Discovering my vocation

I’ve learned at least one good reason for not buying vitamin or nutritional supplements online.  Even if the website tells you that they won’t sell your contact information (maybe that just means they give it away for free?), somehow other marketers find out, mark you as an easy target, and start pestering you with their wares.

Yesterday, we received a 39-page booklet hawking a single product.  “A revolutionary, clinically tested CONSTIPATION MIRACLE,” the front cover declared (their caps, not mine).  The back cover promised “the first and only clinically proven, 14 day, total poop makeover” (I’ve spared the caps this time).  Between the covers: testimonials, tongue-in-cheek information about what goes on in our bowels, and carefully posed pictures of people sitting blissfully on their, um…commodes.

And all of this is framed as a “special report” of the “Journal of Gastrointestinal Health.”  There is, of course, no such journal that I can find–unless we’re supposed to take this advertising manifesto as the “journal” itself.  That’s not to say, of course, that the product isn’t any good, or that there isn’t any science behind it, or that they’re making up the results of the clinical trials they claim to have done.  But I’d say it’s a safe bet that the folks in their marketing department aren’t exactly on the editorial board of the New England Journal of Medicine.  The booklet walks the line between telling you that you should buy their product because it’s grounded in science, while at the same time mocking the scientific enterprise.

But strangely enough, the booklet also tweaks my own ambivalence.  On the one hand, the academic and social scientist in me is offended.  We work hard to do research and get it published in reputable professional journals.  But on the other hand, I’ve sometimes wondered what it’s all for.  I once heard a well-known religion writer from Time magazine cite a disturbing statistic: on average, an article published in a professional journal will be read by three people.  Three.

I don’t remember him saying where that statistic came from, nor did he say whether the three included the editor and the author’s mother.  But when he said that, you could almost hear the gears churning in the heads of my colleagues, doing the math.  We know that some articles are read by hundreds of people.  These become the ones that others must cite to be taken seriously.  But if that average of three readers is correct, that might well mean that the vast majority of published articles never get read by anyone.

Then why am I doing this?  I can escape the question by simply assuming that my articles aren’t in that category.  I might even be above the average: mine have been read by at least four people.  Or I can take refuge in the broad modernist faith in the scientific endeavor itself: if we all do our work well, we will continually expand the pool of knowledge, our theories will become more accurate models of reality, and humanitarian applications will necessarily follow.  And to some extent, that ideal does play out from time to time.  But it does so in the midst of competing, territorial schools of thought and practice, and the background awareness that things are always more complicated than they seem.

In all honesty, one very real reason for engaging in scientific publication is reality of the so-called “publish or perish” syndrome.  This is simply the way much of the academy defines productivity, and for good reason, given our modernist faith commitments.  But this also leads unavoidably to something like “teaching to the test”–publication for the sake of promotion and tenure, rather than the pursuit of truth per se.  It’s not either-or, of course, but the older I get, the less I’m willing to play the game for its own sake.  And that attitude, in turn, relies on the fact that up to this point I’ve played the game well enough to earn me that freedom.

In a sense, it’s the freedom to entertain the kind of pessimistic questioning found in Ecclesiastes.  If we read that book as something like Solomon’s memoirs, then what we get is an end-of-life retrospective that ticks off the many accomplishments of one of the most powerful men on earth–and finds them all meaningless, like trying to chase and catch the wind.

It’s the freedom to interrogate my life and values, to ask the hard questions: why, for example, do I feel a sense of satisfaction when I’m able to add even one more line to my curriculm vitae?  If I’m honest, it’s not the satisfaction of a job well done, or lives transformed, or the kingdom proclaimed and advanced.  It’s simply the satisfaction of the vitae being longer, because the longer that document gets, the more significant I become as a person.  (Maybe a poop makeover isn’t such a bad idea after all.)

What is my vocation, my calling from God?  To a greater or lesser degree, each professional accomplishment is part of that vocation, but even the sum total of those accomplishments–past, present, and future–is not identical to it.  I believe in the value of research, of publication, of the academy.  But these are all relative goods.

Relative to what?  That’s what I’m continually in the process of discovering.

2 thoughts on “Discovering my vocation

  1. You write, you speak, you teach, and you communicate thoughtfully, intentionally, and purposely so that I the hearer am affected, changed, rearranged, and propelled by God. I read, i think, i become, i write, i speak, i communicate…. you help shape me, then i in turn help shape others. Glory to God in the highest.

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