Being quarantined in one’s home during an international pandemic is not necessarily the best time and place to be making decisions about one’s career path. And yet I, along with several friends my age, have been plagued by the question of what we are going to be doing with the rest of our lives (excuse the dark pun). Our sob-ridden conversations have revealed a drama that seems to be characteristic of the “millennial experience.”
Among these friends are two who just left their jobs: one at a faith-based non-profit, the other as a public defender. Another friend is contemplating leaving his job as a teacher for another school. Then there’s me: a high school teacher facing rejection from grad programs, trying to figure out his next steps. So what is it that is driving us to voluntarily put our careers into crisis? It all seemed to boil down to feeling frustrated with our perceived inability to bring about some kind of recognizable result or positive change within our respective fields.
The desire to “make a difference” in the world and to be of service to others often clashes (and is intertwined) with the desire to prove our worth as human beings. The uncomfortable reality of our human fragility—which tends to manifest itself through our insecurities, idiosyncrasies, and past wounds that never seem to totally disappear, along with our inability to produce a difference great enough to meet our lofty expectations—always seems to eat away at our sense of worth and erect obstacles to our professional aspirations.
What can one do when facing this fragility in the mirror? How can one move forward in their career while feeling uncertain about the worth of the contribution they are making to society? The experience of being quarantined has forced me to look into that mirror more closely. Without the respite of the distractions afforded by the routine of life as usual, I’m confronted with my inability to cover over those fears that have been part of my life since my youth and which only become more salient as time goes on.
Pope Francis’ words at the extraordinary Urbi et Orbi blessing helped me to begin to articulate what’s at the crux of this drama: “The storm exposes our vulnerability and uncovers those false and superfluous certainties around which we have constructed our daily schedules, our projects, our habits and priorities…The tempest lays bare all our prepackaged ideas and forgetfulness of what nourishes our people’s souls; all those attempts that anesthetize us with ways of thinking and acting that supposedly ‘save’ us…”
So much of my altruistic ambitiousness is fueled by the anxiety of having to prove my own greatness as an individual. As I gaze, uncomfortably, into that mirror, I see how much my attitude toward work is tangled up with the fear that maybe I’m not so awesome as I think I am. Maybe I’m not as “special” as my parents told me I was, and that I’m actually quite ordinary, quite like “the rest.” Maybe I’m not actually capable of fixing the world’s problems. These realizations hurt. And as the Pope continued, I started to see how much that pain was, more than anything, the result of a blow to my ego:
“In this storm, the façade of those stereotypes with which we camouflaged our egos, always worrying about our image, has fallen away, uncovering once more that (blessed) common belonging, of which we cannot be deprived…We have gone ahead at breakneck speed, feeling powerful and able to do anything. Greedy for profit, we let ourselves get caught up in things, and lured away by haste.”
Like so many of my fellow millennials, I want to make a difference, and I want to see the results now! Feeling frustrated by the inadequacy of our results can easily drive us to become more ambitious, more competitive, and more cut-throat, doing whatever it takes to succeed. A drive that once seemed oh-so-altruistic and humanitarian can easily turn into a dehumanizing race to assert ourselves as the best, the most effective, and most competent. But as soon as we start to “succeed,” we realize how there’s still so much more to be accomplished. We are confronted again with our fragility and limitations, and we see how cold-hearted and calculating we can become in our attempts to cover over those weaknesses.
I found myself dumbstruck by the Pope’s next course of actions after his homily. As Francis stood in front of that 16th century “plague crucifix” in the middle of a deserted St. Peter’s Square and begged, implored our wounded Savior to show him the way, gazing upon his bleeding body with a sense of exasperation and even desperation, and kissing his feet with tender affection, the self-pity that had hardened me began to crack as the tears poured out.
Who am I? What is the point of my life…and what am I to make of it? For the first time, not knowing the answers didn’t scare me. I didn’t feel the impulse to cover over this “lack” by reassuring myself of my accomplishments and achievements. Instead, I felt free to identify myself with that man, with the successor of that apostle who fell so bitterly, only to be chosen as the leader of God’s people.
This act of identification helped me to take a step back from my self-critiques and insecurities. It gave some much needed perspective to my career crisis. Perhaps the purpose of my work and my accomplishments is not to use them to cover over my woundedness as a human being, but to enter more deeply into relationship with the One who shares my woundedness with me. I felt this moment to be an invitation to look at work as a call not to “save the world,” but to offer myself to He who is the true savior.
The Pope’s reflection a few weeks later on Divine Mercy Sunday helped me to face this question of the relationship between my work and my woundedness more deeply. He spoke of Saint Faustina Kowalska, who “told Jesus that she had offered him all of her life and all that she had. But Jesus’ answer stunned her: ‘You have not offered me the thing is truly yours’. What had that holy nun kept for herself? Jesus said to her with kindness: ‘My daughter, give me your failings’. We too can ask ourselves: ‘Have I given my failings to the Lord? Have I let him see me fall so that he can raise me up?’ Or is there something I still keep inside me?…The Lord waits for us to offer him our failings so that he can help us experience his mercy.”
I was instantly brought back to the image of Francis facing the plague crucifix with that tender gaze. When I go to work every day, am I going with the intention to prove how awesome I am and to cover over my weaknesses? Or do I go with full awareness of my weaknesses, looking to offer them to Christ and responding to His call in the little details of my work? Is work a matter of achievement for its own sake or of faithfulness to the tasks I’m faced with each day?
As the quarantine continues to hold up a mirror to all of my shortcomings, fears, and uncertainties, I look to approach the question of my career not in isolation, but with Christ by my side. Francis continues, “In the time of trial that we are presently undergoing, we…with our fears and our doubts have experienced our frailty. We need the Lord, who sees beyond that frailty an irrepressible beauty. With him we rediscover how precious we are even in our vulnerability. We discover that we are like beautiful crystals, fragile and at the same time precious.”
Rather than trying to measure my “greatness”—my success and accomplishments (or lack thereof)—from a worldly lens, I pray to see my own vulnerability, as well as that of others, through His eyes. And I pray to be able respond to the irrepressible beauty within His gaze by saying “yes”—to the way He made me, to the work He gives me, and to solidarity with this fragile world. Whatever decisions my friends and I make for our careers, I pray that we will do so with the awareness of what truly gives our life value, freed from the anxiety of having to hide what He sees to be “beautiful crystals.”
Stephen G. Adubato teaches religion and philosophy to high school students in New Jersey and writes at Cracks in Postmodernity for the Patheos Catholic Channel.