The Meandering Path of Authentic Vocation
Over the Thanksgiving holiday I grabbed the opportunity to do something I love – taking a hike in the woods. There are reasons I love hiking in this part of east Tennessee, reasons that may or may not connect with you. I’d sum them up by simply saying it “restores my soul”.
This particular day I was pressed for time so I went to a very wooded county park traced with hiking and mountain bike trails. Although it’s a familiar place, I hadn’t been there in a while and it felt like I was visiting a friend whom I’d missed. As I started at the trailhead it appeared all would be familiar and comfortable but that passed before I’d gone more than a hundred yards into the woods.
Piles of limbs and cut tree trunk lined the edge of the path. Initially I thought perhaps the county maintenance crews had placed the piles there to keep hikers and bikers from cutting across trails, as they sometimes do at switchbacks, but walking on I learned this wasn’t the case. Just a bit further on a large oak had fallen across the trail. It was large enough that it’s limbs kept the trunk suspended some two feet above the ground, and the trunk was large enough that I couldn’t climb over it. If I were to continue my hike I would have to find a way around the tree.
I had no idea that that first tree-portage experience would be the model for that whole hike. Two to three weeks prior a windstorm had come through our county with strong shearing winds taking out treetops and whole trees haphazardly across the area. Concord Park had been hit hard. By the time I’d finished my journey I’d gone under, over or around over sixty-five trees. Oaks, maples, beech, poplar and pine – full trees and trees broken in half – there were no species that had come through unscathed. Nor was I untouched by the mayhem. My simple one-hour hike through the woods took me over two hours and I emerged scraped, muddied and nursing a sprained wrist from my own fall off a pine trunk. But boy, did I ever have a story to tell.
This morning I’m reflecting on my own vocational path and it feels like that walk through the woods four days ago. Somewhere in childhood I think I bought into the idea that our paths through life were straight, level and well kept. I thought that even if I chose paths that were through rugged terrain over the ease of a city greenway, it would still be a hard packed trail with clear markings, clean water and outstanding vistas around each corner. I never imagined narrow trails over rocks, up slopes or through muddy swamps and with obstacles causing me to climb, crawl, sweat, cuss or cry as I fought to find my way. But that really is the way of authentic vocation.
To live out our true selves in the work world requires more of us than an easy walk in the park. To live from our authentic self means we actually turn away from easier paths and choose “roads less traveled”. Even the act of choosing to live out an authentic self necessarily requires that we face and overcome the trials that reveal inauthentic motives, needs and desires that we don’t initially perceive as driving us so we can “toss aside everything that hinders” us from becoming who we are intended to be. I’m so often amazed as I discover ulterior motives for my vocational choices that lived beneath the “noble” ones I initially espoused.
Then there’s the simple fact of opposition. Just as there are those who cheer and encourage us on toward becoming more authentic, there are people and forces that do not want us to become. They are invested in maintaining their status quo or in preventing us from attaining the fullness of our original design. Their efforts cast obstacles across the path or present us with seemingly insurmountable climbs and scrabbles aimed at disheartening and luring us to the paved and well-traveled paths below.
The pursuit of an authentic vocation (or an authentic self) is a matter of small gates and narrow paths fraught with every kind of obstacle. Perhaps that’s why so few persevere to the end; it’s not simply a matter of a singular choice that forever dictates a life (No offense to Yoda) but of daily choices and hard work against opposition and the allure of the easy and clearly marked way. Rather, it’s a sometimes fumbling-in-the-fog, tripping over roots, holding to a vague sense of direction while you get scratched, bruised and exhausted feeling your way toward what you’ve heard about and hope to see - something some call Faith.
So, if you find yourself disillusioned by the difficulties of a path you’d thought would be a nice flat and easy stroll from where you are to where you want to be, then be encouraged; the fact that the path is more difficult may actually mean you’re headed in the right direction! And if that’s the case for you, then I (and others) am cheering for you. Although it often feels like it, you are never alone on the path to authentic self.