Lesson 1 - From Job to Vocation

Medicine as Vocation

"Jobs" and "Vocations"

The majority of doctors and medical professionals view their work as some kind of calling, so someone doesn’t need to be religious to feel a higher sense of purpose in the practice of medicine. But, as Farr notes here, the concept of vocation has Christian roots.

In its original sense, “vocation” conveys a sense of having been summoned and equipped by God to perform a certain task. Or, to put it as Farr does, calling involves “work to which God calls a person within the body of Christ.”

Since the earliest days of the faith, Christians have thought of healing the sick as a divine vocation. Consider, for example, the words of the English physician, Stephen Paget (1855–1926):

If a doctor’s life may not be a divine vocation, then no life is a vocation, and nothing is divine.

Stephen Paget, Confessio Medici

Farr argues that this concept is the key to understanding medicine as more than just a “job.” Performance of a “job” is driven by its rewards or benefits: a salary, a lifestyle, prestige. A vocation, on the other hand, is driven by the intrinsic value of the work itself.

  • As a thought exercise, try to state the purpose of medicine in one sentence.

  • Take a moment to consider your daily work in the medical field. Right now, what motivates you in your care for patients?

"Soul-crushing" Work

Here, Farr briefly recounts his own experience as a young physician. Like many medical professionals, he got into medicine because he saw the healing of the sick as self-evidently good—as something that almost needed no further justification.

But by drawing on some recent data about the state of the medical profession, Farr also shows how many physicians and medical professionals feel a radical estrangement from their work. In other words, their daily toil—patient care buried under a towering pile of administrative responsibilities, for example—feels at odds with their vocation as healers.

Farr puts it bluntly: sometimes the culture of medical work can be “soul crushing.”

  • Why did you originally decide to pursue a career in medicine? In what ways has a career in medicine turned out to be different than you thought it would be?

  • What about the medical field makes your work feel “soul-crushing”? How, in particular, does your work feel more like a job rather than a vocation in your day-to-day practice?

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