Cookie-Cutter Vocations and Authenticity

ByLuke Burgis
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Malcolm Gladwell tells the story of the J. Paul Getty museum’s acquisition of a kouros, a marble sculpture of a nude male youth standing with his left leg forward and his arms at his sides. Its dealer claimed that it was sculpted in Greece in the sixth century BC. There are only about two hundred kouroi in existence.

Does your vocation look like this?

The Getty museum hired some of the best scientists in the world to examine the kouros over the course of the next 14 months before they finalized their $10 million purchase. The scientists concluded that the statue was authentic. It quickly went on display in the museum and garnered a front-page story by the New York Times.

But as art experts began to study the statue, the Getty museum became increasingly worried by what they kept hearing. Something didn’t look right.

One critic found himself staring at the sculpture’s fingernails. Another critic felt like there was a wall of glass between him and the kouros. Yet another felt an “instinctive revulsion” that he couldn’t explain. All of them knew intuitively what the Getty museum didn’t want to accept: Their prized piece of art was a fraud.

Upon further investigation, they discovered that the kouros came from a forger’s workshop in Rome in the early 1980’s.

It’s Better to be a Bad Phony Than a Good Fake

When I was in my last year of seminary formation, the faculty psychologist, a priest with a doctorate from Harvard, gave us a tip for recognizing borderline personality disorder, which is extraordinarily hard to diagnose in a scientific way. He gave us a shortcut: if something seems off, then something is probably off—trust your gut. It reminded me of the art experts who viewed the kouros.

Inside a forger’s workshop

People with borderline personality disorder have uncertainty about how they see themselves and their role in the world, so they are always trying to “guess” what kind of behavior to adopt. This is a difference from mere inauthenticity, but it is not unrelated. In both cases, the priest-psychologist’s advice holds: We usually know it when we feel it.

As a seminarian, I once met a priest who, within thirty seconds of meeting me, launched into a fifteen-minute monologue about how happy he was to be a priest. I thought to myself that it would be odd if a doctor did the same thing immediately after meeting a medical student.

Within a year, that priest had taken a sabbatical to deal with depression.

I saw this situation play out time and time again, inside and outside of the seminary. Some of my good friends, who are not Catholic (but wanted to be), simply couldn’t find many Catholics they felt they could connect with on a deeply human level. They knew inauthenticity when they saw it.

I knew how to spot this trait because I too, had become inauthentic. The more that I tried to conform to an abstract “ideal” of what I thought a good priest (or seminarian) should be like, the more I lost myself.

I became convinced that the source of inauthenticity for me and for others was a perceived incongruence between how God was calling me personally and what I thought my vocation was supposed to look like. I was trading a personal vocation for a cookie-cutter one.

I learned how to smile and tell a polished “vocation story” to everyone who asked. Over the years, I cut my vocation story down from ten-minutes of candid narrative (the pain of breaking up with my girlfriend, the roller-coaster ride of emotion, the zeal with which I fell headlong into a pit of unimaginative “holiness”) to a thirty-second, polished movie trailer. I stopped doing things that I loved like taking late-night walks in Rome because I didn’t want anyone to think I was lonely. Worst of all, I stayed silent when I saw and heard things that I thought were wrong. And every time that I did, a piece of me died.

I was a good seminarian, but I shouldn’t have been.

The Bella Figura

Jep Gambardella from the Italian film “La Grande Bellezza”

Who was the forger of the kouros? Gladwell says almost nothing about him.
I wonder what kind of art he would’ve made had he used his gifts to create authentic art rather than copy Greek sculptures from the sixth century BC. He sold his birthright as an artist to be an expert copyist of another man’s work.

Would you rather be a good factory worker or a bad student? This is the fundamental question.

The “tracks” that we follow from a young age exert a tremendous pressure on us to conform. The more that we need to be “good” students or seminarians or children or even Catholics—based on some notion of good that is non-personal and non-essential—the more we lose sight of our true good: Becoming the person God created us to be.

I believe that the remedy to our vocational malaise, the “pulverization of the fundamental uniqueness of each human person,” in the words of Saint John Paul II, is a recovery of the rich reality of personal vocation, which I detail in the new book Unrepeatable: Cultivating the Unique Calling of Every Person with co-author Dr. Joshua Miller.

Each and every person is called to a unique and unrepeatable vocation. If it is not discovered, embraced, and lived, it is lost to the world forever. Each person is spoken into existence with a unique word that has never been spoken before and will never be spoken again. The purpose of their life is to express it.

I’m happy to report that the priest who entered treatment for depression emerged from his sabbatical with new life and is joyfully serving his flock today. The difference now, he told me, is that he’s serving them in all of his quirkiness. He is truly giving a gift of himself. His joy is real.

In Italy it’s common to hear the phrase fare una bella figura, which translates into something like this: “cut a beautiful figure”. It means to put careful thought into the face you present to the world.

The forger of the kouros cut a beautiful, but inauthentic figure.

We have to cut an authentic, beautiful life.

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