The Pain and Pleasure of the Calling

In a recent TED talk, Elizabeth Gilbert says great failure or great success can propel you so far away from your “home” that the emotional reactions are identical, and the only thing you can do is find your way home again. She’s referring to the abrupt and huge success of her novel Eat, Pray, Love, in which the only way for her to recover from the fear of never writing a book that successful again was indeed, to write. And how after a six year phase of failure, prior to EPL, she did the same, she wrote. Writing is her home. Writing is her calling.

I’ve been thinking about callings a lot lately. I first heard the term as a young girl when my grandfather referred to finding his calling in seminary. After twenty years of marriage, serving in the military, and holding down multiple HVAC jobs, he felt incomplete, and wasn’t living the life he wanted. He went to seminary, became an Episcopalian minister, and thus found his calling. The way he spoke of his experience made the whole idea seem so mystical and abstract to me as a kid. Even as a young adult as I was raising my kids, I remember fumbling around with all sorts of creative outlets and jobs and wondering: “Are one of these things my calling? Will I know it when it calls me?”

And the scariest thought: “What if I don’t have one?”

But I always suspected that I did. Deep down, as much as I loved my family and enjoyed most everything I tried, including the church like my grandfather, I knew something was still missing. Nothing clicked in that mystical way he spoke about. None of these things were my calling. I knew this because none of these things moved me. I could still easily fit in the pretty little box I’d created for myself called “security”.

And I hate to say it, but callings are not secure.

My grandfather didn’t just find a new vocation. The ministry found him, plucked him out of his HVAC, domestic life and opened his eyes to an entirely different world. It pulled him in and made a new home for him. A home that, once discovered, made it impossible for him to return to the home he’d known. He divorced my grandmother, moved out west, and began a new life. It was a traumatic event that confused many people, including his granddaughter.

I finally found that calling for myself in an activity I’d done my entire life, an outlet that had served as both fun and therapeutic and expressive since the age of ten when I received my first diary. Ironically, the same year my grandfather left his first life for the next. For me, it was writing. Sometimes I wonder why it took me so long to catch on. Here was something I’d thrived on through my entire life, and yet never took seriously. Clearly, I wasn’t listening, not to myself, not to my ability, not even to what gave me pleasure. But about eight years ago, I finally stopped bouncing around and heard that voice that had said so many times, “Someday you should write a book” And so someday came. And I did. And I have been unrelentingly writing since.

Now I find I am hardly myself unless I am writing. I don’t have much peace without writing. Sometimes this is painful because I know I am, at times, detached from other people, and it creates gaps in relationships. Sometimes I am lost in a daydream world that no one else will ever find their way into. I express myself better through written language than spoken, which can be challenging when you live with other humans. When I’m not writing, I feel like I should be writing, even if I’m just eating breakfast. If I have a few days in which I feel unproductive, I begin to get anxious and irritable. I start to feel a bit lost on a current of air, like a dandelion seed.

Other times, it’s joyous. A single scene of discovery can make my entire day. An idea while bike-riding. A character speaking to me when I’m on a long walk in a meadow. Finishing a project. Seeing my novel spread before me on color-coded index cards. Discussing the process with other writers who totally get it. I am completely engaged and present.

All of these things–my grandfather’s stories, my experiences–all with both pleasure and pain, are how I know I’ve found my home, that internal mystical location that my grandfather promised existed. Not everyone’s life will be as up-heaved as his, or, for that matter mine, was, but it provides such a powerful look into how strong a calling can be. How once found, it can change your life indefinitely. You cannot turn back to that pretty little box labeled “security”.

Gilbert goes on to say, “Identify the best, worthiest thing that you love most and then build your house right on top of it and don’t budge from it.”  There will be phases and events, people and losses and successes that fling us from home throughout our lives, but we must always return to that calling once we’ve found it, or we will be lost.

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