Imagine, if you will, that Notre Dame is a garden. More precisely, imagine that the “Notre Dame Family” is a garden, with different ways of participating in this community represented by the plants and flowers in bloom. Lucky for us, it is a bit easier to conduct this exercise in early September rather than during the doldrums of February.
What grows in this garden? What ways of participating in community add to its beauty and unity, and what ways detract from it? Before answering this question, let us first examine what makes the garden possible: the soil.
Without knowing terribly much about horticulture, I say that the soil provides the underlying conditions for the garden’s growth. The “soil” at Notre Dame is the underlying set of conditions that exist to shape what forms of community participation spring up. This soil exists prior to the garden coming to be, prior to us setting down roots in our new community.
The soil is of particular interest to me. It is quite peculiar, as college is a quite peculiar time in our lives. When I was younger, I always imagined college ushering in the epoch of freedom, but my childhood dreams of having no bedtime and eating chocolate for breakfast have been cast aside for grander visions of liberty, ranging from attempts to go as long as humanly possible without doing laundry to sleeping outside on South Quad to raise money for Syrian refugees. Yet what makes these varying visions of independence possible is a rather striking peculiarity of college life: its disconnection from the fundamental social units of families. Our lives are shaped by interaction with families, from birth into our own to interactions with other families throughout our lives. Here I find the garden metaphor inescapable, for families root us in a particular time, place, and culture.
College years are a formative transition between living with our families to perhaps one day beginning our own. A majority of us will get married at some point, but even if one does not marry, interaction with family nevertheless shapes one’s life. What is so very curious, then, is that during these crucially formative college years, we rarely encounter married and family life. I am grateful to gather for meals at professors’ homes, to spend time with a friend’s family who lives nearby, and even to encounter the clamor of a toddler at Basilica Mass. Yet these are rare occasions. For the most part, we are isolated from married and family life during what is perhaps the most significant time of formation for entering into this life later. The insular environment of a college campus in which nearly everything is directed at the good of 18-22 year olds certainly seems conducive to our immediate wants and needs, yet the lack of models of family and married life cannot be without adverse effects.
This is our garden’s soil, one that is largely stripped of examples of married and family life and what it means to pursue the goods of such communities. Perhaps, the most significant disservice this soil effects might be glimpsed by returning to the paradigm of college as a time of great freedom. This freedom comes at the cost of being set adrift as we enter college, uprooted from our families and communities at home. While the uprooting from family might have freed us to plant our own roots in dorms, clubs, and majors, too often the associated goods of family life—sacrificing for and pursuing the good of the community over self-interest—become disconnected from our daily living.
If our garden’s soil is an at least unusual condition—if not somewhat impoverished—in which adrift individuals are seeking roots, what has taken root in the garden as ways of participation in the community? How do we seek to establish roots at Notre Dame?
At least two ways of trying to establish roots evidently grow well into this soil at Notre Dame. The first way is the way of competitive careerism, and the second is a way of false intimacy.
A certain degree of aimlessness plagues campus life, as we seek goods that flourish so well in family life—belonging, purpose, and intimacy—perhaps without even realizing that we are seeking them. Perhaps one seeks community in the classroom, in sports teams, in clubs, or in dorm life. Yet a tension quickly arises: while we might desire community and strive to define ourselves in context of group identities, we also strive to define ourselves by what we individually can do—the grades one can achieve, the internships one can acquire, the titles one can earn. These tensions are seen in the “Notre Dame introduction,” for example, a blend of individual and group identities. This culture of competitive careerism, then, is one way of seeking roots in the Notre Dame family.
A second way unfolds from the unsatisfying nature of competitive careerism: we long for authentic intimacy to which competition is inimical. Perhaps we sense that the long-awaited liberation of college has indeed left us adrift, and we do long for roots more authentic and intimate than that of group identities. Yet the soil is often malnourished of healthy ideas of intimacy to be found both in genuine friendship and romantic relationships. It is easy to become confused about what healthy relationships and authentic community look like. One might go astray in pursuing the desire for intimacy—perhaps in the easy anonymity of the hookup culture.
While this second way often begins in a good and genuine desire for relationship, when improperly pursued it grows into a culture of selfish individualism. The hookup culture’s false forms of community and relationships form the sensibilities against the vulnerability that is required for true intimacy, rendering it difficult or distasteful. The pursuit of individual good is hollow when divorced from the community. Quickly, relationships become all about me and about my desires.
These two are not an exhaustive catalog of the weeds that might grow, but a brief illustration of what can transpire in our soil. Neither of these fundamentally individualistic ways of participation—competitive careerism and false intimacy—engender true community or family, one in which individual good flourishes in the context of communal good. Neither competitive careerism nor false intimacy aids in establishing true roots and pursuing the goods of the Notre Dame family. Individualistic pursuits starve us for the intimacy that flourishes from authentic community and obfuscate the truth that relationships involve pursuing the good of the other through authentic self-gift.
What authentic ways of pursuing community might bloom in this soil instead? Perhaps the solution to forming true roots and participating in the community well might be found in what Pope Francis had to say about the Church’s newest saint to be recognized, Mother Teresa of Calcutta.
At the homily for the Canonization Mass of Mother Teresa on September 4, Pope Francis said, “The task which the Lord gives us … is the vocation to charity in which each of Christ’s disciples puts his or her entire life at his service, so to grow each day in love.” Mother Teresa’s life was a particular flourishing, a blossoming of the possibilities of the Christian life rooted in her time and place and using her gifts: her vocation.
The solution to rootlessness, then, is our vocation to charity. We are called to grow in love through our personal vocation, rooted in the good of the community. We are called to perform our vocation to charity in the context of community and the unity of pursuing goods together. The Christian vocation is not a limiting directive but a blossoming and unfolding of the expansive possibilities for loving well.
Of course, this is much easier imagined than done; the harvest of authentic participation in the community take slow, patient time to cultivate. Yet only through the vocation to charity can the culture of careerism and false intimacy be pruned.
The university’s role, then, as the gardener, is to foster the vocation to charity and to work against a culture of careerism and a culture of false intimacy. This takes our slow, patient work as well. We are called to root ourselves in such a way that will enable us to blossom and beautify the garden. We are called to pursue our vocation of the current state in life in which we are rooted—however bizarre our soil might be.
Stephanie Reuter is a junior studying PLS and dwelling in Welsh Family Hall. Recently, she was saddened when the flowers she bought from the farmer’s market wilted in two days. Console her at email@example.com.