Our eldest daughter works in the Northern Territory as a lawyer for an Aboriginal legal agency. She travels from the east coast of Arnhem Land to the Tiwi Islands to Katherine: long drives on dirt roads at 130 km an hour, with the road trains barrelling past her.
A friend who is a partner in a prominent legal firm once told me that ‘new graduates know nothing’. In schools and universities we provide them with a wonderful diet of readings and thinking patterns, but with no real world problems. We have made a significant effort to rectify this in educational institutions: we have service learning programs and we give students responsibility. But there is always, rightly, a safety net.
They are not responsible. We are.
Once they commence their professions, they begin to take on some responsibility. Their decisions begin to count. They have consequences. People hold them accountable.
They learn to make value judgements.
As I listen to my daughter I hear someone who is grappling with issues that date back beyond 1788. She listens to women talking about their country. And she sees how 1788 has impacted communities. She advises the young Aboriginal men who are in gaol. She meets the Aboriginal elders who respect and love the missionaries of their youth. She articulates how destructive alcohol and gambling can be.
As I talk with my daughter, I think about the nature of work. My daughter does not have a job. I don’t think she even has a career. I think, the way she talks about the Northern Territory, she has a vocation.
To have a vocation is a challenging thing. It is a different view of work. It emanates from gratitude, not entitlement or resentment. I work because I am thankful to God that I am alive.
It is to identify some issues in society and to seek to properly address them: to play a tiny part in contributing towards the goal of improving a part of the society. It is to live with the problems in the milieu of the day, to have them interrupt you and make you rethink priorities. It is to realise that some decisions are poor ones and some programs fail. It is to accept that life is messy. A decision that benefits some people brings a cost to others.
To have a vocation is not to pass on the responsibility for decisions to governments or bosses. It is to avoid the narrative of: ‘I would do a better job if only ‘x’ would get their act together, or their funding right, or their programs in order.’
It involves the individual in asking the hard questions and seeking to continually improve matters. Work becomes more and more about service and less and less about ego.
And yet, if my daughter was alive in a different era, or in a different nation, she might not be given the privilege of a vocation. She might be expected to work only as a mother, or in a type of bonded-labour.
Dorothy Sayer’s addresses to women in WWII England have an introduction was written by Mary McDermott Shideler, has a sentence in it that captures the heart of the problem. “The liberation of women was not a cause she (Sayers) espoused,” writes Shideler, “but a way of life that she practised on the premises that male and female are adjectives qualifying the noun “human being,” and that the substantive governs the modifier” (p. 7, 1971 edition).
It is a conundrum: seeing work as vocation is liberating, but one must be liberated to be allowed to see work as vocation.
Sayers’ point that we must see people first and foremost as human beings is a religious one: it is my role in life to live on the understanding that every person has the type of dignity that Christ afforded them. The substantive governs all modifiers.