From a Sigh to a Self: On Phenomenology and Vocation

***Originally presented at the Cothran Center Conversations on Vocation – Furman University, Fall 2016. 

call-for-help

So, I do not like Drake. I think he is a mediocre rapper (if we can call him that since he does more off-key, auto-tuned singing than rapping these days) and generally bad for the art form of hip hop. I am not entirely sure what bothers me so much about him—probably a combination of things—but I know that his recent hit “Hotline Bling” does not help his case. Let’s listen to some of the wisdom that he presents therein:

“You used to call me on the cell phone, late night when you need my love. I know when that hotline bling, that can only mean one thing.”

Sigh.

Ok, well, I take seriously the idea presented by Leo Tolstoy that we should be actively aware of the “wisdom of children” that can sometimes be missed in our very adult way of being—which too often just means being serious and boring with a good dash of egoism thrown in (but usually this adultness is characterized simply as “acting like a professional”).

Again, sigh.

But, perhaps, Drake can tell us something if we are maximally charitable to his “childlike” wisdom—of course usually he is a child of about 15 who has just discovered how cool sex and money are. Anyway, here is my thought: Drake actually does an excellent job of presenting a reductio ad absurdum regarding the idea of vocation. In other words, he shows us how we should not understand the idea of a call.

We will come back to Drake in a bit, but first, in order to think about my own “vocational story,” I want to think about what it means to respond to a call.

A call is always phenomenologically distinctive in three ways:

  1. It calls to someone. Even if anonymous in its origin, it is never anonymous in its reception.
  2. It always comes from somewhere; though it is an open question whether it must come from someone.
  3. It calls for something. It is not declarative, but inquisitive.

We might understand these three characteristics as Ethico-religious, Ontological, and Epistemic, respectively.

The philosopher Jean-Louis Chretien writes a lot about the idea of a call and he argues that the call is never possible without a response. Indeed, he goes so far as suggesting that the call is only ever heard in the response itself. The phone rings, we might say, only when we decide either to pick it up or to ignore it. A ringing phone without such a response is not a call, but merely a sound. It becomes a call when the response is given in one way or another.

Look, I know that this will sound weird—how can we respond to something if it doesn’t exist prior to our response. The call comes first, only then can we respond, right!?

Well, think about it, calls are distinguished from questions precisely along this phenomenological line. When we ask a question, the answer is not what constitutes the question as a question (indeed, merely the grammatical mark of a curly thing with a dot under it does it—or at least in English with the raising of one’s voice). Well, at least that is the way that it seems. Alternatively, calls are not obviously that. They are calls only when we respond, when we constitute them as calls by treating them as such.

Ok, I can see that a bunch of you are now thinking: yep, this is why I am majoring in Health Sciences (wasn’t Dr. Slining’s talk great?). But, just for a few minutes, suspend your general annoyance with the way that philosophers think about things and, instead, realize that sometimes it is only when we look at things in ways that most other folks don’t that we begin to see what we and they usually miss. Or at least this is what I want to propose to you tonight.

We will see whether this turns out to have been a call to you—it will all depend on how you respond.

The point is that a call occurs in its being interpreted as a call. Said a bit sexier, we could claim that a call is never without a contextual framing. It is not hermeneutically transparent. Instead, it is always dependent on the decisions of the respondent. Importantly, not just anything can count as a response. For example, we don’t get to ask “will I respond?” – for to ask that is already to have responded such that the call has been heard as calling-for a response. Instead, we can only ask “how will I respond?”

Calls are often missed when we confuse them for questions. We often simply attempt to “answer” the call. In this way, the call merely becomes a self-standing question, rather than the call putting you into question as a self.

See, the funny thing about a call is that it is always calls us to selfhood. Think about it. What is the first thing that you say when you answer a phone (well, at least prior to caller ID)? “Hello, this is Aaron.” “Aaron Simmons speaking.” “Aaron Simmons, how can I help you.” We literally identify ourselves as the one to whom the call has been offered. Without such identification, think about how weird calls would be:

“Hello?”

“Hey!”

“What are you doing tonight?”
“I don’t know yet. What about you?”

“It kinda depends on how much homework I have”

“Oh yeah.”

“Yeah”

“Why is that?”

“Well, because my Philosophy professor is crazy and expects us to read like 100 pages of Levinas tonight.”

“Seriously.”
“Yep.”
“Come on, Josh, just drop that course already?”

“Hunh?”

“Isn’t this Josh?”

“No, this is Kate.”

“Crap.”

click

Notice that even in this call and response, what eventually gives context to the entire conversation—its meaning maker, if you will—is the moment of self-identification. Without that moment, the entire thing is ultimately silly. Think about it. Why is it that when we dial the wrong number we apologize to the person? Why not simply say, “Hey, it is great to meet you. If you live in Greenville do you want to do something tonight?” Of course, the reason we don’t is quite clear: we don’t know who the caller is and so are unable to make sense of ourselves in response. Indeed, this is why we can see that even if the caller is anonymous, when we answer we tend to be the ones who have to say who we are to see if the caller intended to call us or not.

So, calls not only call to someone, they call us to be someone.

Further, calls are always from somewhere. Their status as a call might depend on the response, but after having responded, then the call is seen to have preceded us. It is like the Danish philosopher, Kierkegaard, says: “Life is to be lived forwards, but understood backwards.”

Often, we spend a lot of time worrying about the source of the call because it tells us not only a lot about the caller, but it also helps us to understand the appropriate decision that we should make in response. Is it my mom calling? Is it my ex? Is it my next? (is that a thing?)

Let’s do a bit of philosophy: Perhaps the call to selfhood comes from God? Perhaps the call comes simply from some anonymous force of existence itself? Does it matter if we decide one way or another? Well, here I am on shaky ground because if the call is only ever understood in the response, then we have to pick up the phone before we know who is calling. But, I do think it matters that we take a stand on what or who is calling.

The deep stuff about who we are is connected most decidedly to what or who we name as that which calls us to ourselves. Yet, what someone believes matters. At the most basic level, what you believe about the source of your call to selfhood determines how you make sense of the status of yourself and others. The stakes are high indeed.

The idea is that ideas have consequences and what we believe underlies what we do. But, this runs in reverse too. Actions give rise to ideas and what we do facilitates what beliefs we can take seriously as options. The point is that when we understand ourselves as responses to a call, we have work to do figuring out what/who calls and how we decide will in many ways form the interpretive frame in which we then interpret ourselves.

T.S. Eliot said that he had to “put on the faces to meet the faces he would meet.” This is the challenge before all of us. Whether you take yourself to stand before God, an all pervasive life-force, or the anonymous void, you do stand before something.

The call comes to us from somewhere—or so we should choose to believe. Otherwise, if there is no call, then we run the risk of there being no task of selfhood. We simply are. I am an existentialist, but I think Sartre was wrong about how he chose to make sense of himself and the source of freedom. He might be right, but it matters that we move in different directions. It takes courage to stand somewhere.

Although I disagree with Sartre about the caller, I agree with him about the importance of standing on the idea that we have to make the most of what has been made of us. In other words, “we are who we are becoming.” Our subjectivity is a task that requires us to live truly as we care about believing truly. To give up on truth is to give up on ourselves.

The call comes to someone, from somewhere, and is always calling for something.

Ah, so here is the difficult part (as if ethics and ontology were not hard enough!). How do we know what the call says? What if you pick up the phone and the person speaking is using a language you do not understand? Que faites-vous alors? What if the person speaking is using words you understand but in ways you don’t? Wal-mart is pretty in the evening time after caterpillars march through cell phones.

See, the hermeneutic task returns! We not only decide to respond, not only do we decide what or who calls, but also we have to decide what the call says.

Let’s put this all in language that your parents will understand:

What are you going to do with your life?

Your parents will far too often hear this as a question. Moreover, they will usually think that this question should be met with an answer in relation to a job. But, this misses the point. Jobs matter, but only because they are specific ways in which we live out how we have chosen to hear the call to ourselves. When we think that we are called to a job, then we stop being selves and become employees.

So, will you hear “What are you going to do with your life?” as a call or merely as a question? If it is the former, which I hope it is for you, then the point is that there may not be any precise answer. Instead, there is only decision, and then more decision. But, and this is really, really cool: once the decision is made, then you get to see why it turns out to have been the right or wrong response and you move on from there.

We are who we are becoming.

We live forwards and understand backwards.

I realize that this is not exactly what you probably expected me to say tonight. But, I was asked to give my vocational story, and this is it. It is all about owning up to the decision to be someone who I liked being and then to do stuff that helped me to continue in this task.

The specifics are just that, specific to my case. I started as a physics major, but thought my professor was ugly and so went to Europe and fell in love with art and ideas, came back and went to graduate school to watch FSU football (another sigh) with the hope that I would become a professor so I could spend my summers fishing, but along the way discovered that the questions that kept me up at night were questions worth spending my life asking—philosophy let me do this so I became a philosopher. Here I am.

I could have chosen differently and things would have been ok—that is what I think too many students forget. My path is mine. Your path is yours. Don’t let your parents, your friends, your professors, or your pastors tell you what the right path is.

Only when you choose for yourself can you, then, and always after the fact, realize that the question was indeed a call that defined your life. Then you can see that what you thought was a term-paper was really an invitation to a different identity. That joining that group was actually the turning point in everything that followed. That sometimes just not being busy is the key to being properly directed toward what matters for you and your life.

My vocational story is a story about my becoming, but it is still ongoing. I am still working on it. I have not yet finished the story and so I am still trying to figure out whether some questions that I am trying to answer will turn out to have been calls. We will see.

So, let’s get back to the childlike wisdom of Drake.

You thought I would forget, hunh!

“I know when that hotline bling, that can only mean one thing.”

Notice that for Drake, everything is clear from the outset. There is no reason to pick up the phone because we already know who is calling, what they want, and who they want to speak to. In this way, Drake reduces the call to not much more than a sigh.

It’s him again.

Sigh.

It’s her again.

Sigh.

But, what if we realize that when that hotline bling, it never, ever, only means one thing. It all depends on what you decide to believe about who is calling, what they want, and how you will respond.

When we stop being overwhelmed by questions, we might begin to hear calls.

It’s him, again! – Who am I?

It’s her, again! – What should I do?

When we let the call call us, then we might begin to see that the really, really great callers are those that are not immediately identified because the lack of clarity invites us into relationship.

When we let the call call us, then we might begin to see that the really, really great calls are those that remain a bit perplexing because the mystery invites us to dig deeper.

Henry David Thoreau said that in order to go for a walk, you have to be willing to get lost. I think he is right.

A former professor of mine who was only a few years older than me died this week after a very long battle with cancer. In an email when he first got diagnosed with “stage 4 cancer” and given only a few months to live, he wrote to me and said “In the end there is the unmanageable but we would trivial beings without it. So, onward with my day.”

My vocational story is simply this: I did the best I could to make the best decision with the information that I had at the time, but the unmanageable persists. And then I did that again, and again, and again.

Somewhere along the way, my sigh at knowing that the call could only mean one thing, turned into a self whereby there are always more options.

I have enjoyed the walk, though on some days it is easier to say “onward with my day” than on others.

The important thing is to keep walking. To keep responding.

Come walk with me. Or, perhaps even better, let’s dance. But, please, please don’t do whatever it is that Drake is doing.

 

 

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