Last year, I played on a faculty intramural soccer team at the university where I teach. It was edifying, in the way that tribulations often are. As it turned out, we were the only faculty team who signed up, so the league assigned us to play against undergraduates—i.e. 20 year olds who self-identify as soccer players. Our team had the noble intentions to play beautifully, and we talked strategy around the copy machine on game days. But students began to congregate to watch their professors embarrass themselves twice weekly. Two players on our team would catch the ball with their hands when they were nervous, and no one really knew the rules. Only two of us (a 40-year-old political scientist and I) had ever played before. Honestly, the experience was probably worse for us because we knew what good soccer was supposed to look like, and we were too far removed from regular practice to make our feet cooperate with our higher visions of play.
One of the conventions of intramural soccer is allotting equal playing time among players, so I would substitute myself out periodically. It was difficult to sit there, removed from the action and wanting to control things on the field. But that time on the bench was invaluable because it provided me with a different perspective on how I could contribute better when I returned. Sitting on the bench gave me the space to breathe and to compose myself so I could re-enter the game better able to support my team.
I realize this is an imperfect metaphor for life right now—being benched from the action and desperately wanting to re-enter the arena. It feels like there is a foreclosing of opportunities that I can’t get back. But I am trying to reimagine my quarantine with a soccer-bench mentality: It is an opportunity to step back, identify needs where they exist, and evaluate my contributions to the world. When I re-enter the arena, I will have a better sense of who I am and what I am doing here.
Vocation: A Conceptual Backdrop
Vocation means a “calling” or an invitation (1). Today, we often use the word narrowly, to mean profession, but historically it meant something broader, involving life purpose and one’s contributions to the world that may have included—but certainly extended beyond—financial gain. Dorothy Sayers writes, “The essential [modern] heresy…[is] that work is not the expression of man’s creative energy in the service of society, but only something one does in order to obtain money and leisure (2).”
To be clear, money and leisure have their place. But we also need to examine who we are and what we are doing so we don’t live a hollow life, or a life better suited for somebody else. It may be the case that our relationship to work has become distorted, scattered, or shallow, or that we have lost a deeper sense of vocation or purpose in how we engage in the world. Sometimes this realization comes from sitting on the bench.
Rest and Vocation
After graduating college, I worked in Washington, D.C. for a year as a research assistant. I was working normal hours after a frenetic four years in which I packed every minute full of extracurriculars and schoolwork. This was my gap year, which I intended to use to study for the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) and to apply to medical school—a goal I’d had since high school. But for the first time in a long time, my schedule granted me the time and space to reflect on who I was and what I was doing. Furthermore, I had the great fortune to meet a number of wonderful people who invested in me, listened, and mentored.
I realized I had no desire to study medicine. I would have been a terrible doctor. And if I hadn’t taken that gap year, I would have proceeded like a freight train to the next stop on my ride to a life that did not suit my interests or competencies.
This freight-train tendency—committing to goals or routines that no longer make sense—is fairly typical of runners. We chase a revolving race calendar that refreshes with every orbit of the sun, and we proceed from one goal to the next without pausing to consider it all. There is inertia in running, and this makes us efficient and productive. But we forget to pause and examine whether the ways in which we engage in our sport are healthy or conducive to investing in the world beyond ourselves. Being “benched” is a great opportunity to ask these questions.
In Every Good Endeavor, Tim Keller describes it this way: “Resting… is also a way to help us get perspective on our work and put it in its proper place. Often we can’t see our work properly until we get some distance from it and reimmerse ourselves in other activities (3).”
Currently, we have a respite from competition. We can use that time to begrudge the moments lost. Or we can use it to consider our vocation—to develop some perspective on our running, and to put it in its proper place, whatever that looks like for you. When the arena reopens, we can enter with a better sense of who we are and what we are doing.
And maybe our work will be richer because of the time we spent on the bench.
Call for Comments (from Meghan)
- Have you learned anything about your own running as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic?
- Has it changed your perspective on why you run? Have your motivations or interests evolved?
- Is there anything you are planning to do differently when we are able to “re-enter the arena?”
- “Vocation.” 2018. Oxford English Dictionary.
- Sayers (1947). Creed or Chaos, 56-57. As found in T. Keller (2012). Every Good Endeavor. Dutton, 74.
- Keller (2012). Every Good Endeavor. Dutton, 233-234.