A Conversion of Vocation
There’s a scene in one of my favorite movies, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” that stands for me as a metaphor for my vocation. In this scene, Walter, who works in film development at Life Magazine, laments the loss of a film strip for the final cover of the magazine. The photographer is halfway across the world, while Walter faces the end of his job in New York. Then, imagining a picture of the photographer beckoning him onward, Walter picks up his briefcase and runs. He’s off to catch the next flight to Greenland, which will lead him forward on many life-changing adventures.
If you had asked me two years ago what my vocation was, I would have answered you immediately without much thought. I was going to get my Ph.D. in theology and teach. The path was clear: bachelor’s degree, master’s degree, doctoral degree, then a teaching position and later tenure, with research papers and books here and there.
It was a natural course for me. Despite loading my schedule with two majors, two minors, and multiple foreign languages, I graduated with a near perfect GPA. I received accolades upon graduation and then smoothly transitioned to a master’s program, soon complete with a full assistantship. I spent graduate school at the top of my class, passing my thesis defense with little to no revisions needed and maintaining a 4.0 GPA for my entire program. I was bright, disciplined, and determined, keeping my head up despite the sexism I encountered from professors and students alike.
Then, as I was completing my thesis during my final semester, with only the bureaucratic hoops to jump through before my defense, I, like Walter Mitty, perceived the unavoidable call to leave all of the familiar behind and pursue a less conventional course.
I forget exactly where I read the words, but they have stuck with me since that day. They are the words of Saint Francis de Sales, the pioneer of lay spirituality during Early Modern Catholicism: “Be who you are and be it well.”
Despite my intelligence, discipline, and aptitude at research and writing, academia was never quite the right fit for me. I fought as professors tried to fit me into the box of the female theologians studying feminist history, while I wanted to submerge myself deep into historical texts by both men and women. I resisted when my advisor encouraged me to devote more of my thesis to gender studies of the Middle Ages. Often, I was the only woman in my class (or if I was lucky, one of two women), and the men would interrupt me and speak over me, as if my biology discounted my intelligence.
A lover of efficiency, I loathed the bureaucracy of academia. Why did a Ph.D have to take at least five years, especially when it only took three years in the STEM disciplines? I was willing to work hard, but not willing to squander time. I also was never a fan of being cooped in the ivory tower. Though I am an introvert, I possess a deep desire to help people live better lives. I will never be Mother Teresa or Saint Catherine of Siena, but I became increasingly frustrated and discouraged as a realized academia was more about developing esoteric arguments to debate with your peers than it was actually teaching students. I remember being near tears one day after spending a week trying to put together a Thanksgiving basket for an impoverished family. Only a couple other students donated; few looked up from their books on Catholic social teaching to give attention to my fundraising.
Sensing this change within myself, I had applied to only two Ph.D programs, at the two most distinguished programs for theology in the country. If God really was calling me to do this, I thought, then I will get into these two. My professors urged me to apply to other programs, at the variety of other great schools from which I had a strong chance of receiving acceptance. I refused. I didn’t get into those two Ph.D programs.
And so I finished up my thesis, gave away over half my books, and left. I floundered for a few months, but with the guidance of my husband, I began to hear that calling more clearly. It had been there for some time, I realize, but I was scared. Academia was an easy, clearly defined path for me. This one was not.
I fell head-over-heels in love with running several years ago. I can’t mark exactly when, but some time in undergraduate, it became an integral part of who I am. With each mile I ran, I felt I became more of the person I wanted to be. I ran in graduate school to cope with the stress, and soon I found more, spiritually and intellectually, in the freedom of the open path and my own two feet that I did in my basement office of the department.
In undergraduate, I taught Pilates for two years. It was honestly one of my most fulfilling jobs, along with my job as a Writing Consultant. In teaching my Pilates classes, I worked with people twice a week to help them de-stress, lead healthier lives, and exercise. I received such a great sense of reward. When my sophomore-year roommate chided me that Pilates encouraged vanity and taught women to value being skinny, I responded that it taught my students to respect their bodies and to value their health.
I deeply feel the same way about running. Running helps us lead better lives, mentally and physically. Running helps us learn how to overcome obstacles, how to practice discipline, and how to pursue our goals, all of the skills useful for success in other aspects of life such as career and family.
I am not, nor will I ever be, fast enough to make a career out of running. There’s a huge difference between running a 3:30 marathon and a 2:30 marathon. Still, running is something I do well, something I enjoy, something that reflects who I am. So is writing; I have that irrepressible need to put my pen to paper, so to speak, and create something meaningful and informative.
And so I leapt. I started a running blog, outlined plans to become a certified running coach, and started training for my big goals. I’m chasing a Boston Qualifier in the fall; training for my second half marathon; writing about running, nutrition, and training; and developing recipes for my blog (www.thisrunnersrecipes.com). I pour myself into that website each and every day. That little website, with already one corporate sponsorship and about 2,000 visits per month after not even six months, brings me a greater sense of vocational fulfillment than any of my labors in academia did.
From time to time, old voices echo in my head and I wonder if my future as a running blogger and running coach is truly my calling. Am I committing a sin by ignoring my vocation as a student and a teacher of theology, or have I increasingly experienced a conversion of vocation?
Be who you are and be it well. I recite these words often. Blogging and coaching are not what one traditional considers as “serving God,” especially compared to my previous path. Blogging about running could very well be considered narcissistic and shallow, a vanity of vanities.
Then I receive an email from a person telling me how much they enjoy my site and have learned from it. Fellow running bloggers send me encouraging messages of support. Someone asks for advice on how to start running. I see in all these little blessed moments how I am doing what I am truly called to do: help others lead healthier, happier, richer lives. God made the human body and called it good; my vocation is in helping others see that good in their bodies through the empowerment and achievement of running.
When Martin Luther spoke of Christian vocation, he indicated that not every calling was directly in the realm of theology or church work. “The Christian shoemaker does his duty not by putting little crosses on the shoes, but by making good shoes, because God is interested in good craftsmanship.” This holds true no matter what vocation calls you; the Christian engineer fulfills his calling not by putting crosses on every product, but by making safe, useful, and high-quality products.
This path, even though it has its ups, downs, and unknowables, fosters my other vocations as well. I was never going to be happy in being that Ph.D student who never saw her husband, who never put a homecooked meal on the table, and who later ships her children off to daycare. I completely respect men and women who pursue this career choice and make these sacrifices, but it was not the calling for me. Right now, I live this vocation in the little way Saint Therese of Lisieux spoke about; the little way of a freshly vacuumed apartment and fresh loaves of bread, the little things often undervalued in our fast-paced society. This isn’t the calling of every woman, but it’s where, right now, I feel I can best serve God and my family.
For some people, including many of our gifted writers here at Conciliar Post, academia, particularly the study of theology, is their calling, their duty, their craftsmanship that God desires them to do and do well. That’s great, and I support them in their pursuit of their vocations. For me, though, vocation is finding out who God has made me to be and how I can better other’s lives through my writing and running. It’s the discovery that there is no one-size-fits-all calling for how to serve God. Rather, we are all called to different vocations through different passions. Be who you are and be it well.