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Emotions and Vocation: Advice for Graduates 

June 13, 2023

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The end of the academic year is a kind of harvest season, fruitful of robed and capped graduates who are now ready (at least in theory) to begin the next season of their lives. And there is a very common question which graduates hear. 

“Are you excited?” 

I’ve heard variants of this question not just at graduation ceremonies, but also at Confirmations and at First Holy Communions. 

It is a terrible question. 

It may be the case that you, on the receiving end of this question, genuinely are excited, proud, happy, et cetera, feeling all the things that one might expect a person to feel at this important moment. If so: good; that is a gift, receive it with gratitude. 

But maybe you don’t feel excited or happy at all, but rather nervous, or tired, or bored, or hungry; maybe you’re self-conscious about what you’re wearing. Maybe you are feeling bittersweet about one stage ending as well as a new stage beginning. Maybe you just feel nothing in particular, just rather ‘meh.’ You might even find that at the celebratory moment, or for days or weeks afterwards, you are rather anxious, depressed, irritable, self-doubting, and unable to muster up a properly enthusiastic response to the congratulatory remarks of your family and friends. 

And you may find yourself wondering, “What’s wrong with me? Why do I not feel what I am supposed to feel?” If you are of a particularly self-reflective turn of mind, you might even start feeling anxious about feeling anxious. (If you do not feel this way, reflecting on this will help you be more sympathetic and supportive to friends who do.)

Take heart! Nothing is wrong with you. You are human, and this is a very normal experience. To achieve anything involves the expending of energy: mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual energy. When we get to the finish line, it is a cause for celebration, but often the reserves of energy which carried us through are drained, and we must rest, recharge, before we can feel excited and happy about our accomplishments. And furthermore, as C.S. Lewis wisely observed, “an obligation to feel can freeze feelings.” Precisely when you reach an important stage of your life, you may find it difficult to react naturally. Again, this is perfectly normal. 

In order to make good judgments, we must first understand the meaning of our emotions.

But this seeming disconnection between what we expect to feel, or think we should feel, and how we may in fact feel at any given moment, is worth exploring in some detail. 

Emotions are not under our immediate conscious control, and are not, in and of themselves, moral or rational; morality comes into play when we act on our emotions, and reason when we make judgments and decisions based on them. It is not always straightforward to know what place emotions have in one’s life. 

On the one hand, it can be tempting to privilege the emotions, as if they come from a more authentic self: I feel this, therefore it is right and good. Sometimes our intuition does speak truly and we should listen and act immediately: if I, as a woman, feel unsafe in a given situation, I remove myself from that situation as quickly as possible, and analyze the reasons for my feelings later. But as a general rule, allowing oneself to be guided uncritically by one’s emotions is hazardous. “I feel this, therefore this is true and good” can be an excuse to gratify desires that we ought to keep restrained, but it can also lead to self-hatred. If my feelings are always right, what if I feel that I am worthless and unlovable? What if I look at the media and feel ugly, tomboyish, effeminate, too fat, too thin, or otherwise inadequate? Does that mean that I am defective, and must therefore reshape my body by force, or craft ever-more-elaborate public representations of myself? No! 

The objective reality of something does not depend on you feeling a particular way about it. In reality (thank God!) each one of you is a precious, beloved child of God, and it is on the basis of this objective truth (not on whether or not you feel beloved at this very moment) that you can act rightly, and work toward a truly integrated self. And on a day to day basis, as Catholics, we have the great blessing of the objective reality of the sacraments. Our Lord is truly present in the Eucharist, and we truly receive pardon of our sins in the sacrament of Confession, regardless of whether or not we have any pious feelings at that moment.

On the other hand, given the dangers of uncritically accepting our emotions as true indicators of reality, it can be tempting to simply declare emotions to be dangerous and misleading, and to attempt to live according to the intellect alone. This is also a mistake. Our feelings are an essential part of who we are as incarnate beings, and embracing a kind of emotional anorexia won’t make us healthy. God could have made us all into little Spocks and Datas, but he didn’t. 

In order to make good judgments, we must first understand the meaning of our emotions. Our feelings are telling us something. Although, frustratingly, this communication is not direct and straightforward, it does have the great value of coming from a part of our being that responds differently from our intellect.  

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Where does all this connect to ‘vocation,’ which, after all, I have put in the title of this piece? 

Graduates in particular have a lot of choices ahead. Will you go to college, and if so, what will you study? What work will you pursue? Will you be called to the vocation of marriage or to the single life? If you are single, will you discern a religious vocation? Where will you live, who will your friends be, what will be the shape of your life in the years to come? So many choices! 

As you ponder these choices and take steps along a particular path, it is particularly easy to misread nervousness, uncertainty, and self-doubt (emotions that are very common among students, I can assure you!). Perhaps you feel nervous about your choice of school or your choice of major, or about a new job or opportunity, or a big project. Does self-doubt mean that you definitely picked the wrong major, or that you are certain to fail miserably, that your presentation or project is going to be a disaster, or that you aren’t ready for this new opportunity? Not necessarily. To be sure, you should not simply ignore those feelings and assert that everything will be great. It might indeed be that you have taken on more than you can handle at this particular moment, or that you do not yet have the skills you need to be successful in the task you’re attempting. Perhaps you are nervous because you need to investigate more fully or prepare more thoroughly for this new endeavor. Or your anxiety might be a recognition that the work is important: you care, and so you are nervous. Your emotions might be alerting you to the need for more preparation or more support. Which is it? Only you can find this out, and for that, you need quiet time for reflection, prayer, wise advice, and support—enlisting the intellect and the virtues of prudence and wisdom. 

And this process of discernment, drawing on your whole self (emotions, intellect, will), applies equally to understanding your vocation in life. 

God made you who you are: he gave you your talents and your interests and your personality. Your vocation may not take the shape you expect, but it will fit into who God made you to be. So, as you go forward, pay attention to your own interests, and gifts, and how you feel when you are making use of them; where do you find satisfaction and joy? This is not exactly the same thing as feeling happy or having fun. Hard work is always going to be hard work—with challenges of frustration, fatigue, boredom, and so on. But you’ll be better able to discern your calling in life if you can recognize which kinds of hard work give you a sense of satisfaction and purpose, as opposed to making you feel consistently anxious, stressed, and fearful. Your emotions will help you discern this: not in a single moment, but in the overall pattern of your life, if you give proper time (and quiet!) to attend to them. 

Nourish your faith with study of the Scriptures, and prayer, and the sacraments, so that your conscience is properly formed. Then your conscience can guide your intellect, to properly understand what your emotions are telling you, and strengthen your will to act rightly.