Sunday, February 15, 2015

A Two Front Strategy: Aspiration and Contentment in Love and Vocation

I recently gave two talks on work.   

The first argued that our culture underrates vocation, the second argued that canonical clich├ęs put too much hope in our careers and dreams.

So what’s true?  Is work too important or not important enough?

Well, yes.[1] 

Some days we vest our work with too much meaning, giving it power over us. Other days we despair at the basic meaninglessness or bureaucratic frustrations that surround it.

Life happens in the tension of aspiration and contentment. 

Overrating aspiration[2] creates disappointment and bitterness.

Overrating contentment creates regret and…well…bitterness.[3]

Thesis: Aspiration and contentment aren’t competitive entities.  They aren’t zero-sum enemies.  They are both necessary components of spiritual and psychological sustainability in our world and economy. 

Here’s how I think it works in Love and Vocation (spoiler alert, they are parallel):


Love starts easy, requiring neither the hard work of aspiration nor the hard work of contentment. 

The magnitude of the lover’s passion and the loveliness of the loved fills the gap between them.  Passion of the lover meets the perceived worthiness of the loved.  In other words, between the lover and the loved (and visa versa) there is enough passion and attraction to fill the gap between them and everything is awesome:

 But, of course, it’s also an unsustainable lie.  None of us are as lovely as we appear at first.  We do not withstand scrutiny well.  And as everyone knows, after about 18 months, a crack begins to form between the sufficiency of passion and attraction, as both begin to wane a bit.  Then the full disclosure of marriage sets in, and the lovers find that the sum of passion and attraction are not sufficient to carry the day.  

Both sides require discipline.  In a real live partnership, a 100%/100% shared covenant, both respond with action.

The loved responds with aspiration, trying to become easier to love and the lover responds with contentment, learning to love the actual person they chose, not some romanticize projection of themselves they imagined in the sexually surcharged early days of their relationship. 

Those who stick to it, find real, live, sustainable, no-kidding, LOVE, as aspiration, turns into growth, new things to generate attraction and contentment manifests as grace, enoughness, extending love without condition.  And the sum of these, fill the gap.

And of course, an exactly symmetrical process mirrors this in healthy relationships.


I had a professor once who said “Freud was wrong about almost everything, but he was wrong in really interesting ways.”  I think one of the things he was actually right about was the centrality of love and work to our overall well being.   

And the longer I do both, the more I find the skills required to thrive in them complementary.

When we start to explore a particular niche in the economy and world of mutual service, our future work seemed exciting.  It seemed to bubble with potential, and it is easy to generate passion about how work can affect our world.  Uncluttered by the boring details or soul deadening bureaucracies, it seemed that some combination of our passion and our job’s interestingness should carry the day. 

But you don’t have to work very long to get disillusioned with this.  Soon a gap of dissatisfaction opens between your passion for the work and the work’s worthiness.

This requires the same, two-front strategy as love. 

You aspire.  Aspiration can go to work on the ‘interestingness’ of your job, tooling up with new skills, qualifying yourself for new projects, earning trust in small tasks to open the door to bigger, more interesting tasks, and (in the biggest difference between love and work) getting a new job.  

But Contentment fills the gap, active disciplines of enoughness fills the gap between you and your job with joy and gratitude and the privilege to work, to bring order out of chaos, to participate in the image of God as a co-maker, as a collaborating artist. 

This post was written while listening to the Beautiful Eulogy[4] Pandora Station.

[1] This is the biggest challenge of preaching. (Or blogging, which I’ve decided is essentially the new preaching…except for TED talks, which are actually preaching without trying to pretend they are something else.) Most theology and reality is in tension, and our traumas come from over-emphasizing one side of the tension or the other.  But in any given room, or sub culture, or ‘readership,’ there are some who need to move one way and some who have to move the other.  And for most of us, we inflict both traumas on ourselves at various times.  So you can almost never say, “the problem is.”  It is usually “the problem is cross pressured by these two contrasting distortions."
[2] This was the basic motivation of my second talk.  Overrating aspiration is one of the reasons young adults find the 20s so depressing. 
[3] There are two kinds of bitter old people, those who gave it everything, and came up short, and those who wish they’d tried harder.
[4] More on this later…but while I was busy dismissing it as an indistinc prong of the CCM industry for the last decade or so, Christian rap got shockingly good.  Christian rap isn’t just a sub-genre of Christian music…it’s something totally different.