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 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.
Why is it that, in a culture that reveres the myth of the self-made individual, the search to uncover one’s calling should prove so difficult for so many? Financial pressures, for one thing, stand as a deterrent. Some people simply don’t have the luxury of exploring their mission in life beyond meeting the rent and putting food on the table. And with money increasingly marking Americans’ sense of self-worth, many people drawn to the arts, the helping professions, full-time activism, or other similarly low-paying fields turn instead to more secure career paths. Perhaps, too, it is the endless array of choices in modern middle-class culture along with the “be all you can be” ethos imbued in us since childhood. With so much freedom and so many options, how can you possibly know you were meant to follow this path rather than that one?
But some thinkers contend that we are each born with a seed of destiny, and that our task in life is to nurture this calling to fruition. People who ignore this inner urging and choose their work in the world on the basis of a prestigious position, a fat salary, or just chance may eventually suffer an inner crisis. According to James Hillman, the original meaning of the word happiness stems from the Greek eudaimonia: the deep satisfaction that comes from keeping faith with the soul’s purpose. The philosopher Plato imagined people’s higher calling as an invisible daimon, or spirit companion, that accompanied them throughout life as the voice of their unique talent or purpose.
In his seminal work Freedom and Destiny, published in 1981, existential psychologist Rollo May grappled with the link between the seemingly opposing forces of fate and free will. Countering the pervasive American belief that people can be anything they want to be, May concluded that true freedom comes only when we accept the form of our fate. “Destiny sets limits for us physically, psychologically, [and] culturally, and equips us with certain talents,” he writes. Confronting these inborn limits and assets, he writes, allows us to find satisfaction. “Those persons who often seem the most capable of accepting the inevitable are also the most productive and the most capable of pleasure and joy.” The secret power that comes from accepting our inborn nature is what psychologist Carl Jung meant when he said, “Free will is the ability to do gladly that which I must do.”
OVER THE YEARS, I have watched the forces of fate play out in the lives of my children. My oldest son, always a gifted student and passionate advocate of what he believes in, is a graduate student at Yale, working toward a doctorate in ecology. My middle son’s anxious nights pondering life from this or that angle foretold his college studies in philosophy, while his teenage desire to start a rare wine collection prefigured his recent decision to publish his own local magazine, Dining Out. And then there is my youngest son, who, when he was only 8 years old, used to draw up elaborate diet plans and exercise schedules. As much as I tried to fit him into an academic mold, his spirit refused. Today he wants to be a boxer–a decision that initially upset my politically correct notions of what a life calling should look like. But as I watch him happily shadow-boxing around the house, and listen to his blow-by-blow accounts of sparring matches at the Washington, D.C. boxing gym where he trains, there is no denying the deep contentment that comes from pursuing what he loves best–and I can only admire him for listening to the voice of his heart.
In fact, all the advice from experts in numerous fields about finding your calling can be summed up in the famous (and now almost clichéd) dictum to “follow your bliss,” voiced by the great mythologist Joseph Campbell. Not bliss as the kind of easy pleasure that comes from lounging around a pool sipping tropical drinks or staying in bed all day watching television. Rather, it is the inner well-being that arises from doing something that you were born to do. Often, this means more sacrifice and hard work than careers that do not involve a sense of calling. Zuleikha, a Sante Fe-based dancer and multicultural storyteller, says that all her life, dancing has been that place where “everything lines up in my body and I feel part of a greater mystery.” So strong is her calling to dance that it’s “pushed through all the darkness and doubt and fear” that comes from the difficult struggle to support herself as an artist. Lawrence Hillman, who with Donna Spencer authored Alignments: How to Live Life in Harmony with the Universe (Lantern Books, 2002), says that “following your heart is not the same as following your ego.” The soul, says Hillman, who gave up a career in architecture to heed the call to become an astrologer, “longs to get up and stretch, to explore and learn” rather than doing what feels most comfortable.
Attending to the voice of the soul rather than the needs of the ego means learning to distinguish between the “social self” and the “essential self,” according to career counselor Martha Beck, author of Finding Your Own North Star: Claiming the Life You Were Meant to Live (Crown, 2001). The “social self” learns early to adapt to the expectations of society. The “essential self,” on the other hand, is made up of the core desires a person is born with. Only in people who are very lucky or especially wise, she writes, “do the social and essential selves always agree that they’re playing for the same team. For the rest of us, internal conflict is a way of life.” Ironically, says Beck, those who pursue their heart’s path are more likely to excel in today’s constantly changing economic environment. Following the rules may have worked for previous generations, but, she believes, the key to economic survival today lies more in the flexible skills and unique passions of the creative and unorthodox essential self than in the more conformist social self.
Often, a calling is not so much a track to a particular profession as it is a commitment to a core set of talents and values (what Caroline Myss calls “archetypal patterns”) that express themselves in a variety of ways over a lifetime. This may mean a career, a way of life, or a creative pursuit. Identifying these elements within us, Myss says, “can awaken in us our own divine potential” and become a source of emotional, spiritual, and physical power. While a calling can certainly inspire us in our choice of a profession, it is less often a job than it is an area of life that we are called to explore–the postal worker who delves into Eastern mysticism, for example, or the businessperson who is deeply involved in civic or philanthropic activities. The soul we put into what we do transforms the ordinary into the extraordinary. A life well lived, with responsibility to loved ones and community, the care given to eating, homemaking, and other ordinary tasks of everyday life, and heartfelt commitment to a profession that may never go beyond the middle rungs of success can all create the deep satisfaction that comes from living life as its own calling.
It can take decades before a calling becomes clear. This is especially true for those who are born with a multitude of talents. Nearing 40, Goethe, the giant of German literature, could be found wandering through Italy, asking himself, “Am I poet, artist, or scientist?” Likewise, the renowned psychologist William James intended to become an artist, shifted to science, then moved to biology and medicine, settling upon psychology and philosophy. Some contend that a true calling emerges only after midlife. Indeed, given the length of modern-day life spans, even if we have picked the right career in the first half of our lives, we might be ready for something new.
At any stage in life, though, finding and following one’s calling can be a constantly recurring issue, as we struggle to define our truest self. The word vocation comes from the same Latin root vox or “voice,” and vocare, “to call.” To pick out the true voice of our calling from the increasingly noisy din of cultural and familial voices requires fine-tuning the listening skills of our innermost being. But because we can never be entirely sure, finding a calling sometimes means risking a wrong step that ultimately might lead in the right direction.
Sometimes, the only way to find your calling is just to jump into the river of life and swim with the currents. Whether we achieve success or fail miserably, clarity comes only with action. Knowledge of oneself, it seems, arises only in retrospect. “To be continually preoccupied with one’s destiny,” writes Rollo May, “is also a way of escaping living it out. A sense of abandon is necessary, a sense of throwing oneself into one’s calling.”
For in the end, each person’s calling is a path unto itself, one North Star twinkling among a billion other lights in the sky.
Though she still rents and hasn’t yet managed to master the stock market, Pythia Peay finds lasting happiness in her work as a writer on spiritual topics. She is the author of Soul Sisters: The Five Sacred Qualities of a Woman’s Soul (Tarcher/Putnam, 2002) and lives near Washington, D.C.