On Daughters, Vocation & Human Happiness

The Sound of Music just finished its run at the college where I work, and my daughter had a part: Brigitta, one of the von Trapp children. Everyone in the production did a marvelous job, although (you’ll forgive me—I’m a dad) I think that my daughter gave an especially outstanding performance. Bravo!

Another standout of the show was Uncle Max. The student who played him brought an air of gusto and joie de vivre to the character that I don’t recall from the film version, and Max’s fundamental transparency was highlighted as a result. “I like rich people,” Max unabashedly declares at one point. “I like the way they live. I like the way I live when I’m with them.” There was no trouble believing him.

Refreshing honesty like Uncle Max’s is in short supply these days, but young women got a heaping dose from Susan Patton in her Valentine’s Day reflection in the Wall Street Journal last week. Lines like this:

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

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Despite all of the focus on professional advancement, for most of you the cornerstone of your future happiness will be the man you marry. But chances are that you haven’t been investing nearly as much energy in planning for your personal happiness as you are planning for your next promotion at work. What are you waiting for?

The advice Patton dishes up may not be universally palatable, but I think she deserves some credit for having served it up at all, and with so much candor. Instead, she’s catching a whole bunch of grief—like Emma Gray at the Huffington Post, and Alexandra Petri at the Washington Post. Petri’s critique is satirical, and particularly harsh:

Don’t listen to Susan Patton, who is trying to sugar-coat it. Here is the REAL, COLD, HARD, UGLY TRUTH, in BLOCK CAPITALS. Women, if you are alone on Valentine’s Day, right now, reading this, over your giant bucket of ice cream, it is because you have Failed. You heard me.

Funny, yes, but pretty predictable.

Patton’s Argument: Its Strength and Weakness
Look, I have four daughters, so I think about this stuff a lot, and, overall, I appreciate Patton’s approach—especially when she cuts to the chase:

Not all women want marriage or motherhood, but if you do, you have to start listening to your gut and avoid falling for the P.C. feminist line that has misled so many young women for years.

In a world in which so many marriages end in divorce, and casual attitudes about extramarital sex lead to single motherhood and/or abortion all too often, I’ll encourage my older girls to read Patton’s column, and I’ll pass along the same ideas to my younger daughters in due time. Just as Patton advises her readers, I want my own girls to be intentional about choosing a path and, if it includes marriage, to be intentional about choosing a husband.

That being said, I do have a problem with Patton’s column, and it’s this: She didn’t go far enough. Patton assumes a dichotomous future for young women: Either it’s marriage, or dying an old maid—that’s it! If Patton really thinks that way, then I can well understand her urgent warnings and prescriptions. But, really, nobody’s life should be primarily about pursuing married bliss—I’m with the feminists on this point. And, frankly, it’s not even really about whom you should marry if you do decide to pursue it. Rather, questions of marriage should be subordinate to larger, more weighty questions of discernment—i.e., contemplating God’s will for me, and asking whether He has called me to marriage at all.

Leaving Vocation Out of the Discussion
In other words, Patton leaves out any discussion of the question of vocation. In Christian tradition, marriage isn’t mainly about temporal happiness, and least of all my own. Rather, marriage ought to be directed to the true happiness of the beloved, one’s spouse, and in that sense marriage is truly a calling—a calling that even requires its own special Sacrament.

This is also true of the other Sacrament of vocation, Holy Orders, and the Catechism highlights the link between these two callings in this way:

Holy Orders and Matrimony are directed towards the salvation of others; if they contribute as well to personal salvation, it is through service to others that they do so. They confer a particular mission in the Church and serve to build up the People of God.

So, instead of mapping out a plan of life that’s directed toward self-actualization and maximizing pleasure, we’re called to contemplate paths that put us in positions of servitude—and then, with God’s help, to choose between them: Marriage on the one hand; celibate priesthood, along with religious life, on the other. Both paths are designed to ultimately bring us the fullest kind of joy (i.e., heaven), but they both have self-abandonment and self-denial at their cores. Really, they’re simply different ways of carrying the Cross, and that’s a far cry from virtually all popular notions of how to go about finding happiness.

Which brings us back full circle to The Sound of Music. The story of Maria von Trapp—especially as it was crystallized by Rodgers and Hammerstein—is a study in vocational discernment. Maria was truly abandoned to pursuing God’s will, and, for her, that meant giving up her personal goal of religious life in order to embrace the married state instead.

Both would entail sacrifice; both would involve struggle. Both, in the words of the Mother Abbess, would require climbing mountains—an idea that the Abbess could’ve borrowed directly from Gregory of Nyssa:

He who climbs never stops going from beginning to beginning, through beginnings that have no end. He never stops desiring what he already knows.

Yet it is not climbing to achieve the pinnacles of worldly success or career satisfaction or even marital bliss. One climbs to achieve Christ, and, with Christ, true joy.

Editor’s note: This essay first appeared February 16, 2014 on the author’s blog “One Thousand Words A Week” and is reprinted with permission.


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