By Dr. Jennie Riley
A gift bestowed upon an individual by an ephemeral divine being.
A gift which gives the recipient purpose and a place in a community.
A gift which becomes central to that person’s identity.
Take that premise, give it a Disney twist, inject Lin Manuel Miranda’s song-writing, and you’ve got the ingredients for Disney’s Encanto. The streaming sensation follows the multi-generation Madrigal family as they each use magical gifts to serve the local community in a rural Colombian community. The family-friendly film was a global hit, its soundtrack not only hitting UK and USA number ones, but treating parents and teachers nationwide to garbled rendition after garbled rendition of ‘We Don’t Talk About Bruno.’
Take the same premise and apply it elsewhere, and you’re talking about people who have a sense of their vocation: a role or identity which locates them, purposefully, in a society or community. Whether religious or otherwise, many of us probably know someone who feels or seems perfectly suited to their job, or roles like motherhood or leadership. It’s what they were born for; what they’re called to.
We might have ended up talking about Bruno quite a bit, but in my experience we don’t talk about vocation very much at all. To an extent, that’s changed since Encanto came out. I’ve read articles suggesting Encanto might encourage us to recognise the diverse vocations to which God calls people, and to see each, gifted individual as part of the body of Christ, or making a valuable or unique contribution to a community. Vocation is back on the scene, and it’s encouraging us to see the magic in everyone, looking beyond people’s exteriors.
But I think two of Encanto’s characters should give us pause for thought before we herald the blessings of a vocation too uncritically.
The very first thing we learn about Mirabel, Encanto’s brilliantly-bespectacled protagonist, is that she’s not like the others. Where her mother, aunt, uncle, two siblings and three cousins all received their gifts in a candlelit ceremony aged six, hers never came. Her status as the odd-one-out is the undercurrent of the opening song, and manifests in her physical sequestration: while everyone else has a physical place in their enchanted home that reflects their unique gift, she remains alone in the nursery. She has neither physical nor vocational space in the family Madrigal. In a community where everyone has a purpose and knows their role, and expects everyone else to have and know their own, Mirabel invites us to recognise how uncomfortable it might be to try and belong without a clear sense of your own calling.
Then there’s Luisa, the film’s unlikely feminist icon, whose song ‘Surface Pressure’ is as catchy as it is disconsolate. Unlike Mirabel, Luisa’s gift of strength is both clear and conspicuous. But her strength, which she shares freely with the community, is wearing her out. In that dubiously-helpful metaphor, she’s ended up pouring from an empty cup: she has set such high expectations and given so much of her strength to others that she has reached breaking point. ‘Surface Pressure’ speaks to anyone who’s suffered from burnout, and particularly to those who give of themselves to others, and then try to hide how much it drains them: so she sings, “Under the surface I’m pretty sure I’m worthless if I can’t be of service.” Without her gift, Luisa questions her place in her community and in her family of gifted individuals: “Who am I if I can’t carry it all?”
As part of my PhD, I interviewed Christian doctors and nurses, whose stories of having faith in a healthcare context included their reflections on what it meant to have a vocation. I’ve written about them in some detail here. Many of them spoke positively about the resilience, confidence and contentment they found in knowing that medical work was their vocation, and how they came to recognise healthcare as God’s calling on their lives. But some of them were also emphatic that having a calling might not be all it’s cracked up to be.
One of them, a junior doctor called Liam (not his real name) felt the pressure of living and working in not one but two contexts – medicine, and evangelical Christianity – where a lot of people were very sure indeed about their vocation. By contrast, he wasn’t so certain: the jury was still out at his early career stage, and he suspected medicine might not be for him. But that was a difficult thing to communicate to other doctors and other Christians, whose understanding of vocation was something clear and singular. Liam was like Mirabel, questioning how well he fit into these ‘gifted’ communities without knowing whether or not he had a calling.
And several of the doctors – men and women, older and younger – had identified the struggles Luisa articulates in Surface Pressure. They had seen – and, in some cases, been – doctors, Christian and otherwise, so convicted of their calling that both they, and others, expected them to constantly push to do more, to be better, and to give medicine everything. One of the doctors called it a ‘stick to beat you with.’ All-too-often, they told me, it beat doctors to burnout.
Even as it’s often glossed over, the idea that vocations might have dark facets is not new. In the scholarly world, twentieth century sociologist Max Weber wrote extensively about vocation – most famously in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism where he argues that godly calling to worldly callings saw Calvinism create the conditions in which Capitalism would later emerge and thrive. Between The Protestant Ethic and his so-called ‘Vocation Lectures,’ Weber captures both the passion and the pain of a vocation. While it can bolster self-esteem and give life purpose and meaning, it can also exploit the vocation’s owner, pushing them to burnout, and diminishing other areas of their life. Of course, many of those who themselves have a sense of vocation will also recognise this mixed bag of vocational consequences – just like the doctors I interviewed. Why, then, is there a tendency to talk about vocations like shining orbs of nothing but delight which are the envy of those who don’t have them?
This critical reading of vocation can apply more broadly still. What is a vocation to the person who seems to exist precisely to do whatever it is that they do, to be whatever it is that they are, but underneath feels a constant pressure to perform? Or to the person who thought they knew their vocation, but finds themselves unemployed or bereaved, not knowing who they are without the job, role or relationship that previously guided them? These flipsides of carrying one’s calling go to the core of people’s senses of self. In a culture where burnout is all-too-common, and the meaning of work has undergone dramatic recent shifts, I’m firmly convinced that discussing vocation critically, recognising its burdens with its blessings, can help us better understand its implications for people’s careers, mental health, and identities. Max Weber’s twentieth century attempts to understand history and society contain wisdom for the twenty-first: wisdom some of the doctors I interviewed would have benefitted from hearing; wisdom that manifests in Encanto’s narrative, which hinges not only on the provision of gifts, but on their absence, their loss, and their burdens. The family Madrigal remind us that vocation’s beauty and burdens need to be taken together. It is irresponsible to those who feel lost or are struggling to only discuss the good, and overlook the difficult.
Dr Jennie Riley has a PhD in Theology and Religion from Durham University (UK) and works as a research fellow at the University of Aberdeen, specialising in qualitative research, religious diversity, contemporary Christianity and death studies. She’s the proud author of articles exploring evangelical medics’ experiences and perceptions of abortion and vocation, with forthcoming pieces on funerals during the pandemic and qualitative methods.