4 things you should know about your calling
If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you; if you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you. — Gnostic Gospel of Thomas
What you fear is an indication of what you seek. — Thomas Merton
1. You don’t get to choose your calling.
I guess that’s why it’s called “a calling”. We can’t choose what calls us; we can only listen close – and have the courage to accept what it tells us.
Callings can be so damn inconvenient.
They usually arrive as some form of pain.
They’re an itch, a yearning, a slow deadening of the soul, a restless knowledge that you are meant for something else, if you can only figure out what it is.
The body knows. Finding your calling can be like that child’s game of hot and cold. When you’re moving away from your calling, the body treats that as – cold! — nothing less than self-betrayal. What you fail to bring forth can destroy you. The body finds some way to break down. You get sick. You get depressed. You get sick and depressed.
As you move toward your calling – hot! — you get glimmers of something else entirely. A sense of flow and absorption. A flash of joy. A growing excitement.
My sister once came to a major life crossroads: renew her contract with her current employer or strike out into the unknown territory of new opportunities — and a stretch of unemployment.
She chose to renew her contract because she thought it was the “responsible” thing to do.
The morning after she made that decision, she literally could not get out of bed.
She stayed in bed for four days.
She took that as a sign to reverse her decision.
She’s much happier now. (And on a different career track in a different city.)
2. You can only live out your own calling.
Your calling grows out of your soulprint: like a fingerprint, it is intricate and complex and unique to you. You’re born with it inside you. No one else can give it to you, although some might try — starting with your parents.
Jung once said: The greatest burden a child must bear is the unlived life of the parents.
As we grow up, we learn how to please, and we assemble our ‘false self’ accordingly: that collection of ideas and notions and ‘shoulds’: what we should be and how we should act and the goals we should pursue in the world.
To get at the truth of your calling, you have to crack open that false self and see what lies within.
You have to recognize the aspects of your life that don’t rightly belong to you, and as a result are weighing you down. You have to take that alien weight and give it back to its proper owner:
This is yours. I am done with it. I refuse to carry it any longer.
3. Your gifts point the way to your calling.
The problem with your gifts is that they generally need to be recognized as gifts by somebody other than you, usually as early as childhood. Someone else needs to recognize what comes so easily to you that you will grow up taking it completely for granted, thinking that everybody else can do that. Guess what? They can’t.
“At first I thought that was really stupid,” she said (I am paraphrasing here). “I thought, everybody can do that. What’s so special about that?”
(Listening to her, I remember feeling envy, because ‘focus’ is not one of my strengths. If anything, I’ve been able to decipher my calling because of how certain activities call forth a focus so intense and consuming I lose time. But in the rest of my life, I have ADD. Literally. I take medication for it.)
When those gifts are mirrored back to you, you can identify them — and develop them. You can put yourself on the road to mastery. You can own your gifts. You can own the crap out of them.
You can commit yourself full-out. You can unify your life around the practice of your talent and see what kind of greatness becomes possible for you.
But you have to have faith in your gift.
As Stephen Cope points out in his wonderful bookTHE GREAT WORK OF YOUR LIFE: your gift – which he refers to as The Gift – is indestructible. It’s permanent. It doesn’t disappear because you neglected it for forty years — which means it’s never too late to circle back to what you might have missed before. It lives near the center of you.
But your faith in your gift (The Gift) is something else entirely. Your faith can be tender and fragile and susceptible to doubt.
Doubt, by the way – and a flashbulb popped off in my head when I learned this – means, at least in terms of your calling, being stuck. It’s “a thought that touches both sides of a dilemma at the same time.”
It paralyzes you.
It splits you down the middle and pins you to the floor, unable to take action. Some of us stay there so long, and get so comfortable, that we no longer realize we’re in doubt at all: we think that life is supposed to feel like this.
4. Your calling is where your gift intersects with the times.
Our calling is where The Gift that’s inside us from birth connects with The World we’re born into. It’s our responsibility to develop The Gift in the way it’s called forth — to serve The World. Not just ourselves. The freaking world.
“The Gift”, writes Cope, taking these ideas from the Bhagavad Gita, “cannot reach maturity until it is used in the service of a greater good. In order to ignite the full ardency of [your calling], The Gift must be put in the service of The Times.”
(You could think of The Gift as your ultimate value proposition, your unique point of awesomeness, the ability that meets a need in a way that sets you apart.)
Here’s the thing:
Your life belongs to the world.
And although the creative process of whatever it is that you do, belongs to you, the final outcome – the fruit of that labor – is not yours. It is beyond you. It belongs to the world.
You let go and let be.
(Which gives you greater peace of mind, by the way, which allows you to engage more fully with your process, which puts you in deeper practice, which makes you greater at what you do.)
Otherwise you live a life trapped in self. You take your self as your mission in life, and this causes suffering – because it isolates you, because the self isn’t big enough for your real yearnings and abilities, because, as Martin Seligman put it, “the self is a poor site for meaning.”
“If you don’t find your work in the world and throw yourself wholeheartedly into it, you will inevitably make yourself your work….You will, in the very best case, dedicate your life to the perfection of your self. To the perfection of your health, intelligence, beauty, home, or even spiritual prowess. And the problem is simply this: This self-dedication is too small a work. It inevitably becomes a prison.”
Your self can never be enough. Perfection eludes you. You must deal with your aging body, your aging mind, your fading beauty. Even your children will grow up and leave you.
So you look to the world.
When you understand that you are the world – when you see the world as your self, and your self as the world – “ you can care for all things.” You live beyond yourself – which also means you can live with purpose, awe and meaning.
You play your essential part in a much bigger picture. You know how and where you belong.
“Our actions in expression of [our calling] – my actions, your actions, everyone’s actions – are infinitely important. They connect us to the soul of the world. They create the world. Small as they may appear, they have the power to uphold the essential inner order of the world.”
In other words, it isn’t selfish – or trivial – or a luxury – to pursue your calling, wherever it might lead you: it’s a sacred obligation. Because, in the end, it isn’t just about you. It’s about how you will be of true service.
When we’re fully engaged, when we’re expressing our gifts, when we’re living a deep sense of mission, when we’re contributing, when we’re being ourselves full-out and on purpose —
That way lies happiness.
What you bring forth can save you.
And if it can save you, it can also save the world.