We live in a world of endless, abounding activity. We listen to podcasts while we run. We check Facebook in between meetings or classes. We watch TV while we cook (and eat). We Snapchat our time with friends so our other friends can see what we do with other friends. Information and entertainment abound. We have the world at our fingertips, an endless amount of information to teach us anything, guide us through anything, help us pass the time or change an alternator.
If we truly do have it all in the palm of our hands, why does certainty of life’s biggest choices feel so elusive? Why is it so difficult to understand our callings and live confidently in them? Our tendency is to strive harder, try harder and do more.
But we’ve found here at the Vocation in College Project that, suprisingly, the opposite is true. Our endless activity and “infotainment” culture does not help our vocation formation. In fact, it hinders it. Take the story of Ryan (name changed), a former college student leader. Ryan, by all indicators, had it figured out. He was thriving in school, academically and socially. He was a leader among his peers. He was hard-working, contentious, and a person of deep faith.
If you were to ask me to pick one student who was ahead of the curve when it comes to vocation formation, I would have picked Ryan. Slam dunk.
But I was wrong. Ryan graduated with honors, and floundered in life after college. He had a job lined up, but that was about it. He moved to a city in the region, found an apartment, and quickly grew despondent. He realized that he was prepared for “the real world” on paper, but not in other meaningful ways. Ryan represented a troubling trend among college students:
Too busy with the good to attend to the great.
You see, Ryan suffered from over-involvement; something of an epidemic among many college students. Saturated with activity, Ryan was doing a lot of really good things. But he was missing something great. He was missing something so simple, yet so challenging: solitude. Purposeful, reflective time alone to process the big things in life. Ryan had resume builders to fill a ream of paper. But he hadn’t spent time thinking about what he was doing, why he was truly doing it, and how it was connected to the larger story of his life.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his beautiful little book on community, Life Together, spends much time writing, ironically, on the importance of solitude in building a healthy and vibrant community. In his chapter, “The Day Alone,” he writes, “Whoever cannot be alone should be wary of community. Whoever cannot stand being in community should beware of being alone.” There’s a rhythm of solitude and activity that is essential and generative to exploring the depths and complexities of vocation. Purposeful engagement in solitude is as essential as purposeful engagement in community. Both are needed for flourishing.
The Catholic mystic Thomas Merton provides additional wisdom. In his Thoughts on Solitude, he writes:
“…Contradictions have always existed in the soul of man (and woman). But it is only when we prefer analysis to silence that they become a constant and insoluble problem. We are not meant to resolve all contradictions but to live with them . . .”
In other words, dedicated time in reflection upon one’s vocation enables us to be more at peace with life’s complexities. We may not have it all figured out, but we feel at peace with our present. It makes sense and has purpose. When we commit ourselves to The Day Alone, only then are we truly able to be effective in our Day Together, a day full of community, work, family, church, and spirituality.
Want to figure out your life? Do things, yes. But also stop doing things. Take time in solitude and reflection. They will serve you well.