In a couple of weeks I’ll be moving to go to grad school. I practiced trying to explain what I’ll be doing a lot at a friend’s wedding this weekend. Conversations had to be short and loud and I couldn’t remember who knew what about my life post-college so I had to keep things simple. I’m not sure how well I succeeded, but those conversations at least prompted some renewed reflection about what I’m doing and why I’m doing it. I’ve moved before, I’ve done school before, I’ve lived in DC before. But of course this feels different because circumstances are different and I’m different.
Granted, it’s only been about forty-eight hours since then, so there’s not been a ton of reflection, but there’s been a little. Certainly enough to compare notes with past Christina, who spent a lot of time thinking about jobs and decision making. Here are some big thoughts she had her last semester in college, sitting at a booth in Commons dining hall, pensive over a bowl of Froot Loops. (Content warning: vocation)
We talk a lot about vocation. And vocation sounds like a nice thing. It means you get to do something you love to do and save a bit of the world while you’re at it. Here’s your cake—it feeds a homeless person too. I like that idea of vocation. It’s a nice thought that I’ll be nudged and pulled along by my passions and gifts until I find the place where they align sunbeam-through-an-Egyptian-staff-in-Indiana-Jones-like with the needs of the world.
And I know that no one has guaranteed that… but it seems to be the goal. And sure, that doesn’t have to be found in a career—it’s probably rare that it is. But it seems to be that everyone has a vocation and if they don’t know what it is yet they just have yet to discover it.
Well what if I don’t? What if I have some interests and some talents but at the end of my life or the peak of my life, or whenever I’m supposed to have this settled by, I really just liked everything okay? I think that’s fine and I think that might not be unusual. I sure can’t think of a cosmic reason that every soul has one certain thing they are passionate about, gifted at their birth and smeared across their forehead like Simba. Maybe someone has a bunch. Maybe they have none. Either way, I think vocation is the thing you choose to devote your time to—might only ever be one thing and you knew from before you ever started that that is what you were passionate about, or maybe it’s the thing you chose because you signed up for one year and it turned into ten and, well, I guess now you’re invested. Or maybe you do that several times over and at the end of your life you’ve had four or eight vocations.
I remember thinking a lot about this web of talents, interests, needs, responsibilities, opportunities, and what to do with them so much in college. And I’m glad that I did. But if I were to sit down with past Christina I’d want to relieve some of that angst, although I’m not sure if she’d like the answers I’d give. So far in life I’ve pretty much always made decisions one step at a time: picked a school without knowing what I wanted to study, picked a major without knowing what career I wanted to pursue, took a year-long job, took a two-year long job, and now I’m starting a year-long graduate program… without knowing what career I want to pursue. I don’t think past Christina would be jazzed about that pattern continuing.
For every decision about what job to take, who to spend time with, or how to use my money there are dozens of rationales to consider: what is ethical, what is responsible, what is enjoyable, what is beneficial… what is practical. I can’t say that I’ve reached perfect resolution about how to rank those priorities. I think I have lower (read: more realistic) expectations of myself and my capacity, so I’m quicker to let go of things that aren’t practical. But I think I miss the bolder desire of past Christina to do hard stuff that matters. These last few years have contained hard stuff, but usually they weren’t things that I chose or that clicked with any particular gifting.
If I sat down in the booth across from past Christina, a matching bowl of Froot Loops at my elbow, I’d encourage her desire to figure herself out. Think hard about big decisions. Value your convictions and desires. But I’d also say that most days most things aren’t that big of a deal. Most days get filled for us by things mundane and tedious, but occasionally surprising and delightful. Yes, think carefully about what you value and put yourself in places where you’ll grow more into the person you want to be. But don’t sweat it if you never put together a master plan. You’ll have plenty of opportunities to both do good in the world and to enjoy it even if you never have a sunbeam-through-an-Egyptian-staff-in-Indiana-Jones moment. You’ll actually just have lots of little ones. Learning how to make blanket, planning your first road trip, deciding to go back to school, helping someone jump their car, dancing with your friends at a wedding. There are so many good and worthwhile things that will happen to you that you didn’t plan for. There are so many decisions that are completely outside of your control, so you can release your white-knuckle grip on piecing together the perfect future.
There is so much of your life that you don’t have control over. And that’s actually really great news.
Cover photo: Glass Bowl (ca. 1936) by Ella Josephine Sterling
Christina Ribbens (’19) graduated with a major in history and minors in studio art and data science. After working in campus ministry for a few years, she’s getting her master’s in public humanities at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. She has a benevolent dependency on tea, is always down for a game of pick-up basketball, and would love to have you over for pancakes sometime.