The Monster and the Whirlpool : Navigating the Way to Vocation

By Richard Barna, Mark | The World and I, November 1999 | Go to article overview
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The Monster and the Whirlpool : Navigating the Way to Vocation

Richard Barna, Mark, The World and I

Job satisfaction is not so simple anymore. Middle-aged baby boomers and their offspring generally demand more from their vocation than previous generations demanded from theirs. Not content with moderate income and job security, they want emotional or intellectual satisfaction from work as well. Some leave the day-to-day grind to pursue an artistic endeavor full time. Some, wanting to serve society, join a philanthropic organization or go into public service. Others seek ways to achieve financial independence. To justify their actions, sacred teachings are often invoked.

Best-selling spiritual books tend to cater to our deeply rooted desire to discover purpose in life, telling us to do what we love, to make a difference in the world, to be our own boss. And the books are persuasive: a bad job fit can wilt the human spirit. On the other hand, one can flourish in a job amenable to one's God-given talents, lending credence to Mark 4:25: "For he that hath, to him shall be given; and he that hath not, from him shall be taken even that which he hath."

And yet the content of these books is essentially a watering down and a misunderstanding of perennial truths. Since New Thought and Walt Whitman, a stream of American thought has tended toward simplistic confidence games. "You can be whatever you want to be." "Change your attitude, change your life." "Believe, and all things are possible." At the turn of the century, William James took up the gauntlet, and Dale Carnegie, Norman Vincent Peale, Robert Schuller, James Hillman, Tony Robbins, and Deepak Chopra have followed.

There is nothing new in using spiritual ideas to justify earthly values. What was new in America, beginning in the 1960s, was the growing popularity of Asian faiths, particularly Buddhism. Christianity's "darkness" kept it only a minor accomplice to today's feel-good spirituality. By contrast, Buddhism's nontheism, quietism, and wishy-washy ethical stance were easily appropriated by spiritual writers, who assured readers it was OK to be prideful and to desire the pleasures of life.

Buddhism also had the advantage of being exotic and therefore more appealing to Americans than the inherited faith; and it fit well with Americans' agnostic sensibility and general spiritual laziness. So it is no wonder best-selling spiritual authors frequently quote Buddhist teachers to help support their antinomian, materialistic, and egoistic message. The result has been a facile espousing of the necessity of looking within and "following your bliss," to use the popular mythologist Joseph Campbell's phrase.

I have observed the lives of many who have embraced these ideas, and it seems their common trait is that of a selective memory. Failure appears to not dampen their spirits, for they soon find another preoccupation to pin their new age/Buddhist ideas to.

Best-selling spiritual books, of course, never relate the case histories of these people. The real estate salesman who put into action new age ideas by quitting his job to write the great American novel, only to return to real estate the following year humbled by the experience, is not a publishable story. Nor are the tales of the New York artist who couldn't sell his paintings and the Los Angeles entrepreneur who lost all his money, forcing him to move in with his parents.

The harsh reality is that for every person who has succeeded through implementing ideas in a self-help book, there are dozens and dozens who have failed.


The Bible repeatedly warns of the dangers to the soul when spiritual truths are used to build earthly aplomb. Saint Peter says of the false prophets, "It had been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than, after they have known it, to turn from the holy commandment delivered unto them." (II Peter 2:21) How people are deceived is suggested at in the Qur'an, when the serpent whispers to the first man: "0 Adam, shall I show thee the Tree of Immortality and a kingdom that fadeth not away?

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The Monster and the Whirlpool : Navigating the Way to Vocation


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