My family watched the movie Mrs. Doubtfire a few weeks ago. It still basically holds up, albeit with it’s share of obligatory yet pointless 90s-era lewd innuendos. Oh well. You may remember the climactic scene where Daniel (played by Robin Williams) books himself simultaneously for a family dinner as Mrs. Doubtfire and a work interview at the same restaurant. What ensues is more uncomfortable than funny and demands the viewer suspend disbelief altogether, as Williams scrambles back and forth changing in and out of drag until his false persona arrives for the interview and, eventually, his true identity is literally unmasked before his estranged wife.
The scene is a forced plot device and is implausible in the extreme, yet it bears an eerie resemblance to our own precarious lives of scramble, in which we careen like pinballs around our days trying to ding all the right bumpers and ramps and kickouts. A constant toggling of personas that oftentimes leaves us feeling on the brink of exposure. At times it may be thrilling, but isn’t it all a little insane? That’s exactly how we can end up feeling—insane! Detached from self, we paddle ourselves around the world trying to rack up scores on some arbitrary machine.
Somewhere in all the cacophony we’re making a simple, unspoken inquiry: “What am I doing here?” More than anything it’s a yelp borne from the pangs of our finitude distended into an infinite abyss of needs and demands.
Our ache is for a sense calling, or, to use the Latinized term, “vocation.”
Vocation is a category whose scope broadens beyond “job” or “career” or whatever your day job might be. It is fundamentally the question of what you have been put on this earth to do, within the varied facets of your entire life.
The inimitable Frederick Buechner wrote an offbeat and endearing little dictionary of theology called Wishful Thinking. In it he offers the following definition of vocation:
It comes from the Latin vocare, to call, and means the work of a man is called to by God.
There are all different kinds of voices calling you to all different kinds of work, and the problem is to find out which is the voice of God rather than of Society, say, or the Superego, or Self-Interest…
The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.
That’s good, isn’t it? There really are so many voices calling and there is so much work to be done! The crises we navigate do not stem from ifs of calling, but the inevitabilities of when and, above all, by whom? We are constantly being called. And though we are not beholden to the cosmos, yet we are beholden to our consecrated place within it. And divining a sense of calling requires us to stop neglecting matters of our gladness and of the world’s deep hunger—and their intersection!
Oh that this were a straightforward affair! Alas, it is not. But it isn’t hard to understand why this must be the case. Ours is a dynamic existence lived in a world of dynamism, thus a sense of calling (as balance) is played out among our ever-evolving reality. And we ourselves are ever-evolving. Virtuosity is always the product of cumulative, at times aggravating sequence of exercises—waxing on and waxing off, if you catch my drift! We may find it perplexing, but we would do well to maintain our bearings. Scrape we must and scramble onward toward what seems to be that disappearing point between our gladness and the world’s deep hunger, as toward the Northstar.
I know what some of you are thinking at this point. “What a nice sentiment! But so impractical! I’m pretty sure, by the way, that most of the human race has no choice in the matter.” It’s the whisk broom of pragmatism, and we readily take it up.
Questions of “calling” and “gladness” and “world’s deep hunger” all strike us as crude abstractions; more at home in poetry and song than our world of flesh and blood demands. But is it not our whisk broom that is both crude and abstract? We’ve invented, ex nihilo, a world in which a thing like calling has no place. On what basis? We allude to abstract people groups in undisclosed locations and point to the idea of of “practicality” in an effort to rid ourselves of the troublesome and very concrete stuff of our frenetic and aimless hemorrhaging of resources. So we are content to be functional nihilists, and busy ones at that! If we think calling too sentimental, what exactly are we replacing it with?
Meanwhile, the world does groan. Does it ever groan! Meanwhile, we conceal and shunt away our joys and gladnesses, imagining (conveniently?) the two to be without connection. Yet there are intrepid whip-smart girls and boys out there who might rise up to confront the injustices of the world if only allowed to see the connection. So too, there are creatives of all brands, who might bring beauty and/or provocation to important and forgotten causes. There are numbers people and ideas people and people people and task people and every other people imaginable, all of whom might amble toward that intersection of gladness and hunger. They might learn what to do and, equally important, what not to do; in addition, they’ll understand how to do what they do.
You want pragmatism? If you aim at nothing, you’ll hit it every time! (Admit it. It’s true!) And our yeses are always also nos; our nos also always yeses. (And, yes, the plural of both yes and no look very weird spelled out!)
What this pragmatic whiskbroom conveniently neglects is that human deprivation is the result of those malignant and uninterrogated human capacities, which, from times immemorial, have only met their match in the form of those embracing a beneficent sense of calling—whether consciously or unconsciously. The reality of humans being deprived of a meaningful existence oughtn’t make us disimpassioned or fatalistic, but rather animated with passion. This is what pastor Bill Hybels refers to as our “holy discontent“! A God-given recognition of something lacking in our world, to which we must pay attention. They are Burning Bushes, and if we would only “turn aside” with Moses we might discover such meaning—indeed, the Voice of God!
Os Guinness observed in his important book The Call, that, “First and foremost we are called to Someone (God) and not something… or somewhere…” and that’s probably right. It does at least reflect his biblical outlook. Still, I’m not certain that we don’t sometimes find the Someone through the somethings and somewheres. If we’ll allow for the thought that our life has meaning and venture out in search of it, I believe we’ll inevitably encounter the Someone who imbued it thus. Just as, having come to know this Someone, you find him ever inviting you to join him somewhere doing something significant. Guinness points this out, too:
…calling is the truth that God calls us to himself so decisively that everything we are, everything we do, and everything we have is invested with a special devotion and dynamism lived out as a response to his summons and service.
So while many are indeed deprived of the choices I’m describing here, they are also deprived of the privilege to shrug their shoulders and go on with their lives as though they are lived in a moral vacuum. The world’s hunger is great, whether you’ll attend to it or not.
So too, the irrepressible nature of our desires (be they small or sweeping), signal something very real and non-abstract exerting itself constantly upon us.
Parker Palmer offers us this.
Vocation at its deepest level is, “This is something I can’t not do, for reasons I’m unable to explain to anyone else and don’t fully understand myself but that are nonetheless compelling.”
This is enlightening, because it can be true that we don’t fully understand these inner impulses. It may be gardening or writing or serving or teaching or singing or any number of things we “can’t not do” offering us clues of calling. Do we at least treat it as important data?
Palmer addresses the pitfall of trying “to be or do something noble that has nothing to do with who I am” in our pursuit of calling,
One sign that I am violating my own nature in the name of nobility is a condition called burnout. Though usually regarded as the result of trying to give too much, burnout in my experience results from trying to give what I do not possess.
We must be conscious of those things that we uniquely do possess; things we have to offer within “the ecosystems of our own lives” (also Palmer).
We are finite beings. There is no way around that. We live in the finitudes of time and space and also gifting; we cannot be two places or times at once, nor can we be two people. This demands a clarity towards what we must and must not offer. But, in light of infiniteness, our finite lives are of infinite worth because they are infinitely scarce. No other human will live your days, months or years, let alone your life! There is absurdity in our attempts to live out multiple personas, and there is absurdity in our refusal to live into our singular personhood—especially when given the opportunity to do so!
At one point in his life, Jesus was being thronged by crowds, when he abruptly stopped and asked, “Who was it that touched me?” His disciples exchanged glances, before Peter basically said, “Who hasn’t touched you?” Jesus elaborated,
Someone touched me, for I perceive that power has gone out from me.
Someone had been healed, and he knew it! He perceived the outflow of power. Isn’t that fascinating? And don’t we too, in the hustle and bustle of our lives, feel our true energies at times flowing out? Do we ever stop and draw needed attention to these events? If not, how will we learn from them that power for human healing and betterment with which we are uniquely endowed? Can we hear the accounts—testimonies, really—of those thus touched by our surprising potencies? Are we listening?
Calling makes of us gift, giver and recipient all at once, leaving the world vastly more satisfied. You’re right, that last clause has a double meaning.