What Works: Discerning Your Calling

Facing questions of direction and purpose


The other day, I was reading a biography of Fr. Isaac Hecker, founder of the Paulists, and it was describing the American challenge into which he was born: unlimited freedom of choice leading to a groundlessness — children weren’t expected to follow their parent’s career choices; people didn’t spend their whole lives in the same community and learn to live with and love their neighbors for better or worse; the authority of people and institutions was not recognized automatically. But what the American of 1850 saw as groundlessness would today seem stodgy and limited. Comparatively, we live in a world of almost complete lawlessness. This makes the desire for a sense of purpose — a sense that what you do fits into some grander scheme — all the more important, and all the more elusive.

I wrote here about discerning your calling almost two year ago, saying it was especially relevant in a period of economic transition and upheaval. Many of us are looking for purpose, and most wish they had more. The Purpose Driven Life is the longest-running bestseller of all time. In spiritual counseling and in talking with friends, again and again I hear people struggle with questions of direction and purpose.

Two of Christine Whelan’s recent columns have tackled the issue of how singleness is not recognized as a vocation. It got me thinking about why people get so upset about this? I think some bristle at being “denied” vocation status because they feel this denies their life of a purpose.

Calling all cars

A little about terminology before I go any further: Vocation is just from the Latin for calling, though the secular term in uses such as “vocational school” has lost almost all its original meaning. (Avocation comes from the Latin for “call away” — in other words, it is a side-interest or distraction from your calling.) The word “career,” on the other hand, has a very different meaning. “Career” comes from the same root as “car” and literally means not the path to which you are called but rather the one you choose to take, or more accurately and even more meaningfully, the vehicle in which you follow that path — in other words, the way you follow the path.

Career and calling can be the same if you discern and choose to follow the path you’re called to. But you can also find yourself on other paths, by happenstance or by a choice — conscious or not. While sometimes people avoid their calling, a lot of the time they just haven’t discerned it.

Sometimes people walk right onto their calling’s path without a second thought. I’ve always envied those people who knew in high school what they wanted to do and made choices to prepare themselves, never looking back. (At least that’s how I imagine it. Most likely, they struggled more than that.)

Other times, a calling seems to be shouting its message even while a person is unaware. Take my own example. My father assumed I would follow his footsteps as an intellectual and statistician, and from an early age I was told this was true about me and guided towards this goal. And I am good at math and reason. But the greatest delight I achieved in elementary school class work, and one of my few distinct memories from that period, was getting an A for an original short story. At age 15, despite a heavy load at a specialized math and science high school and an equally heavy extracurricular load of hanging out and partying with friends, I joined a poetry writing group and devoted much of my spare time to writing and studying the work of others. My first and second “real” jobs involved technology and statistical analysis, but with my third, I moved into writing about technology. Since then, though I haven’t always worked as a writer and editor, I have always thought of that as my career.

For some, the calling is not as obvious as mine. And callings aren’t always about what you do to earn a living. We usually think of artists, doctors, priests, teachers. But craftspeople of all sorts can be called to their work. And being a parent clearly can be a calling. Still others don’t have a stark calling but can find plenty of purpose in being useful in many little ways.

Nevertheless, in helping people find their calling, I struggle with a paradox. So I’ll just lay it out for you. On the one hand, it is extremely valuable and useful to do what you can to discern your calling. Doing something as a career that feels right and rewards you spiritually is wonderful. But on the other hand and at the same time, if you need certain things in your external life to be true in order to feel happy and content internally, you will suffer. Because those external things won’t always work out how you want them to. This is one of the basic spiritual truths.

So my challenge to you is not to find your calling now, not to find a single calling that will last your lifetime, but if you are not working at your calling, I hope you feel a little restless because of that. And I hope that restlessness gives you the push to do some serious discernment work, alone and with a spiritual director or other advisor. Remember that you can be happy now, before you pursue your calling or even if you never do, but don’t be afraid of the “what-ifs” and the “in-onlys,” as Margaret Silf calls them. Ask yourself the hard questions and look for signs that a calling has been trying to emerge. Be willing to face the truth. In the sidebar are a few tips for this process, borrowed from that column two years ago. And share your struggles and successes below in comments. My prayers are with you.