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

Hand holding a telephone

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 my 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?



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