Finding Livelihood

Frederick Buechner, in his book, Wishful Thinking (1973), says, “The place God calls you is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” This must be the most quoted definition of vocation in contemporary literature on calling and work, the only problem being that it isn’t really true. It’s a good line, and it sounds good when you’re 19 (it did to me), but easy acceptance of this phrase is quickly challenged by the question of “what happens when the world’s hunger requires something of me I am not glad to give?” A glance at scripture, at history, at your own life and the lives of those around you, reveals that it is a matter of when, not if, you will be asked to give something that hurts rather than provides gladness if you are to follow God’s calling in a broken world. When you’re 19 this reality is perhaps less clear (and not particularly welcome as you plot your glorious plan for your life).

Since I love Buechner, I should note that less frequently referenced is his “Memoir of Vocation,” Now and Then (1983), a book that offers a more nuanced exploration of calling and the lived experience of work. In Now and Then Buechner doesn’t describe the easy convergence of personal gladness and worldly need, but instead describes a journey of wrong turns, of frustration, of set backs, of confusion, of minor victories, in the pursuit of his calling. The most famous quote of that book suggests that in listening to our life the “boredom and pain” of life is no less holy, no less a gift of grace, than its “gladness.” And many find as they grow older that boredom and pain may be the defining features of their working lives, rather than deep gladness.

Nancy Nordenson’s Finding Livelihood: A Progress of Work and Leisure speaks to this reality as she explores what meaning can be drawn from the “shadow side” of work, its boredom and frustrations, of trying to navigate the “tension of your planned life and your given life.” It’s less about finding work that will fulfill our deepest desires and more a meditation on searching for “signs of transcendent reality and participating in that reality, even when work fails to satisfy.” It is a book about work and vocation “for grown-ups, “as the promotional copy puts it, for “who but a very small minority” Nordenson asks “can find the exact intersection [of deep gladness and deep hunger] and feed a family? Or at that sweet spot sustain their position for a lifetime?”

In a series of “lyric” essays, Nordenson enters into the details of a working life (she earns her living as a freelance medical writer) that often get glossed over in more abstract and theoretical descriptions of work: meeting deadlines, the pain of being laid off, the frustrations of the job search, of doing work that seems disconnected from “my calling,” of the bills that show up in the mailbox every month and the alarm clock that rings every day. The figures Nordenson references are not the latest productivity gurus, nor the latest behavioral economics studies, but figures like Simone Weil, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Josef Pieper.

This is not a how-to guide, or a book stuffed with answers to the dilemmas many (most, if the statistics concerning work satisfaction are any guide) people face with regard to work. The lyric style Nordenson uses relies on a “nonlinear structure, white space, metaphor and a slant-angle perspective. It is a way of exploring, not a way of explaining.” It requires and rewards patience, and leaves the reader with plenty of work to do on her own. It is this style that lets Nordenson explore some areas of work that other more “explanatory” books do not, even if my one complaint with the book is that I did feel as though some of the essays lost a certain amount of momentum and direction. My favorite essays were likely the “Summa Laborum” chapters, modeled on the rhetorical structure of Aquinas’ Summa Theologica. The structure of those particular chapters gives shape to Nordenson’s reflections as she starts with questions like “Should money be excluded from a discussion about the meaning of work?” and works through reasons to answer yes, or no.

Finding Livelihood is a vulnerable book, a book that displays its doubts and bewilderment in a way theological reflections are not often willing to risk. It is a book that is honest about the wrestling that occurs as we try and find our way in the world of work with its many kinds: “the work of earning a living, creating, serving; the work of looking for work. The work of marriage. Raising children. … The work of play. The work of the church. Laundry. The preparing of food. What should we call the work happening inside of us?” A reader who is living in the “tension between passion and need, between aspiration and limits, between the planned life and the given life” may find Nordenson’s contemplative essays a welcome companion along the way.