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”.