now some inventive workers have “created interest” by attacking the boring parts of their routine and mastering new skills or strategies to beat the system. For others, a change to a different set of job expectations may be a necessity. In seventh grade, I found class “boring” and I had the temerity to tell my home room teacher, a Christian Brother, how I felt. He allowed me to do independent study during class (grad school style!) and then to type my resulting papers on our home typewriter. So as a rule I have been able to invent interest, though not always.
Contributing and making a difference. Jansen, in her research, has found that as many as 94% of her subjects carry this value within them, but less than half are successful in converting the value into action. Jansen does not write from a theological perspective, so in this discussion I think it is fair to say that religiously practicing individuals—certainly in the Catholic tradition—have a theological advantage. We believe that “the cup of cold water in my name.” mundane as that may seem, has merit for the Body of Christ, for giver and receiver alike. Personally, I find that entering my years of seniority has made me reflect upon the contribution of a dignified passage into decrepitude and death. It is surprising to me how many people single out the protracted death of Pope John Paul II as one of his greatest contributions to the Church and the world.
Solving problems. There are individuals who find great meaning in that schizophrenic art of thinking outside the box and unraveling mysteries. I am perpetually grateful to Dr. Jonas Salk; I was in the first or second grade when the first vaccinations for polio were approved for use. (the class ahead of me was in controlled study—they had to get two shots.) It does seem to me that the Church needs problem solvers: theologians to make sense out of the twenty-first century culture with its moral and economic conundrums. I tend to be more cautious and watch the trial-and-error of problem solving before rushing into anything, at least in later life. Some of this, no doubt, comes from the post-Council experiences of Vatican II.
Expressing ideals and values. This is the career track of the messiah, so to speak, and our society would wither up and die without The Rachel Carsons and the Ralph Nader types. These are individuals which combine the traits of problem solving with the passion of moral persuasion. I would offer a few caveats here. Prophets, whether in church life or secular society, will always be swimming upstream, and because they challenge the status quo, will face varying degrees of opposition. Moreover, “prophesy” without some grounding in hard data is misleading; good intentions and a passion for justice must be grounded in the fertile ground of study.
Learning. Jansen describes this quest for meaning as the desire to “gain knowledge, understanding, or expertise through experience or study.” For this cohort of workers, daily responsibility is the opportunity to amass lived experience of the moment for insight and deeper understanding. I am glad to see that the author has paired experience with study, because (1) we learn in both mediums, and (2) reading and research without the passion for wisdom— “the perpetual student” as we used to say—can degenerate into isolation or escape. The critical consideration here is the type of experience and the fashion in which it is processed. As I advance in years I find myself working harder to keep the divide between experience that is little more than clutter of the soul—think reality TV—and experience in wholesome settings such as family, belief, humanitarianism, etc. Sometimes you have to push yourself into better learning sites. I am reading the writings of St. Therese of Lisieux, the late nineteenth century French Carmelite nun who was declared a Doctor of the Church recently. Given the esteem in which she is held by the Church, I thought I would make the effort, though the Little Flower’s worldview is certainly different from mine.
The key to investing education, financial standing, and day-to-day investment in career and workplace is the old Greek dictum, know thyself. And if the investment was misplaced or creating unreasonable stress in your current life, I’ll bring up another Greek bit of wisdom, heal thyself.