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Letting Go of the Pressure for a Purpose

My freshman seminar at Pepperdine was all about vocation. I remember being impressed and intimidated by remarkable stories of people discovering their life's mission — the way their entire life seemed to lead up to this significant realization, then follow along in pursuit of it. I remember the pressure in the room as my classmates and I pondered what this was supposed to be for us and when we would find it. At the end of the semester, we had to write a paper on what we believed our vocation to be. At 17, I did my best and figured the next four years would bring more clarity. Six years later, I do feel clearer — just not in the way I thought I would.

Today, if someone asked me what my vocation is, I would honestly say I don't know. I enjoy my job and my coworkers, and am excited to grow in the position and with the company. But I also wouldn't describe my current paycheck as my "calling."

High school students, college students, and emerging adults are nearly constantly being sent the message that we need to be on the path to discovering, and then realizing, our purpose — or calling, or vocation, or whatever buzzword you would like to put there. And to be sure, there are inspiring stories of folks who found that path and followed it, from Dorothy Day to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. But what about the people who did their work and lived their lives and never had a major platform? Or those who never had an obvious unifying thread to their life's narrative? What if we pushed back not just against the idea that we need to know our calling, but that we need to have one at all?

It is time we make room for the realization that "purpose" doesn't have to be a vast idea of some grand calling in one's career or in one's faith, nor in the intersection of the two.

I have often heard the story of Jesus — or even the whole Bible — as if it were one simple narrative, with consistent causality and entirely congruous themes. I had the impression that I should expect my life to fit into the same neat little box of a story arc that we think we see in scripture, or that we learned in our English classes.

Instead, what if we looked closer? What if we saw that neither our sacred stories of faith nor our own lives follow a linear path? There are jumps and puzzling portions that do not seem to fit anywhere. There are lessons that often go over our heads. There is growth, and there are regressions. There are events that could never have been predicted from earlier chapters.

It takes a great deal of tension to hold all those pieces together. To live in a way that encompasses the breadth and depth of the whole story is something to wrestle with, and it is not a journey that we are likely to ever complete. And if it were so simple, it would lack much of the mystery and adventure that defines our human experience.

My generation is more likely than ever to change not just jobs but career paths multiple times. We're growing increasingly willing to dive into the tensions of life and abandon binaries. But even when that's our reality, we often still feel like we should be on a clear path, that every step in our careers and faith journeys should be moving toward the supposedly all-important intersection of what we have to give and where those gifts are needed.

So then a 9-to-5 that allows us to pay the bills and invest in important relationships becomes something we think we ought to feel bad about. Most days, I get home from work and, other than telling a loved one or two about my day, leave work at the office. I look forward to whatever's for dinner, making time to see friends, finding ways to support organizations that I believe in, and making treats to boost morale at the office. On my commute, I listen to a poem and then try to pray for a while. The question of what I want to be doing in five years is as much a mystery as ever, but that is starting to intimidate me less, and I have stopped feeling guilty about not having the elusive "right" answer.

I have some personal goals of course, but I have finally let go of the pressure that my career, faith, or both have to cover every goal or add up to one grand mission. And the hope is that, in opening up more conversations about it, others can experience this freedom.

Of all the courses I took at Pepperdine, the lesson I remain most grateful for was miles away from what I expected. It was the simple statement in a creative writing class with Professor Jeff Schultz that "the meaning is in the gaps." It's true for poetry, but even more so for our lives. So often it is in the small moments and the times between big events that our purpose is truly embodied: Giving a loved one a hug in a difficult time. Helping someone feel seen when they need it most. Feeding the hungry. Clothing the cold. Simply listening. Knowing who our neighbor is.

If someone asked me about my calling, I might offer a paraphrased version of C.S. Lewis's "The Weight of Glory." I might say that it is simply to find, and to offer, home. I might distill it all down to the word hope. Yet none of those would be the full story, because there simply is no full story. If today's trouble is enough for today, then shouldn't today's purpose also be?

So here is the radical statement: My calling is today. And come midnight, it will be tomorrow.

My job is not my calling, but it can help me on the winding, mysterious path. My faith feels a little nebulous, but it is as present as the sunrise. And that is more than enough.

Rachel Marquez (Seaver '17) Rachal Marquez (Seaver '17) graduated with four years on the Pepperdine Graphic Media staff, and with a bachelor's degree in Interpersonal Communication. Her poetry has been published in Expressionists, Currents, and Dodging the Rain literary journal. She currently works as a marketing copywriter and copyeditor in the Bay Area.