Commencement Speaker Inspires, Challenges Graduates

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The Covenant School was pleased to host Dr. Jeffrey Dill at Saturday’s commencement exercises at The Covenant School. Enjoy Dr. Dill’s remarks below on The Gift of Vocation.

The Gift of Vocation
Dr. Jeffrey S. Dill
Commencement Address
The Covenant School
Charlottesville, VA
May 27th, 2017

Good morning to you all. Mr. Sanker, esteemed faculty and trustees, parents, friends and family — it’s an honor for me to be here with you on this happy occasion. I’d like to send my warmest greetings and congratulations to the graduates of the class of 2017. You did it. Take a moment to be proud of all that you have accomplished.

It’s customary in commencement speeches like this to tell a story. I myself am not a great storyteller, so I’m going to borrow one, and I thought I’d tell you a story by J.R.R. Tolkien. It’s called The Lord of the Rings – it might take awhile. But we’ve got time, right? Just kidding. It’s a short story by Tolkien called “Leaf by Niggle” – and I’ll briefly summarize. It’s about a man named Niggle.

Niggle is a painter who desperately wants to be successful, and he especially wants to be successful at painting a specific picture that he has in mind. In his artistic imagination, he sees an enormous tree with beautiful leaves surrounded by a lovely country of forests and mountains. He wants more than anything to paint the picture he sees in his mind’s eye. But Tolkien tells us Niggle is “not a very successful [painter], partly because he had many other things to do.” He is constantly interrupted by his neighbor Parish, who is a gardener and whom Niggle does not like very much. Parish always asks Niggle for favors and assistance in Parish’s garden. Niggle hates to garden, and his own garden outside his cottage is a mess. There’s no loved lost with Parish either – Parish thinks Niggle wastes his time on the painting, and neglects his garden. Niggle’s a classic worrier and “doer”, always rushing and fretting over the many things he has to do and never feeling like he’s has accomplished them all. And when he does paint, he “paints leaves better than trees” and thus focuses so intently on one leaf that he can never make much progress on his painting. There’s just never enough time and he never feels quite satisfied.

Before long, Niggle is called away on a Journey (the journey is a death and afterlife). He is taken to a “Workhouse Infirmary” where he is compelled to do hard labor. Although he has no time of his own, he learns how to use his time and has no sense of rush. He learns to rest. We’re told that he gets no pleasure out of life in the workhouse, but he begins to have a feeling of…satisfaction – “bread rather than jam”, Tolkien tells us. After a time, he gets sent on to the next stage of his journey, an open country with a great Tree, which Niggle soon recognizes to be a realization of his own vision. It’s his tree, in all the glory and majesty that he could never quite get right on the canvas in his little cottage. As he looks at the tree, dumbfounded and in awe, he opens his arms wide and exclaims “It’s a gift!” Tolkien tells us the tree was “finished, though not finished with” and Niggle suddenly understands that he needs to keep working on the tree, and he needs help from his former neighbor Parish, a gardener, who knows things about real trees and plants that Niggle does not. Parish appears and they happily work together, each learning from the other, learning that each needs his neighbor. The story then ends with Niggle moving on in his journey to his final destination, paradise and everlasting joy.

I’d like to think about the difference between the way Niggle approached his tasks, responsibilities, and work during his life and how he approached them on his journey in the afterlife.

To do that, I want to sketch out two different paths – two different ways of understanding our lives and pursuing our goals. As you think about your future, I want you to think for a moment, borrowing from Wendell Berry, about the difference between the “logic of success” on the one hand, and the “logic of vocation” on the other.

The logic of what our culture generally means by “success” includes an upwardly mobile career path, with a good salary. It means a nice house, maybe a nice spouse, nice car, exciting vacations, and a growing retirement fund. The logic of success sees relationships and experiences as opportunities for advancement and greater acquisition of material gain. It means I have some image or idea or goal that I label “success”, and people I meet along the way can either be used to help me get there, or get in my way and need to be disposed.

The logic of vocation, on the other hand, is different. As you probably know, the word vocation comes from the Latin vocare, to call or summon. A vocation, a calling, is more than just a job or a career or a success plan. It’s more than just finding a job you love, or even one that utilizes your talents and skills and passions. It’s more than just pursuing your dreams. Because a vocation, a calling, assumes that there’s someone who does the calling. You receive the call. A vocation, therefore, is given. I like to think of vocation as a set of obligations given to me by my Creator. And if that’s right, my vocation isn’t just about a job (although that’s certainly part of it) – it’s also about the numerous other roles in which I find myself and the responsibilities they carry. My vocation also includes the obligations I have as a husband, father, brother, son, friend, neighbor, member of a church, citizen.

I want to suggest that the logic of success and the logic of vocation are very different ways of thinking about the world. They are not radically different because they will lead you to different jobs necessarily, but they will lead to radically different ways of living, ways of seeing, and ways of understanding the world and all that lies before you.

They are essentially different forms of worship; they offer different objects of worship. Or maybe different loves. In a logic of success, I worship success, which is essentially a kind of self-love; I’m looking out for what’s in my own self-interest. It may be subtle. I wouldn’t call Niggle an obviously selfish person. He was a nice guy. He even helped his neighbor sometimes, if reluctantly. But he couldn’t see the bigger picture (literally) because he was so focused on pursuing success as he understood it, doing the things he wanted to do, and the way he wanted to do them, and the frustrations he felt when he couldn’t do them.

In the logic of vocation, the Caller becomes the object of worship. I worship the Creator, who has given me the call, given me the obligations to which I’m seeking to respond. That means the obligations, rightly understood, are probably more like opportunities. Not opportunities for some materialistic vision of success, but opportunities to see grace, and to learn to love and worship my Creator.

The writer David Foster Wallace gave a commencement address a decade ago at Kenyon College, and in it he said –“In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.”

And that choice leads one to the logic of success, or to the logic of vocation.

And it’s the choice that Niggle made – during his life he’s frustrated in his pursuit of what he thought was success as a painter, worshiping his own ends; what he learns on his journey is to receive his duties, his work, his relationships and his obligations as gifts, as grace, and he learns to worship the Giver of those gifts, and he experiences the joy and fulfillment that he always desired.

And I don’t think that choice begins sometime after you finish college. If it hasn’t already, it should begin today. It should guide you as a college student, guide the choices you make with the courses you might pursue, or the major you might choose, or the professors that you seek out, or the friends you make. Because if you’re living under the logic of vocation, you understand that your time at college is there to form you as a person—to form your character—and help guide you on that path of vocation.  You understand that college is not there for you to use for your own ends towards the logic of success. And so within a logic of vocation, college becomes an opportunity for a true, liberal education, the chance to learn about yourself and to learn about your world, and the responsibilities you have to it, and the obligations that your Creator has placed on you. And so what you are learning in college then, is your vocation.

Now, operating with a logic of vocation doesn’t necessarily mean that you can’t succeed in a profession or career. It depends, of course, upon how we understand success, and how we understand the obligations of our Creator.

My mother-in-law had a very successful career as a pediatric anesthesiologist at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. She was a pioneering woman in a field that at the time was still dominated by men, and she had to make certain tradeoffs. The obligations imposed upon her by her Creator towards her career sometimes meant she had to make certain sacrifices at home. There were some nights when she had to sit at the bedside of one of her little patients, and that meant she couldn’t be home with her own girls. I would say she was fulfilling the obligations of her Creator, and living the logic of vocation in her successful career.

I certainly must acknowledge that I could probably be a much more “successful” scholar and teacher and writer if I wasn’t working just part time as a professor and part-time as a dad trying to manage the home front. Usually I feel like I’m failing at both. But they are the obligations imposed upon me by my Creator, and importantly I need to remember, as I work at these jobs and duties – folding laundry and driving kids around—that I am fulfilling the obligations of my Creator. Even in those moments, I am living the logic of vocation.

But the good news, I’d like to suggest, is that fulfilling those obligations, living out the logic of my vocation, is not necessarily opposed to self-fulfillment, or happiness, or flourishing. The obligations imposed upon me by my Creator fulfill the purposes given to me as a creature. And so, I may not love certain things that I’m doing – folding laundry may not feel deeply fulfilling – but I do understand that they are good for me because I’m doing what I’m created to do at this time, in this season, and in this place. Seeing those obligations as gifts, as grace, can open our eyes to a life of joy and contentment.

And what this means is that living out the logic of vocation demands a posture of gratitude because our lives—our relationships, our roles, our talents, our careers, our loves, our duties—are given as a gift. And that is the fundamental posture of the Christian story. We are receivers of underserved grace. I think that’s what Niggle finally realized in that moment in front of his tree. Arms wide open, he responds, “it’s a gift!” He finally sees his life work as grace, and that makes all the difference.  And that should fill us with the joy and gratitude that overflows in love for God and love for neighbor. And so, the logic of vocation, I submit to you, is a living out of the Christian story in each of our lives, and collectively as the Church in the world, as receivers of the gift of grace.

The gift is given, to you class of 2017 – may you receive it, and find the gratitude, the joy, and the contentment that awaits you. Thank you.