Most of us don’t have the luxury of a career we love. Our work lives are marked as much by toil (Ecclesiastes 2:17) as by joy or satisfaction. Even the best jobs involve work that we do because we must, not because we desire to do it. There would be no such thing as duty if we all lived our passion all the time. But somebody has to change diapers, file paperwork, take difficult phone calls, shovel the snow, and do all the other unpleasant tasks that come with ordinary life.
In response to this, the advice of many in this age is to abandon our duty and instead to chase our passions. And indeed we live in a world where the opportunity for change is everywhere. But if all of us followed this advice, important work would never be done. We will all face seasons when the work in front of us is work we’d rather not do. We call those who do only what they desire children. Children have not yet developed the fortitude to follow through on those things which must be done but that are tedious, boring, difficult, or unpleasant (and more especially when those things stretch before us into weeks, months, or years). Mature adults know that such things must be done. Sadly, we are not training many adults these days.
So we do our duty. We put aside that part of us that resists and we push ahead, doing that which must be done. But there is a risk in merely doing our duty. If we spend too long in this state with our hearts tucked away, our hearts will cool and we may lose the capacity for joy. We all know someone whose eyes are dimmed by a long season of passionless work. We think to ourselves, this is not worth the effort. This work is not rewarding. We decide that it is meaningless, pointless, soulless.
So what then can we do? It seems we are caught between passionless duty and immature irresponsibility. But there is another possibility. What if we could change what we love? Contrary to popular belief, we are able to change our passions. They are are not fixed. Our passions develop over time, both naturally and due to intentional cultivation. So before we seek to make a disruptive change in our work, perhaps we might find the hidden opportunities for passion where we are now.
Already you might sense some reluctance to this idea. There is something in us that resists changing our passions, not because it isn’t possible but because it hurts our pride. This is because too many of us have made our passions our identity: “I am a person who loves to fish” or “I am a creative professional” or “I know and love the indie music scene”. It requires a kind of self-abandonment to change our passions. We feel like we are losing an important part of ourselves. And we are losing something: a potential future on which we have set our hope. When we change our passions from a future that may or may not appear and place them instead on the here and now, we lose our grip on that hoped-for future.
But the future isn’t real. It doesn’t exist anywhere but our minds. The only moment that is real is this one, now. What does that say about the condition of our hearts if we ignore what’s real and instead prefer a fantasy? We have before us an opportunity to set our hearts fully on the work that is before us. It may not be the present that we have chosen or that we prefer, but it is real.
And the beautiful thing about the present moment is that God dwells here. And where God dwells, that place and time is sacred. Here is where we find the life-giving presence of the Spirit. Here is where we find flesh and blood people, utterly different from us and each one a marvel of God’s good creation. Setting our passions on serving and loving these people (regardless of the difficulty) is a high calling that requires all the resources of the Holy Spirit. But training ourselves to set our eyes here, serving the people in front of us by engaging in sometimes tedious, boring, difficult, and unpleasant tasks—this is the work to which we are called because in doing so we serve not only them but Christ (Matthew 25:40).
But is it actually possible to change our passions? It is, if approached properly. The key to changing our passions is to see our work as worship. By adjusting our focus slightly from the task at hand to the people we are serving, we open up new horizons of meaning—and meaning feeds our passions. In seemingly even the most menial task, we wash the feet of Jesus. It is just these sorts of tasks that Jesus had in mind when he said “whatever you do for the least of these you did for me” (Matthew 25:40).
This is especially true when we serve those who are difficult or unpleasant because in doing so, we become living channels for the grace of God. What is grace but getting—and giving—what we do not deserve? With such a subtle shift in perspective, we may find that the tasks we once thought meaningless and unfulfilling are filled with a rich beauty we did not realize was there.
Even with a shift in focus like this, we may still struggle with the task at hand. Follow the thread of your discontentment into the inner places of your heart. By the lamp of the Spirit search out any hidden pride, any reluctance to serve those who have wronged you, who do their jobs poorly, who are ungrateful or contrary or witless or impossible. These especially need the grace God. Relish this opportunity because it is by such means that we gain a heart after God’s own.
Praying the Examen can help immensely with this search for joy. End each day with a prayerful search for those places where God is leading you to joy during your ordinary day. Use the confessional components of the prayer to ferret out any hidden discontentments. Here’s a short guide to getting started with the Examen.
Let me finish by saying that changing careers or jobs or positions is not always bad. There is such a thing as vocation–a particular calling we discern from God, a type of work for which we were made–and we will be forever restless until we find and live our vocation. But career and vocation are not the same thing (much less job and vocation). It is settled wisdom among the mature to always seek to bloom where we are planted. Before we seek yet another change, hoping this time we might find our passion, let us give our best effort to offer our passions to God, to allow him to open our eyes to the beauty and wonder of the place where we find ourselves. Would it be so bad to love what we are doing now?
Those who can find joy even in unfulfilling work are truly living the good life.