“Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.”
–Henry David Thoreau
Calling is kind of a big deal in Christian circles. Or at least it is the Christian circles I grew up orbiting. Honestly though, “calling” is one of those words that strikes me as a kind of cultic term–vocabulary of the true believers and absolutely no one else. I don’t believe I’ve ever heard anyone outside of the church use it. Come to think of it, I should have busted it out when I got the billion and one questions from kindhearted, inquisitive folk wondering, “What is it you plan to actually do, dear?” “Well, I’m not sure yet, Dr. Dentist-person with your sharp implement in my mouth, I don’t really feel called.” Sigh. People just don’t ask that question anymore when you’re a mother, so I’m kind of thinking I’ve missed my opportunity.
Calling: is there an app for that?
Technically, calling and vocation do not need to coincide, but the way we tend to think about it, they always do. Mostly we take it as a Joel Osteen-esque self-help talisman to find self-fulfillment and inner peace. “Once I find my calling I won’t be so restless. I’ll feel useful…successful even. When I find my calling, I’ll finally belong.” It’s all very self-centered if you think about it. Calling just seems to be the cure for what ails you. Your life is chaotic, everything is out of place. Calling will fix that.
B and I have talked a lot about calling lately. B is of the mindset that everyone has one. On my better days when I think God is a caring and involved father, I agree with him. Now that I’m in seminary, calling is like an undercurrent constantly humming beneath the students’ conversations and the professors’ lectures. After all, if calling is pertinent anywhere it must be in religious occupations. But I didn’t decide to attend seminary because I felt called. I did it because I felt lost. Yet even I must admit that the idea of being divinely appointed for some task appeals to me. I’d like to find my place within the grand design. Who wouldn’t?
The thing that has troubled B and me is the possibility that people miss their callings all the time. It’s pretty easy to do, if you think about it. At this moment I’m staring 30 down the gullet, and B has already crossed that threshold. 30 years old. It causes quite a lot of cognitive dissonance because I still feel 24, but 30 is, incontrovertibly, grown-up. And I’m not where I thought I’d be at 30, not even close. Sure, I married the prince, and we have an adorable tiny Tasmanian devil of a daughter, but I do not feel accomplished. I’m not even accomplished in the sense that women were back in Jane Austen’s regency novels. I cannot play the pianoforte with any measure of aplomb, and I’m terrible at watercolors. I have not turned out as I thought I would, and that’s a tough pill to swallow. If my life is supposed to be a story, I think I’ve well and truly lost the plot. And I don’t think I’m alone.
It seems to be a phenomenon in our culture that young adults have a really hard time being self-sufficient. More and more of them stay in school longer (ahem), or live with their parents will into their twenties and thirties (ahem, ahem). We’re all wandering around with no sense of direction. I have a hypothesis that calling–not the word but the idea–is a great contributor to this malaise. Back in the olden days, forty years ago or so (I’m still young enough to make those jokes), life was about responsibility. You got a job to pay the rent, to support yourself and your family, because that’s what adults do. But for my generation, it’s not enough to choose an occupation and work at it. We want the work we do to be meaningful. This is an oft-mocked aspect of our collective personalities, but it’s really not so silly, if you think about it. We’ve watched our parents toil away at their jobs from the time they got out of school on into old age, and yes, they were able to pay their bills and move up in the company, but they were not necessarily happy. Their speech was peppered with “what ifs” and it seemed, like Tom Buchanan, that their best days were behind them even while they were still very young. So my generation decided to go a different way. They weren’t going to get trapped like their parents. They committed themselves to only doing work that they loved.
Now, granted, that often translates to doing no work at all, but it doesn’t all boil down to sloth or entitlement. There is a yearning in most human hearts, I think, that getting bogged down in the concerns of day to day life squelches. This is why you can have every intention of changing the world through politics or being a missionary in Zambia and wind up working in a cubicle year after year instead. There’s nothing wrong with cubicles in and of themselves, but in this scenario they represent focus on ubiquitous and mundane concerns. In the words of B, if you’re always putting out fires–getting out of credit card debt, making payments, building savings (all very good things, by the way)–then the end goal, that thing you think you were created for, gets obscured. You cease to see it because you cease to look. It’s hard to keep big dreams alive. I think both my parents’ generation and my own demonstrate this very well.
So now what? Now that all is lost, dreams are crushed, people are languishing at jobs they don’t like or on their mom’s couch, and only a lucky few ever seem to find that pot of gold at the end of the calling rainbow (terrible metaphor, Jess, absolutely terrible), what can be done? For Christians, I think maybe a change of perspective is in order. I don’t know if God has a personalized vocational path for every single person, like a heavenly career counselor. But I do think that if God exists, and I’m a theist at least 60% of the time, then the matter of calling really isn’t so complicated: further His kingdom. That’s the goal.
And the Kingdom of Heaven is like unto an amoeba, it’s kind of blobby and amorphous, and it spreads its amorphous blobbiness out in all directions. Helping the poor is furthering the kingdom. Encouraging the downtrodden is furthering the kingdom. Being a scientist and doing science-y things, writing incredible books and making incredible music (note: writing terrible books and making very bad music is pretty much satanic), fighting for civil rights, teaching useful skills or how to make beautiful things, being creative, being inspirational, these are all facets of the kingdom of God. Jesus, through His life and through His Sermon on the Mount, painted a picture of what the kingdom looks like, of the values its supposed to advocate, and as Christ followers that’s our calling. Sure it’s going to look different for everyone. That’s the beauty of the metaphor of the church as a body. We all have different roles to play, and it’s only together that we manifest Jesus. But our calling is achingly simple–live as citizens who are ruled by Jesus. Live as Narnians. To my way of thinking, calling doesn’t have to be something that’s dumped on you all at once; you can realize it piecemeal. Volunteer, talk to that person sitting alone eating lunch, have the courage to speak out, even in small ways, against injustice, and if that becomes habitual maybe you’ll find yourself witnessing to people in Zambia and maybe you won’t. But you will be living your calling. It’s as simple and as hard as that.
P.S. If you want to read the blog I wrote on an entirely different sort of calling, you can find it here. Because I’m super helpful like that.