Who are you really?

Listen to the call of your soul - and change your life

| November / December 2002

What is your mission in life? It’s a question as eternal and universal as it is daunting. Faced with the demands of daily living, finding the time and emotional space necessary to figure out your calling can seem like searching for the Holy Grail. Yet, as the articles in this cover section make clear, the pilgrimage you undertake to find your true purpose in the world usually doesn’t involve tromping off to farawary places. More often it means taking a deep breath, turning inward, and asking yourself another tough question: Who are you now?

—The editors

The first whisper of my life’s calling came as a fascination for all things old and mysterious. A dreamy child, I was pulled to the stars in the night sky and to tumbledown buildings; to fairy tales, ghosts, and the Latin chanting during Sunday Mass. Around the age of 10, I interpreted these vague stirrings to mean that my mission in life was to solve mysteries, and I ordered a "professional detective" set out of the back of a magazine. When I unwrapped the package to find a cheap set of handcuffs and a cracked toy magnifying glass, I suffered the first of many disillusionments on the road to finding my calling.

I set my sights next on becoming an archaeologist. Then came my "first woman" dreams—the first woman president, the first woman on the moon. Instead, caught up in the heady uprush of the ’60s counterculture, I became the first hippie in my corner of Missouri and wrote a column lyrically titled "Wildflowers" for the high school newspaper. In it, I set the small conservative town I lived in on its ear by asking people to consider the possibility that they might have encountered Jesus in a past lifetime. The surprisingly thoughtful responses I received initiated me into the magic of ideas and words to convey fresh perspectives on life. And in some form or another, I’ve been doing the same thing ever since.

While this path seems so clear in retrospect, my life has many times felt like a chaotic jumble of interests tugging in wildly divergent directions. Meditation teacher, clothing designer, historical novelist, astrologer: I’ve worked at them all over the years. But somewhere along the way, a subtle but uncompromising force pared away the things I was not meant to do and held me to the tasks I seemed, in the end, to do best. Call it fate, call it destiny, call it my "calling." I’m here in this world, I’ve finally realized, to discuss and write about what first lifted my gaze to the night sky as a child—the deeper, mythic side of life. This discovery feels less like evolving into someone new than like returning to who I always was in the first place. "You never lose the image in which your soul is shaped," writes Jungian psychologist James Hillman in The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling (Random House, 1996). "Everyone is marked; each of us is singular."

To find our mission in the world, to arrive at that place where our lives make sense as part of an elegant pattern of purpose, is probably the underlying quest of all human endeavor. In the privacy of our hearts we wrestle with a nagging sense of fate—of opportunities missed and things undone—and question whether we are living the life we were meant to live. Unlike great religious prophets whose callings were revealed in heavenly voices, or those rare geniuses born with an unmistakable talent, most people must struggle to define their destinies amid a chorus of conflicting duties and expectations. Yet beneath the everyday struggle of life, we all yearn for a clear sense of calling that will order the elements of our lives into a coherent and satisfying whole.

THERE ARE STRONG SIGNS today that many people, driven perhaps by the uncertain political climate or the shifting sands of financial markets, have begun seeking a more meaningful personal plotline than the American way of getting and spending. Romantic, large-souled ideals from centuries past—vision, vocation, destiny—have re-entered our conversations. In her best-selling book Sacred Contracts: Awakening Your Divine Potential (Harmony Books, 2001), healer Caroline Myss notes that she is more frequently asked to help people find their purpose in life than to counsel them on their illnesses. A recent USA Today poll discovered that if people could ask just one question of God or a higher power, a majority would want to know their purpose in life.

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