Tag Archives: vocation

Have You Ever Felt a “Call” to Do a Certain Kind of Work?

Assay: A few weeks ago, my family and I went to see Sequence 8, a performance by Les 7 Doigts de la Main (7 Fingers, if your French is rusty).

It’s a performance that’s part circus, part dance…it’s very compelling.

But as much as I enjoyed the show, I was just as interested in the playbill.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it means to experience a “call” — that is, a powerful, practically irresistible feeling that you’re meant to do a certain kind of work.

I certainly felt a call to writing. It took me a while to hear it and follow it, but I remember thinking, “Well, at this point, I’d rather fail as a writer than succeed as a lawyer.” I remember quoting Juvenal to my father, “An inveterate and incurable itch for writing besets many and grows old with their sick hearts.” I didn’t want that to happen to me.

I was struck by the evidence in the playbill that many of these performers had felt a call to the circus. A sampling from several bios: “In 2008, his life took a serious turn when he abandoned his studies at McGill University and entered the National Circus School of Montreal, in what was decidedly one of the best decisions of his life…discovered circus at age eight…immediately impassioned, he tried every circus experience he could…was barely five when he entered the San Francisco School of Circus Arts…”

I once met a woman who’d left her family  and dropped out of school in her early teens to become a juggler. When I expressed surprise, she said, “I just had to do everything I could to learn to juggle.” This sounds comical as I write it, but in the moment, it was a profound and almost terrifying statement.

In some ways, a call is wonderful. It’s clear. It’s urgent. It’s fulfilling.

But in some ways, and for some people, a call isn’t wonderful. A call means no choice — or at least, great pain in making another choice. Some people don’t want to be called to do the kind of work they feel called to do. This reminds me of one of my favorite novels, Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood, where Hazel Motes destroys himself (and redeems himself) in resisting his call.

Also, a call is no guarantee of success. Now, does a call help? I imagine it does help, because a call makes it easier to practice.  Logan Pearsall Smith wrote, “The test of a vocation is the love of the drudgery in involves.” There are good and bad aspects to this. I feel unsettled at any time when I’m not writing. And I mean that. There’s a sense of peace, and of being in the right place, that I experience only when I’m writing. You can see how that has drawbacks.

I remember talking to a group of first-year medical students. I made a vow to myself, always to talk about drift when I speak to college or graduate students, so we were talking about how to avoid drift. I was asking them how they got into medicine, and they had many different answers: “I’ve always been fascinated by biology and the human body,” “Both my parents are doctors,” “From the time I was a child, I’ve known I was going to be a doctor.” The last answer sounds like a call, to me. All three students could make excellent doctors, but having a call makes the experience different.

Is a “call” the same as a “moment of obligation?” I heard this term from someone who awards grants to people to start public interest projects. She explained that when they were evaluating people as possible grant recipients, they asked, “Did you feel a moment of obligation?” Meaning, did you spot a problem and decide that you were the one who had to fix it? Many of the people they funded had these moments. “I was reading about the malaria problem, and I thought, someone should come up with a better way to distribute nets. And then I realized, I should be the one.”

We often think of a call as related to a religious vocation. And it certainly happens there. I’ve been meaning to read Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, which I think is about a call to be a missionary, though I’m not sure, because I haven’t yet read it. I’m reminded of one of favorite titles of all time: William Law’s A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life.

I’ve just started thinking about this. How about you? Have you ever felt a call, or been around someone who felt a call? To do what?  Was it pleasurable or painful?

What I Learned About Myself from Steve Martin.

Last week, I read Steve Martin’s memoir of his time learning and doing stand-up comedy, Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life. I loved it.

It’s a terrific example of one of my favorite kinds of books: someone coming into his or her vocation. I love reading about why people become interested in particular subjects or skills, and how they master them.

Just in the last year, I’ve read several outstanding books of this type, such as E. O. Wilson’s Naturalist, Bob Dylan’s Chronicles: Volume One, Rosanne Cash’s Composed, Patti Smith’s Just Kids, and Eugene Delacroix’s Journal.

Do you have any suggestions? I just can’t get enough of this kind of thing. Perhaps surprisingly, it doesn’t matter if I’m interested in the underlying subject. I’m not much interested in music, for example, but I loved reading about the experiences of these musicians. And I’m definitely not much interested in ants.

Odd sidenote: you never know when you’re going to get an insight into yourself and your own experience. Steve Martin made a passing observation which very helpful to me. He writes:

“I never experienced the sensation [of knocking knees] again, but I wonder if I would have preferred it to the chilly pre-show anxiety that I sometimes felt later in my performing career. This mild but persistent adrenal rush beginning days before important performances kept the pounds off and, I swear, kept colds away.”

I’m no Steve Martin, of course, and I never feel the chill for days, but I’ve noticed a similar phenomenon in myself. I’m always, always cold, but about an hour before I give a talk that has me feeling nervous, I can actually feel my body temperature drop, in the space of a single minute. It’s as if someone has turned down my thermostat. I now bring a shawl with me, so I can wrap up beforehand. For some reason, it’s helpful to realize that other people experience this, as well.

Reading Steve Martin’s memoir reminded me of one of my favorite quotations, from G. K. Chesterton: “It is easy to be heavy: hard to be light.” Although Steve Martin’s comedy looks wild and crazy, it’s the product of a tremendous amount of serious thought, rehearsal, and experiment.

“I Remember the Warm Feeling of Relief of Knowing Where My Future Was.”

“The first time I watched television I felt exactly as if something important had taken an elevator ride up to my head and gotten off and turned on the light in my mind. I knew that I was going to do something in television. It was in my cards. I remember feeling the warm relief of knowing where my future was.”
— Mary Wells Lawrence, A Big Life (In Advertising)

I love reading accounts of how people find their vocations. It doesn’t matter, at all, whether I’m interested in the actual vocations; I love reading about other people’s love for them.

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