Forrest ChristianCareers, Finding your purpose, happiness 1 Comment

We religious types talk about callings a lot. Christians of the Calvinist mindset even call all work, “your calling”. Other Americans have caught on, and many spiritual people of various types talk about callings. It’s not a term restricted to people of a particular faith, or even of any faith. Saying that you have a calling seems to encapsulate something important, something big.

I think that Calling is an important topic for most hidden high potentials. We use the term when we talk, seeing many of your frustrations through of the lens of frustrated calling. It’s an important topic, one that I’m now convinced I have to deal with openly. There’s just one small problem.

What in the world do we mean?

The obvious answer is “a verbal or internally verbalized command by a god to perform some task”. Hercules had a “calling” to clean out the stables. Jonah had a “calling” to preach to the city of Nineveh.

Of course, once we get into a more modern time we hear that God told someone to do something and think, “Crank”. That shows a good deal of prejudice on our part, for there are many thoughtful people who claim to hear a divine voice in visions, dreams and even waking hours.

For most of us, however, that doesn’t happen. Yet we still feel this thing that seems to fit with the term “calling”. You may even be one of them. If I press you, you may find it very hard to really say what a calling is, or even to describe your calling in any detail. Having to defend that you have one challenges it, and you begin to doubt what you still feel as real.

I think that we can do a little better than that.

This discussion, for me, has two parts. One is for all of us, or at least for a majority of people who experience some form of what is called spirituality. That doesn’t have to include belief in any higher powers at all, but a sense of awe and wonder at times. The second part deals is couched in my own Christian beliefs, and deals with how the God of the Christians works this in them. I’ll be dealing with the first part of callings here, so several of you don’t have to feel the need to leave.

In his book Forgetting Ourselves on Purpose: Vocation and the Ethics of Ambition, Emory professor Brian Mahan speaks of callings as vague urges that overwhelm us at times, invitations into something, but a something that we don’t understand. He refers to them as “invitations”, points in our lives where our hearts feel a strong sense of invitation to something or other. It always seems vague, difficult, elusive.

“Am I supposed to respond to this feeling? Consider it? What am I supposed to do with this?”

It’s all very exasperating.

In an address to the incoming freshmen at Wartburg College (Waverly, Iowa), Mahan makes it clear that for most of us, even those who believe that we have contact with the divine, these invitations / callings are very difficult. He takes exception with Buechner’s oft-quoted formulation that

Howard Thurman, a theologian who was a mentor to Martin Luther King, Jr., was asked by one of his students what he should do for the world. Surprisingly, Thurman responded by saying, “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

Of course, Thurman’s advice only goes so far. Understood in a certain way, refusing to ask what the world needs may be construed as selfish. For this reason, Frederick Buechner’s description of call, of vocation, is a good corrective. “The place God calls us to,” Buechner writes, “is the place where our deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” Still, I prefer Thurman’s words. As much as I am inspired and influenced by Buechner’s description of God’s call, I believe it lends itself to manipulation. We are sorely tempted to get out a sheet of paper, place what makes us deeply glad in one column and what the world needs in another, connect the dots, and find our vocation at the bottom of the page.

My own sense of the matter is that we may in fact be living out our vocation without having a strong sense that we are doing so. Similarly, we may speak confidently of God’s plan for our lives while we’re missing the mark badly.

A friend of mine is fond of repeating the words of the great Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, that we may take joy in the thought that before God, we are always in the wrong. Frankly, I am comforted by the fact that before God I can never really get it right, never quite know what my own vocation is and whether I’m living it out faithfully.

[Brian J. Mahan, “Christian Vocation: A Horse of a Different Color (Wartburg [University] Convocation, Fall 2003)“]

It is perhaps what this is for most of us. Not a command to go forth and do something. No burning bush, no “Tell Pharaoh to let me people go!”, no real sense of what to do next. If you’ve had that, great: really. But know that for most folks, that didn’t happen.

But we still have this unarticulated urge.

Maybe we just need someone to help us articulate it.

One of my colleagues, Julian Fairfield, told me that high worklevel ideas “always attract money, because they provide the enablement vehicle for other people’s unarticulated visions.” They provide a context so that other people can realize their callings. Their words provide the conditions in which their calling, dormant like a bulb in spring beneath the ground, suddenly spring forth, grow, and blossom.

Buechner and Thurman are also right: the calling is where our hearts leap. It may be that your calling is not one that you would wish for yourself, for it contradicts your taught work values. This isn’t “my muse told me to leave me children to starve so I could find myself.” It’s the sense of someone told all their lives about the value of Science, living where that work language — the language of the Disciplinary Work Domain — but they naturally speak the language of Spiritual Work Domain.

Like the questing young hero, you must leave your world to go out seeking what is there for you to discover, perhaps to return, transformed.

In the end, your Calling is tied up with your sense of Purpose in this world. Why you are here. What you are about,

Who you really are.

Perhaps it is time to move beyond your love/hate relationship with your sense of “calling”.



Mia { 06.20.09 at 14:06 }

This sense of ‘calling’ for me has always been clear, although not without temporary memory lapses over the years when things got complicated. I will say that I have wondered, honestly, (as a right-brained person does sometimes) why people respond negatively to the question of calling when asked. God has been good to me.

This sense of ‘calling’ for me has always been clear, (although not without temporary memory lapses over the years when things got complicated). And certainly not to say that I have not had to take months, sometimes years, to make sure I was hearing clearly. But why do you think people balk at the calling idea? Or substitute the word passion…


Forrest Christian { 06.20.09 at 15:41 }

It’s a good question. At least in the States, “calling” has clear antecedents in Calvin’s writings, even more so than Luther’s. We definitely get the way we think about callings from him. So some people may be responding negatively to Christian or even Calvinist overtones.

If Buechner is right, even in part, then there is certainly a way that “passion” has to be a part of calling, in the sense that I used it here. You have to feel this calling in you, have an urge that when fulfilled in some way brings you a sense of Delight. You feel passion for responding to your calling, for living in your calling. But one can of course have passion about something without it relating to calling. Does anyone think that Cubs or Anderlecht fans are “called” even though they are obviously passionate? I think that people want to avoid bringing in the sense of the divine, in any way, and so use confusing language. (In the sense of “direct command from God”, this would not necessarily be true.)


Mia { 06.21.09 at 01:00 }

Forrest, (great name!)

Thanks for the response!

I tend to think “Passion” is a hotword. And “calling” Carries with it a moral obligation which even supersedes the dreaded ‘P’ word. The subject seems to be intimidating for those who have less of a natural intuition. I have killed so many conversations with the first sentence by dropping the “P” bomb! (I live on a very long learning curve)

Do you ever talk about right brain/left brain types specifically? (Strictly for the benefit of those of us who have little shriveled rattling nuts in the otherwise empty left sides of our skulls.)


Mary McQueen { 06.23.09 at 10:49 }

I had the urge to follow a calling a decade ago when the thought that I should try living in a Benedictine Monastery would not leave me alone. I gave everything I owned to a waif I had encountered and went to give the “come follow Me” business the old college try.

I had an unforgettable dream shortly before entering the monastery:

I found myself inside the monastery waiting at an elevator. I pushed the UP button but the DOWN button lit up instead. I didn’t have a good feeling as I got on and the elevator went down to B for Basement when I wanted to go to an upper floor.

The doors opened into a dark tunnel through rock covered with mold and slime. Classic nightmare. Then, with dread I can still totally remember, I rounded a blind corner and came to a dazzling bright room, pure white and full of French Swordsmen (also dressed in white) practicing their sword maneuvers.

I still had to go through the tunnel, but they were all set to go with me!

This is the part of my calling, whatever it really is, that I have held onto. That 50 french swordsmen will go with me.


Forrest Christian { 06.23.09 at 12:42 }

Mia, I really don’t have a good grasp on the right brain / left brain differences, although I know that they exist. The research with the hemispherically damaged is stunning for what it means.

In “Happiness Hypothesis”, the author refers to left brain, right brain as being like a rider on an elephant. The left brain rides the right brain, but you can’t tell an elephant where to go when it doesn’t want to. And when an elephant wants to go somewhere, it’s likely to just go.

What you experienced does remind me of something Warren Kinston talked about describing an person who uses the Imaginist decision making style trying to talk to a Pragmatica style person. They are on opposite sides of the spiral and usually hate each other. Warren has asked me to write up something on the decision styles, so maybe this will get fleshed out over the summer.

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