The Potency of Calling
(a distilled version of my article for IAHIP's Inside Out. In writing it, I was pretty much fully inspired by the rich, passionate response of recent workshop participants to the theme of Calling. [Thank you, all] It's about why the perspective of Calling is so precious, vitalizing and supportive of all of us living more beautiful lives... It draws particularly on the work of James Hillman, Parker Palmer and John Dewey, and looks at how calling can support a re-calibration and strengthening of our deep well-being...)
For that is what is lost in so many lives, and what must be recovered: a sense of personal calling…there is a reason my unique person is here and that there are things I must attend to beyond the daily round and that give the daily round its reason…
James Hillman’s The Soul’s Code makes a passionate argument for Calling as a central motif through which to understand our lives. Hillman argues that Western psychological culture is – almost uniquely among civilisations - deprived of an appreciation of calling. This weakens us by placing an overemphasis on what had happened to us, leaving little room for our creativity, vision or uniqueness. Hillman proposed that we needed to reaffirm a different type of influence on our lives – our higher purpose, our “Soul’s Code” – Calling.
Hillman was writing twenty years ago, but his core thesis remains intact, and Calling continues to provide a contrast to the generic ways our culture invites us to understand our lives. Calling has many gifts to offer: It can revitalise our faith in our ability to shape our own lives, serve as an antidote to narcissism and self-neglect, anchor us in core values, cultivate a healthy recognition of uniqueness, and offer holding in otherwise shaky lives. It encourages us to attend to the particular - and to personal meaning, while recalling us to our relation to society as a whole.
The Value of Calling
1) Creating Dynamism: Counteracting Fate
Tuning in to calling challenges our view of the causes that govern our lives. Cause is a theme so fundamental we rarely see it. What makes us who we are? What breathes life into our lives? Where does our momentum come from? These are big, almost unanswerable questions. Yet we all carry intuitive, unexamined hunches about them that have a powerful impact on how we envisage our lives and our capacity to shape them.
For Hillman, western psychology amplifies fatalism. He proposes that ‘We are....less damaged by the traumas of childhood than by the traumatic way we remember childhood as a time of unnecessary and externally caused calamities that wrongly shaped us.’ We are more than what has happened to us. Balance is important - that we sense the interplay of fate and destiny:
the greek word for fate, ‘moira’, means a share, a portion. As fate has only a portion in what happens, so the daimon, the personal, internalized aspect of moira, has only a portion…the portion that comes from elsewhere and is unaccountable and the portion that belongs to me, what I did, could have done, can do...
By recalling us to the ‘portion that belongs to’ us, the ‘what [we] did, could have done, can do,’ calling offers a way to balance the imprints of the past with the influence of an inner vision which beckons us. This actively raises us toward something we love or value that lies beyond us. In this sense, it highlights what the early Greeks called the daimon - a voice of inner guidance.
In inviting us to rethink ‘cause’ and tune in, alongside all that has happened to us, to our horizons, the ‘that for the sake of which’ we are, calling has visceral power. It offers a dynamic, vitalizing perspective that actively counteracts resignation and prompts an engaged, hopeful relation to our capacity to contribute and create richer futures.
2) Calling as an Antidote to Narcissism and Self-NeglecT
an occupation is the only thing which balances the distinctive capacity of an individual with his social service...
Another of calling’s deep contributions lies in its capacity to address two of our most destructive tendencies: narcissism and self-neglect. Both undervalue our essential humanness, our deeper feelings, and our capacities to contribute to others. Calling is medicine here, because it elevates what is best in us in the name of the collective. This enables us to raise our commitment to ourselves while serving something beyond us.
To engage with calling requires humility. We cannot be ‘whoever we want to be’; we do not just invent ourselves. In fact, it is more as if we come upon ourselves or wake up to who we are – our strengths and limitations – and, if we see clearly, find that we are quite particular, that our lives have certain possibilities and not others. This recognition of limitation helps counteract our narcissistic tendencies: our calling may come with a grandiose fantasy attached, but as we truly learn to serve it, we find ourselves supported to shed the distracting longings of our ego.
3) Calling as a Pathway to Self-Care and Self-Transcendence
‘in doing my best to answer the call, over time I will become worthy.
Or more than that, it’s in the answering that I feel my worth.’
(Mary Jane Verniere, Workshop Participant)
One of the outstanding therapeutic reasons to value calling lies in how it encourages us to respect ourselves. If we have sufficient ego-strength to believe ourselves worthy of a calling, we must then value and sustain ourselves in order to realize it. Calling can thus initiate self-respect and sustain self-care when self-respect for our own sake seems to elude us. Serving calling thus deepens a genuine care for the self and the world beyond us:
when you work you fulfil a part of earth’s furthest dream, assigned to you when that dream was born...and when you work with love you bind yourself to yourself, and to one another, and to God...
By inviting us to realize ourselves in-relation-to-the-whole, Calling opens a door to self-transcendence: In receiving calling, we open to something mysterious whose source eludes us. We cannot be exactly sure where it comes from, and yet we sense its presence. Calling draws us as deep as we are able to travel into mystery and union, drawing together not just our desire to serve, our kinship with one another, and our ethics, but stretching toward further horizons of surrender and transcendence.
4) Calling draws us toward Authenticity and Core Values
A vocation that is not mine, no matter how externally valued, does violence to the self – in the precise sense that it violates my identity and integrity on behalf of some abstract norm...the best inward sign of vocation is deep gladness...If a work is mine to do, it will make me glad over the long haul, despite the difficult days...
Calling also grounds us in the real. It recalls us to our deepest values, our authenticity, and a healthy recognition of our uniqueness. This anchors us to what is most fundamental and good in us, and lessens our tendency to be tossed about by vicissitudes. Developing an ear for calling strengthens us, by offering a thread to attend to, a fire to keep burning, and a compass to follow that matters. What calling asks of us may surprise us:
Calling can refer not only to ways of doing - meaning work – but also to ways of being. Take being a friend. Goethe said that his friend Eckermann was born for friendship. Aristotle made friendship one of the great virtues...in the past, friendship was a huge thing. But it’s hard for us to think of friendship as a calling, because it’s not a vocation.
(Hillman, interview with Scott London)
When it comes to calling, it’s important that we really absorb that it asks us to value something of intrinsic worth to us. An informal element, such as a quality of character or role with others, can be a calling. All of us, if supported to respect the values we find within us, will stumble upon essential things worth treasuring – things that we cannot neglect without great cost. Such a broad understanding of calling invites us to value what we value, and to be authentic and loyal to our gifts, however particular.
5) Calling as a Secure Attachment and ‘Holding’ Environment
To the extent that we apprentice ourselves to a calling, we may experience it as a ‘holding’ force in our lives. Calling creates a form of discipleship that structures us. As we follow and attempt to serve a call, we bind ourselves to something stable and worthwhile.
This makes calling especially precious to those of us who struggle for stability in other ways. When our attachment patterns and relationships are shaky or fraught, or our careers or financial fortunes fraught or banal, the perspective offered by Calling can dignify and stabilize lives that might, from other viewpoints look chaotic, failed or tragic.
One of the lovely elements here is that developing a ‘secure’ relationship with calling lies within reach of many who struggle to achieve this level of stability with other humans. We should not underestimate the importance of this: In a culture that often defines the success or failure of our lives in relational, financial or ‘status’ terms, Calling offers different frames of reference which we ourselves have more power to influence. This means that a cultural perspective on living that genuinely treasures calling can be profoundly supportive - for some the difference between a life that feels like a failure, and one that has succeeded on its own terms to serve and circle something beautiful.
Postscript: The Shadows of Calling
It would be naïve to champion calling without acknowledging some of its shadows – to see how we can be stung by calling; how we can exploit it, how we may unconsciously enact unprocessed trauma through it, how it may burn us out or disappoint us. For some of us, the pull of Calling is so great that we risk mistreating other things, people, or parts of who we are.
These pitfalls remind us of the ongoing need to stay in a fluid, open dialogue with the theme of calling. We need to listen deeply and adapt to changing capacities and circumstance. If our concept is too rigid, calling becomes routine and loses its soul. John Dewey points out something valuable here – that we are inclined to identify with one calling, but that a balanced human life may have many:
Each individual has of necessity a variety of callings...we naturally name [a person’s] vocation from that one of the callings which distinguishes him… But we should not allow ourselves to ignore and virtually deny his other callings.
This workshop - next offered July 1 at the Mindfulness Centre in Dublin - offers participants an opportunity to refresh and deepen their connection with a sense of calling - or callings. More info and booking: