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Answering Your CallA GUIDE TO LIVING YOUR DEEPEST PURPOSE
By John P. Schuster
Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2003 John P. Schuster
All right reserved.
Chapter OneWhat Is a Call?
THINK OF THE WORLD YOU CARRY WITHIN YOU.... BE ATTENTIVE TO THAT WHICH RISES UP IN YOU AND SET IT ABOVE EVERYTHING THAT YOU OBSERVE ABOUT YOU. WHAT GOES ON IN YOUR INNERMOST BEING IS WORTHY OF YOUR WHOLE LOVE; YOU MUST SOMEHOW KEEP WORKING AT IT.
Rainer Maria Rilke Letters to a Young Poet
Calls create specific and lasting effects, and they reveal themselves in many different ways. Before we explore their consequences or revelations, however, let's put the first question first: What is a call?
If we can address this question well we will have a beginning. The other questions asked in this opening chapter also belong near the beginning:
* What do calls do?
* What does it mean to respond to a call?
* When do calls happen?
Calls are invitations from life to serve, to activate your will toward a cause worthy of you and the human family. They are purposes with a voice, visions turned into inner commands. Calls draw you into the specifics of a purpose and a vision.
A call is the impulse to move ahead in a meaningful way. It is a mind-body push into the future.
A call is part intellectual and part emotional; your human will, moving you in one direction and not in a thousand other possible ones.
A call is sometimes heard as an inner voice, sometimes seen as an image or mental picture, sometimes felt as a self-administered kick in the butt. It urges you to go past the surface level and do something that has lasting value. It may be the message to stop working on the significant efforts that you are helping others with and instead to work on the significant efforts that are more uniquely yours.
Calls are the source of the lasting creativity in our lives.
Does this answer the question of what a call is? Of course not.
No one knows for sure what calls are. That is the best part about them. Calls remain in the realm of the mysterious. The experience of calls—or callings, or vocations, as some refer to them—has attracted its share of efforts at definition, including by me. (Vocations tend to be viewed as lifelong, career-type efforts. We'll use "call" more broadly than "vocation," but won't avoid the term.) If you know of anyone who has a precise or scientific definition, or a poetic or religious one, and you like it, use it. But don't pretend you know completely what a call is, any more than you can summarize what love is. It is useful with mysterious, complex life phenomena like calls not to confine the discussion to what they are, but also to ask what they do.
And calls do many things.
They provide soul-mandates, orders to live the large part of our lives, to attach ourselves to a cause that pulls us out of the limits of our personal history.
Calls create dissatisfaction with the successes in life that our egos wish so much to attain: money, security, status, even the little pleasures beautiful in themselves and banal when inflated to the level of reasons for living.
Calls pull us out of the psychic wounds and inhibitors we inherited. The wounds and limits come from parents who lovingly raised us for the most part, but messed up doing their best, and from the culture that negated the whole of us and instead made us partial people who would fit its purposes.
Calls create the urge to do something significant, providing the inner drive that informs us it is time to get on with it. They provide the sense of being drawn to contribute, to use our wisdom and gifts in ways that benefit others, that enhance life.
Calls draw us to the depth level of whatever roles we may already have. They turn insurance policy peddlers into advisers of needed financial security, grocery store employees into health and nutrition suppliers, doctors into healers, secretaries into stewards, businesspeople into entrepreneurs, bureaucrats into civil servants, writers into dream weavers, parents into co-creators of life.
With all these positive effects, you might think that people would spend the great bulk of their lives trying to respond to their calls. But most of us don't.
There are two significant reasons why we don't respond passionately and constantly to our calls. First, we don't always know how to do so; even when we know that calls exist and what they do we are a long way from having the wisdom to live them well. Second, we focus on other concerns and ignore or sidestep the depth level of our lives. We get distracted from the deep work and play out our lives on their surface, with considerable encouragement from our culture for diversion and avoidance.
For all the importance of calls, it is not often easy to figure out how to live in accordance with them. The process of staying aligned with a call can be a strenuous, even exhausting, struggle. The times in our lives when we are obviously in harmony with our call and flowing with it grandly are matched by times of dissonance, feeling out of sync, and grinding it out.
Responding to the Call
So what is answering a call all about?
As before, mystery takes over here, but it is worth attempting to explain, again as much by describing what a response requires of us as by what it is.
Answering a call is rising out of bed in the morning one more day to get the kids off to school, to go to the workplace, and to attend to the multiple stations in our lives so we can bring whatever it is we believe in into the world.
Answering a call takes refinement and discernment. Starting the response with "I want to do good" is a help, but not much of one. As Lily Tomlin says in her one-woman play The Search for Intelligent Life in the Universe: "When I was young I always wanted to be somebody. Now I know I should have been more specific."
The specifics of how to answer a call show up in the themes of our lives and the energy we expend on them. For example, caring relationships. The community. Achievement and excellence. Spiritual growth. Service to those in need.
It also shows up in the roles we choose: Executive. Teacher. Parent. Board member. Craftsman. Artist.
When the roles support the life themes, we are in great shape and on the way to answering our calling. When they don't, we have some work to do.
Creating this alignment between what you are called to do and what you are really doing is crucial to the work of responding to calls. Like a colleague of mine, you may need to transform your work. This friend has a degree in dentistry. Not long ago, he ended a successful twenty-year career to move on to new work. He now devotes most of his time to working for his neighborhood association. If he had stayed with dentistry any longer, by his accounting, he was not going to be true to himself.
But the alignment we need to make may not be about change on the outside of our lives. It may be more about change on the inside. Most of this book is about the inner work of responding to the calls we find or the ones that find us.
The goals aren't the calling itself, however; they are only a best guess about what to get done to respond to the calling. Each goal takes more yeses, more affirmations and acts of will as we persist in our response to the calls we sense. And when working toward a goal stops working—and it often does—we have to open up our minds and hearts and listen again. Persistence needs its polar opposite: openness and willingness to stop the current plan and go in a new direction.
Responding to a call is easier at some times in a person's life than at others, but no matter how successful one particular stage, responding is never in lockstep to a set of instructions that show up in an email from God@aol.com.
Steve Sheppard is the CEO of Foldcraft, a member-owned furniture maker in southern Minnesota with 250 employees—or members, as they call themselves. It is a company that has been creating a strong culture of empowered and enlivened workers for over three decades, a social experiment of the highest order where free enterprise, callings, and adding value in the world go hand in hand.
With the success of Foldcraft, however—and it's being featured as exemplary by many—Steve still has questions about his response:
There are times when I feel I have not answered the call very well. I still feel responsibility for making people feel happy at work, although intellectually I know that I cannot achieve this. I hurt when someone leaves our organization under unpleasant circumstances. Or when our organization isn't as responsive to a new initiative or idea as I anticipated. ...
I question the propriety of this "call" [to be CEO of the company] constantly.
Calls are neither constantly clear nor easy once we heed them.
The Danish philosopher Kierkegaard said that "we all come to life with sealed orders"—an apt metaphor for the internal searches we conduct just trying to find the envelope for different chapters of our lives. You know you left it somewhere: In the rolltop desk, in the back panel of my briefcase maybe. It could be stuck with the family photos I never have time to put in the albums. I don't know where it is, but I swear I saw it once. It's gotta be here somewhere!
There are stories, of course—and you may know some personally—of people who have had a clear sense of a calling since their youth. Their focused response is to pursue a dream, and rising above or with circumstances, they achieve notable success by making the dream happen.
This book, however, is not primarily about such people. It is more about the many of us who don't have extraordinary minds or talents that point us in one obvious direction, who don't make the headlines with our stellar accomplishments or ever know what it is like to achieve the notable results of the gifted. Although our calls and responses to them are sometimes clear, they are often found way back in Kierkegaard's envelope.
Still, living a called life is not all mystery and drudgery by any means. Responding to a call can be a relief after a long search and considerable confusion. It can often feel joyous.
David Quammen, ecologist, essayist, and author of many books, including The Song of the Dodo, the beautiful, compelling scientific and historical look at the loss of species on the planet, sent me an email when I asked about his calling. (He was also a high school buddy and a college friend who has become one of my life anchors, in great part because he has lived his passion. He does have an extraordinary mind, by the way, but I said the book would be mostly for those of us with a little less horsepower.)
Here is what Dave said about being called to writing:
Some writers, so they say, loathe writing but love having written. What they mean is, it's bloody hard scary work. It is. However, I love it. Love it love it. When I'm spending a week doing research, reading journal papers, reviewing notes, making phone calls, I'm interested in the effort ... but well, I get tired, nod off, wonder whether it's time yet to stop for lunch. When I'm actually engaged in the writing of an essay, a feature, or a book, however ... the time flies by. I sit down at the computer with a cup of coffee at 8 A.M., blink once, become mesmerized, blink again, and it's 6 P.M., the coffee is half-drunk, my shirt is drenched with sweat, and maybe, maybe, I have three pages of workable, fixable first draft. This is ecstasy. This is life.
As Dave illustrates as only a writer could, the work of responding to a call can be ecstatic, even around and through the parts of life, like research, that take considerable hunkering down.
I live in Kansas City, where no long-term resident can escape the lore about Harry Truman, nor would anyone want to. Truman's life was filled with great examples of feeling a call. When asked in his retirement which political job he had wanted the most, he answered simply: none. He had never wanted any of the jobs he had ended up serving in, including the most daunting of them all, President. Imagine Truman's fear in 1945 when FDR died a few months into his presidency, during which time the two had spent a total of ninety minutes together. Not exactly a great preparation for the momentous decisions ahead.
Truman often said that there were many others more qualified than he to do the job of the presidency. "But it is my job to do and I am going to do it," he would say, with a sense of the inevitability of a call.
From twentieth-century literature and J.R.R. Tolkien we observe another supreme example of responding to a call: when Frodo, with no credentials, the never-been-out-of-the-neighborhood regular-guy hobbit from the outskirts of Middle Earth, decides to bear the ring he has innocently inherited on the jaunting journey to its destruction. Surrounded by other creatures with more skill and intelligence and knowledge of the world, he sees the task fall to him and he claims it.
Like Harry Truman and the hobbit Frodo, we are sometimes burdened with the tasks set before us, called to work we would not have chosen.
I know a man closely related to my daughter-in-law—we'll call him Carl—who was looking forward to the recreation-filled days of retirement in his later fifties after years of flying around the world in his job as scientist for a global manufacturing firm. Then, shortly after he retired, his ever-active wife, Clare, came down with a strange disease that affected her like an intense stroke, and she lost some of her speaking skills and mobility. Carl inherited a new job, a tiring one of almost constant care and vigilance. As a devoted husband, he was called to serve his wife, and he did so, allowing the two of them to continue to enjoy long trips in their mobile home and their life as retirees and grandparents of six.
No one near him has heard a word of complaint from Carl.
Kierkegaard had a phrase for the soul-dread we experience when the calls we'd rather not face become crystal clear. He described responding to these calls as an encounter with "fear and trembling," a phrase for which he is well-known in philosophical circles. If we say yes in response to these calls we overcome the fear and trembling, or at least we get used to them.
From joy to dread, responding to calls provides a large sweep of feelings and reactions.
Not responding to calls also brings feelings and consequences, like boredom and anxiety. We can run from our calls and not respond to them, but I recommend you not waste your precious life in call-avoidance. You'll have to find another book to help you avoid your calls, or better yet, just turn on the television or consume for as long as you can stand it.
The all-time classic on avoiding calls is a poem that conjures up the anxiety and persistent dread that accompany doing so. It comes from Francis Thompson, the nineteenth-century British poet, whose "Hound of Heaven" personifies the call not just with a voice but with feet of persistent, steady pursuit.
I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.
Up vistaed hopes I sped;
And shot, precipitated,
Adown Titanic glooms of chasmed fears,
From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.
But with unhurrying chase,
And unperturbed pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
They beat—and a Voice beat
More instant than the Feet—
"All things betray thee, who betrayest Me."
Thus Thompson warns us not to betray our calls lest we pursue a life of futile fleeing, empty laughter, and hopes that turn to gloom.
Excerpted from Answering Your Call by John P. Schuster Copyright © 2003 by John P. Schuster. Excerpted by permission of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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