Cover image for Forgetting ourselves on purpose : vocation and the ethics of ambition
Forgetting ourselves on purpose : vocation and the ethics of ambition
Mahan, Brian.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
San Francisco : Jossey-Bass, [2002]

Physical Description:
xxvii, 209 pages ; 21 cm
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BJ1533.A4 M24 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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In the wise and often witty Forgetting Ourselves on Purpose, Brian Mahan considers the question of how it is possible to create a meaningful spiritual life while living in a culture that measures us by what we have rather than who we are. Drawing on nearly two decades of teaching experience. Brian Mahan shares stories of personal struggle and triumph that demonstrate how those who seek meaning and purpose have recalimed their authentic selves by resolving the inevitable tension between personal ambition and spiritual vibrancy.

Author Notes

Brian J. Mahan, a Catholic layperson, teaches at Candler School of Theology, Emory University. He is a popular retreat leader for high school and college age youth

Reviews 2

Booklist Review

In a short book demanding a slow reading, Christian educator Brian Mahan challenges the American cult of success with its inevitable apotheosis of the triumphant self. Convening an improbable conclave of spiritual advisors--Christian devotionalists, psychological theorists, and modern novelists--Mahan invites readers to probe the origins and consequences of their personal ambitions. Again and again, our cravings for wealth and prominence betray our vulnerability to self-deception and alienation, as we rationalize choices that suppress our authentic impulses of benevolence and idealism. To help recover our suppressed aspirations, Mahan guides us through the tasks of "formative remembering" (What am I living for?) and "spiritual misdirection" (What is distracting me from my true aims?). Honest engagement with these tasks draws us into the paradox of deliberate self-forgetfulness and toward the joyous discovery of what Mahan calls vocation: the proper dedication of our unique talents to meeting the needs of others. A priceless book for readers whose march through success manuals has left them with only emptiness and cynicism. --Bryce Christensen

Publisher's Weekly Review

Do we all have "shadow governments of compassion and idealism"? In this odd, sometimes disjointed but always engaging meditation on the relationship between vocation and ambition, Mahan answers yes. Referencing Thomas Merton, Frederick Buechner, William James, Walker Percy and Leo Tolstoy, Mahan muses rather than argues, and ends each chapter with assignments gleaned from the college courses he has taught on this topic. For example, at the end of one chapter, he invites readers to hold a national press conference at which they attempt to rationalize an episode in their lives when they engaged in repeated self-deception leading to serious moral compromise. Each chapter and assignment leads readers, in one way or another, to examine the tension between the lives they would live governed by compassion, in complete harmony with God's calling, entered into via "epiphanies of recruitment" and the socially scripted, ambition-driven lives they do live. Pleasantly surprising is Mahan's light touch: he never resorts to heavy-handed homilies about how bereft conventional lives are, but rather invites readers to observe themselves living such lives, and to do so nonjudgmentally, with equal parts good humor, discomfort, acceptance and motivation to change. While encouraging readers to attempt mystical and imaginative exercises, Mahan ultimately avoids prescription. On the contrary, he ends by suggesting that ambition and vocation are not mutually exclusive, and that God delights in any and all attempts that flawed, inevitably ambitious people make to live according to their ideals. (Feb.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



Chapter One Ask Me What I'm Living For DOUBTING PAM I was in my second year of teaching at CU-Boulder when I met Pam at a Farrand Hall Christmas party. She was a senior.     "So, Pam," I asked, "what's up for next year?"     Pam looked as if she'd heard the question before. I've since learned not to ask seniors that kind of thing. All you're likely to get is a deep sigh and a belabored listing of two or three possibilities, delivered with the strained enthusiasm of a politician's handshake. These days, I usually make a point of saying something more like, "Oh, so you're a senior. You'll probably be doing a lot of traveling next year while you decide what to do next." I get a much better reaction that way. But Pam was polite.     "Well, it looks like I'll be going into the Peace Corps," she told me.     "You will?! Wonderful. Was it a difficult decision for you? I mean, had you thought about grad school at all, or anything?"     "Yeah, actually, it was a difficult decision, a very difficult one, really ... because I was accepted at Yale Law School too."     "I can certainly see why that would be difficult. I mean, yeah, Yale Law School."     I don't remember the rest of what we talked about, but the Yale-Peace Corps dilemma is inscribed forever in my memory, and with good reason.     It was the very next day in class that my mind went blank in the middle of a lecture. That kind of thing happened to me in my first couple of years of teaching. My face pulsed like an artery. I was completely lost. It was all I could do not to run out of the room screaming, head in hands. Then, thank God, my conversation with Pam came to mind.     "By the way," I said nonchalantly, emerging from my panicky blankness, "I meant to mention something to you earlier. Yesterday at the Farrand Christmas--I mean, holiday--party (I saw a couple of you there), I met a young woman, Pam. Maybe some of you know her. Anyway, Pam's going into the Peace Corps even though she was accepted by Yale Law School. You know, she was a little distressed by her dilemma, but she sounded pretty sure about her choice as far as I could tell. So, what do you think about that? What would you have done? Anybody?"     This throwaway question, intended to do little more than jump start my neurons, generated a conversation that lasted for two class periods and moved through three distinct phases. In the first phase of the conversation, Pam's decision was thought to be self-validating and unworthy of further comment, a reaction conforming almost perfectly to a familiar style of laissez-faire individualism that I have come to expect in this kind of situation.     "Well, if that's what she wants ... you know ... why not? Who's to say what's the best thing for somebody else?"     "Well, I'd probably have gone to Yale. I'd like that. But it's fine that Pam chose the Peace Corps. More power to her."     "Right, well, I have this friend who spent a year in Belize in the Peace Corps also. And he thought that he got more out of being with them than he gave them. It was really rewarding. So, I can see it. I'm not sure why you're even asking, though."     "Hmm. I guess she just likes helping other people more than making money. And so, what's the deal? We could use more people like Pam, I think."     The second phase of the conversation took a more self-reflective and critical turn. The initial consensus--that there was really no reason to be examining Pam's motives in the first place--slowly gave way to several questions of the I-was-just-wondering type.     "Hmm. Do you remember ... ah ... well, did she say whether or not she applied for deferred admissions or anything? She might have. I think you can do that in law school."     "Do you think her parents were upset? They could have been really upset. You know, all that money they spent, and she had probably told them that she was going to go to law school. Then she got into Yale and didn't go. I dunno."     "Just wondering out loud here ... Didn't she know that she could've done more for the poor if she went to Yale Law School first? If she didn't know, I think, well, she should've known, really."     The third and final stage of the conversation emerged when the gentle probing of the second phase gave way to a distinctly more aggressive and accusatory spirit.     "Well, yes," I asked, "does anybody think she might have been afraid to go to Yale? I've heard it's very competitive and really tough there. People would have been at least as bright as she was."     "Yeah, to follow up on that," came a reply, "look at it this way. She has her letter of acceptance, so she can show people she got it. She could frame it or whatever and still have that feeling of prestige and all that. Yale and everything. And she looks sensitive, too, going into the Peace Corps. So, I guess the question here is, what's she trying to prove? You know what I mean? I mean, what's she trying to prove?"     Despite the escalating rhetoric of this third stage of the conversation, many of us were caught off guard by the statement of a young man who seemed self-conscious about revealing what he had on his mind.     "I don't mean to be insensitive, but did it occur to you that, well, she might have lied to you--that maybe she didn't really get into Yale Law School? If she got in--let's face it--I really think she would've gone."     There was a stunned silence and then a series of reluctant confessions. As it turned out, the possibility of Pam's having lied had occurred to a number of students, who had been reluctant to say so out loud. Others said that the thought was in the back of their mind somewhere, though they hadn't put it into words. Still others, especially those whose opinions held sway in the first stage of the conversation, were scandalized at the suggestion and reiterated their initial statements about leaving Pam alone to do what she had decided to do. "Why are we talking about her anyway? It's her life, right?" But no response could contradict the prolonged and restless silence we had endured together.     From that moment on, Pam's story took on a koan-like status. Poor Pam had spoken only a sentence or two, but we went on and on, ultimately speaking volumes about these few words: our capacity for imputing motives and analyzing character traits with nothing much to go on was stupefying. We just couldn't stop ourselves.     Of course, now each new class hears the story of Pam and is briefed about the three stages of that initial conversation. Now you've heard about it too. Things are getting more complicated these days. Radical new Pamological interpretations render the initial conversation naïve by comparison. It is only a matter of time until some French postcontemporary thinker chimes in with something very new and pleasingly opaque.     My own take on "the case of Pam" has evolved as well. Initially, I tended to interpret the conversation as progressively more disclosive of how deeply the class members and I had assimilated our culture's scripted expectations for success and failure. In this case, the script reads: "Choose Yale; gracefully forgo the Peace Corps." What else could explain these suspicions about Pam's straightforward decision? Unpleasant as it was, those of us burdened by such suspicions would have to admit to our more-or-less-habitual expectation that this type of script and many others like it pretty much runs the show and that apparent departures from them were the product of eccentricity or weakness--or, as in the case of Pam, of a lie.     The progression and direction of the conversation were painfully clear: the polite veneer of nonjudgmental acceptance of the first phase cracked here and there during the second, and it was unceremoniously peeled away in the third and after, revealing the hard truths none of us wished to face. Only then did we come to know and reluctantly confess what we really thought about Pam and her silly decision all along.     Tough-minded analysis, all right; but it was all a bit too cozy. Why is it, I wondered, that tough-minded analysis so often seems to work hand in glove with the most banal and transparent manifestations of self-interest and with uncritical embrace of what for all the world appear to be the most radically truncated images of human possibility?     I began to think back on the conversation and its interpreters with a different kind of suspicion: one regarding the sources and nature of our own suspicions regarding Pam. Might it not make more sense to see the second phase of the Pam conversation--in which her decision to forgo Yale for the Peace Corps was probed with clear self-referential intent--as more fully engaged and authentic than either the first or third phase? Think about it. The "Hey, it's her life; why are we talking about Pam?" tone of the first phase of the conversation conveniently and politely diverted questions concerning the implications of Pam's decision for the rest of us ("Good luck, Pam. Be sure to write."). Though the argument of the third phase conflicts mightily with the first, the end product is pretty similar. If Pam is a liar, or is naïve and misguided, why bother with her? The fact that the conversation polarized between the avoidance strategy of phase one and the avoidance strategy of phase three effectively precluded return to the self-reflective questioning of phase two.     What's more, those who held firmly to the laissez-faire spirit of phase one received moral credit for "openness," while the deconstructionist Pamologists of phase three took pleasure in having once again avoided being duped by another marginally convincing, but ultimately spurious, pantomime of virtue. The lead participants of phase two--most of whom wound up adherents of openness or suspicion anyway--had no particular way of visualizing or congratulating themselves; they were too involved in the conversation. Maybe it was a setup. I certainly went for it. No one wants to be naïve, even if it means calling Pam a liar, even if it means blowing her off with a compliment, even if it means doing both simultaneously and calling it a lively conversation. VOCATION AND AMBITION But is resistance naïve? If not, what is the alternative to the internalized script that tells us that if you get accepted to Yale Law School then you go to Yale Law School?     When I first introduce the notion of vocation as a counterplayer to ambition, some people get confused. They are willing to admit that ambition for power or fame or wealth is the kind of thing that can get a person into trouble. Jailed stockbrokers, drugged-out rock stars, and defrocked televangelists are common illustrations.     But can learning a useful skill really be the appropriate response to the problems associated with inordinate ambition? I found this kind of response unsettling at first. It took a while to figure out that the term vocation connotes to some the worlds of auto repair, heavy machinery, and elementary computer programming, all manner of things you do if you can't get into college. That is, more exactly, it connotes the world of skills taught in the evening at the local high school after you've spent your day doing something even less interesting. Fortunately, the connotation is not so deeply fixed that it cannot be challenged and dislodged. This is a good thing because I think the idea of vocation is worth liberating from night school.     There are many reasons for choosing vocation as the noble and all-encompassing counterplayer to mere ambition. Some are less compelling than others. It is, for example, better to be "called" to do something than to merely decide to do it on one's own. This is evident enough to anyone who reads alumni notes. Alums invariably write in the passive voice if they wish to impress their fellow alums. Though they may wheedle, cajole, fawn, grouse, or sometimes work their way into some desired position, alums are always being "named" to this or that, or are graciously "accepting" something wonderful proffered by authoritative others who have recently detected their worthiness. They are "called."     There is another, albeit closely related, quality associated with vocation that I find considerably more enticing than anything that can be passively granted--more enticing, I suspect, than even our own most energetically repressed "worldly" ambitions. Vocation speaks of a life that is "unscripted" in a sense. By contrast, ambition seems scripted by its very essence ("If you get accepted to Yale Law School, then you go to Yale Law School"). In ambition, the prestige of the achievement often seems to depend more on the dignity of the role itself than on the dignity of the one who fills it.     This is not the case with vocation. Vocation speaks of a gracious discovery of a kind of interior consonance between our deepest desires and hopes and our unique gifts, as they are summoned forth by the needs of others and realized in response to that summons. That's what's so enticing about the idea of vocation: in embracing one's vocation, the draining internal opposition between compassion and personal ambition is, at least in principle, overcome. As Frederick Buechner says, "The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet."     The only problem is that many of us don't see things this way and would rather not take somebody else's word for it. "'God's call'? Oh, sure, round up 'the usual suspects'--Gandhi, Mother Teresa, and Martin Luther King Jr. Yes, they lived lives like that. And we really all love them. They even make us cry sometimes. But after all, there's only three of them and, who knows, they may have done it to get into heaven or something anyway."     Once the term vocation is liberated from night school, it is almost immediately interpreted as standing in stark opposition to achieving success in any profession. This makes me feel uneasy, not only because I intend no such thing but also because I don't enjoy being an inverse caricature of everyday social expectations, with inversely definitive plans for everyone else's life. Vocation, it somehow comes across, has nothing to do with lawyers, doctors, investment bankers; it has to do with giving those things up. Images of the archetypal starving artist, of "my cousin's friend who teaches in Newark," of "that guy I met this summer who is a forest ranger and is really into the environment," populate our collective consciousness.     But there is more to this than meets the eye. When you come right down to it, who really likes the idea of living a scripted life? Most of us at one time or another have found ourselves pitted against some manner of insidious conformist pressure, willing perhaps at least for a time to resist whatever blandishments and sanctions an ad hoc committee that fashions social expectations might tempt or threaten us with. Not only this, but there are few of us who don't now and again yearn for a different kind of life and wonder what we should do about it.     Again, why the resistance to Pam, to the concept of vocation, to the possibility of embracing a different kind of life? I would like to be indefinite and evasive in my response to this question, in keeping with the social expectations of my own profession. But my experience demands otherwise. Let me be blunt: there is something approaching a consensus these days, at least in some quarters, that human motivation is self-interested without remainder. By consensus , I don't mean to suggest something consciously accepted, even less something recommended as ideal. I speak rather of something "in the air": a collective assumption of sorts.     Some, it is true, get really excited about the gospel of self-interest. Brandishing Ayn Rand's Fountainhead or some sociobiological or free-market facsimile, they wish to awaken the uninitiated to the virtues of egoism. Others--many others--adopt a kind of soft-edged laissez-faire approach to things. They do not try to clue you in or talk you out of anything. If spending your life working with the homeless is the kind of thing that makes you happy, that's great ("Give me a call, I'll go down to the shelter with you sometime"). Finally, others confront the presumption of ubiquitous self-interest head-on, but do so with a ferocity that serves only to underscore their own uncertainty ("Maybe you're selfish. Did you ever think you might just be selfish?").     Given all that, life conceived as vocation--life increasingly given over to compassion for self, others, and world--appears in such circumstances as benighted, beside the point, a bad bet. Still, I have often noticed a kind of wistfulness when the subject turns to the usual suspects. We doubt their relevance to our own lives, though we would rather not. We are inspired but don't know what to do about it. Often precociously fatigued and discouraged by our own suspicions, we seem nonetheless unable to shake them. Still, the usual suspects and their understudies in the artist's loft, or in Newark, or in the forest preserve seem to remind us of something we already know. It is as if we carry within us a "shadow government" of compassion and idealism.     In fact, I've come to believe that most of us wish nothing more than to liberate our shadow government from exile and to incarnate in the routines of work and play and worship the deepest longings of our heart. But the inhibitions that hold us and our longings in captivity are many and strong. We need to be better acquainted with them. We need to flush them out of their hiding place, study them in detail, and show them for what they really are. COMPASSION IN EXILE: DICKEY'S STORY Anyone who has ever taught a large lecture class or done much public speaking knows that people often mistake you for a television. Those who read newspapers while you're on, bring snacks, and jabber incessantly to an increasingly uncomfortable neighbor are only the tip of the iceberg, the obvious cases. Many others share with them a magical belief that although they are able to see you clearly and in detail, you cannot see them at all. Sometimes I wish that I could turn the tables on my audience and watch them that way. It's not that I'm vengeful; it's because I'd like to learn more about them. Were they televisions, the first thing I would do is switch over to VCR and hit rewind. Then I could be on the lookout for what makes so many of them dubious about Pam, about the usual suspects, and about the notion of vocation itself.     My wish was eventually granted in the way that all such wishes are granted: in a manner of speaking. I stumbled across a chapter in Robert Coles's book Privileged Ones , titled "A Boy's Journey from Liberalism to Social Darwinism." It is the story of a young man named Dickey who lived in a wealthy suburb outside of Boston. In Coles's case study, there is something reminiscent of a war correspondent's account of the battlefield. Here was the harrowing story of a shadow government in retreat, the story of ideals marginalized and exiled, the story of youthful compassion and idealism under assault.     The children interviewed in Coles's book are junior members of America's ruling class. Coles does not say this; he does not need to. These are not multicar families, but multihome families. The early education of these children includes instruction on how to get along with servants, and many of Coles's subjects are seasoned world travelers by the age of ten. Dickey inhabits such a world, though he and his family are at the low end of things, comparatively speaking. They are not to the manor born, and their liberal social views are not shared by their neighbors.     In this case study, Dickey's "friendly adversary," another Richard, often chides Dickey for holding to his family's progressive ethos. There are elements of playfulness in their sparring matches, and in another time and place things might have been different. But both Richards and their families are suburban Bostonians, and it is the 1970s. Bussing is on everyone's mind, and the suburbs are being challenged to do their part. Emotions are running high, and opinion on both sides has little give. It is a time when no one in Dickey's town can avoid reflecting on matters of race and privilege. The conversation has been joined and the lines of battle drawn.     As a nine-year-old, Dickey spoke his mind, freely, persuasively, and often. He was for bussing. He was in favor of it in Boston; he was in favor of it in the public schools of his home town; and what's more, he was in favor of it in his own exclusive private school. Of course, Dickey's opinions rankled many of his classmates and no doubt raised a few eyebrows at home among parents: "Dickey had this to say: 'I think it would be a very good idea if we had some color around here.'"     There's no need to romanticize Dickey. He was a child who thought the way his parents did. They were liberals, after all, and Dickey saw no reason to question their commitment. The strength of Dickey's allegiance to his parents and their liberalism is another matter. For a time, at least, Dickey stood by them when things got tough. He winced when Richard told him that if his parents were so hot on bussing, maybe they should pay for it themselves; but he held his ground. What's more, Dickey was not merely parroting his parents' take on things. There was an emotional intensity about his advocacy of his parents' liberal views. He was moved to compassion by what he heard and saw around him, and he wanted to do something about it. In assigned essays, he warned the black children from Boston that they might not wish to come out this way. He heard what his classmates were saying, and he knew how he would feel if their words were directed at him. Already marginalized, he did his best to stand with those who were truly excluded. (Continues...) Excerpted from FORGETTING OURSELVES ON PURPOSE by Brian J. Mahan. Copyright (c) 2002 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc.. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Table of Contents

Robert Coles
Forewordp. xiii
Preface--And an Invitationp. xvii
What This Book Is Aboutp. xvii
What This Book Doesp. xxi
How to Read This Bookp. xxiii
Acknowledgmentsp. xxv
1 Ask Me What I'm Living Forp. 1
Doubting Pamp. 1
Vocation and Ambitionp. 9
Compassion in Exile: Dickey's Storyp. 14
Wanna-Be Saintp. 21
Reawakening Our Epiphanies of Recruitmentp. 27
Practice: Ask Me What I'm Living Forp. 32
Practice: Ask Me What I Think Is Keeping Me from Living Fully for the Thing I Want to Live Forp. 34
2 Failing at Successp. 38
My Dinner with Valentinop. 38
William James and the Desire for Something Morep. 45
The Sisters of the Cenacle and How to Sneak into Heavenp. 51
Practice: Remembering to Forget Ourselvesp. 55
Two Practices: Finding Yourself by Losing Yourselfp. 62
Practice: Why Do We Do That?p. 65
3 Ivan Ilyich, John Dean, and I: How We Deceive Ourselvesp. 66
Dean and Ilyichp. 66
The Eraser and the Mendacious Mantrap. 77
Practice: Rationalization: A User's Guidep. 82
4 If I'm Really Something, You Must Be Nothing Muchp. 89
A Short Tiradep. 89
The Hidden Fountains and Gardens of the Heartp. 97
Practice: Walker Percy and Spiritual Indirectionp. 107
Three Lies: A Study in Spiritual Indirectionp. 114
Practices: Mirroring Ambitionp. 119
5 Forgetting Ourselves on Purposep. 126
Insight from Sri Lankap. 126
They're Not Hypocrites; They Just Forgotp. 137
Wounded Audacityp. 145
Beatitude: Feeling the Pleasure of Godp. 148
Practice: Days of Remembrancep. 152
Remedial Practicep. 154
6 The Meritocracy Machinep. 156
Harvard and Other Problems with Admissionsp. 156
Practice: Reasons and Rationalizations for the Admissions Committeep. 165
Harvard Divinity School and Other Problems with Acceptancep. 166
Practice: Alternative Reading Skillsp. 176
Practice: Planning an Alternative New Year's Celebrationp. 180
Afterword: Occupations and Preoccupationsp. 183
Practice: Captain Midnight and Other Failed Projection Devicesp. 187
Notesp. 189
The Authorp. 197
Indexp. 199