Vocation: What’s in a Calling?

Vocation, such an empowering, yet overwhelming, slightly idealistic word. Merriam-Webster provides the definition as “a summons or strong inclination to a particular state or course of action.” From the Latin root vocare, to call, vocation is often used as a beautiful encouragement to pursue jobs that utilize specific gifts and skills to meet a need in the world. We all have a unique set of talents and interests, making the idea of vocation a wonderful notion…until it’s not. Sometimes there can be too heavy an emphasis on vocation, specifically as it relates to pressure and stress on an employment decision. Does it answer my calling? What is my calling? Wait, do I have a calling? These questions have often been on my mind as I have searched for the “right” job.

Attending a liberal arts service-focused college bolstered my conviction that I could and should pursue a meaningful employment path. The idea of answering a calling, especially one that served a need in the world, felt so pure and important. I placed a large amount of my self worth in achieving lofty goals focused on making lasting changes to systemic injustices. I graduated college with a head full of ideas regarding my role and purpose in the world, as well as a host of theoretical answers to problems I believed I could help fix. Reality was, of course, one of the most successfully swift ways for me to receive a necessary humbling ego-check. Rather than make progress toward a particular job, I’ve instead been frequently surprised by ending up in positions that didn’t fit the calling I originally envisioned.

During the initial stages of my struggle to reconcile what my vocation might look like in a practical application, I was completely engulfed in the oughts and shoulds of what I thought my role would be. I was so focused on the direction I had convinced myself I should go that I didn’t take the time to consider how I could simply use my skills, strengths, and demeanor in my past or current positions. The diminishing confidence in my ability to pursue a worthy vocation was compounded after reading my alma mater’s alumni magazine featuring graduates who were pursuing world-changing endeavors. I’d compare these individuals and their significant contributions to what I was doing: making copies, sending emails, coordinating meetings. Although these were valuable tasks to a degree, since it was work that needed to be done, they in no way fulfilled the highly-important, large-scale impact I had dreamed about accomplishing. There was no way around it, I was failing at fulfilling my vocation.

Then I read Parker Palmer’s Let Your Life Speak, in which he summed up exactly how I felt about vocation. He wrote, “For a long time, the ‘oughts’ had been the driving force in my life – and when I failed to live ‘up’ to those oughts, I saw myself as a weak and faithless person.” Palmer’s thoughts mirrored my own. He then continued, “Our deepest calling is to grow into our own authentic selfhood, whether or not it conforms to some image of who we ought to be. As we do so, we will not only find the joy that every human being seeks – we will also find our path of authentic service in the world. True vocation joins self and service, as Frederick Buechner asserts when he defines vocation as “the place where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.’” This emphasis on finding a path that allows for “deep gladness” is what I had been missing when I first started pursuing what I believed my calling to be. Palmer’s perspective offered a welcome interruption in my pattern of thinking and helped shift the focus from what I ought to do, to what my skills and talents are best suited for. Gradually, I realized that vocation could also be viewed in the context of demeanor, behavior, and attitude in everyday interactions: I could, at least in part, fulfill a vocational calling by treating those around me with friendliness, patience, and compassion.

This new focus led to a change in the way I approached my work. Although none of my job duties fulfilled my vocational notions related to making big changes in the world, I accepted that I could do my best to apply my skills, strengths, and demeanor to serve those around me. I began to shift my perspective and did my best to have a more positive attitude toward the mundane tasks I had to complete and slowly realized I had energy to better interact with my colleagues and superiors, as well as the individuals we served. I acknowledged that I wasn’t making any large-scale changes but I could be a positive influence on someone’s life for that day. Sometimes this was accomplished simply by a smile, an offer to help, a willing attitude to complete the task at hand. In some small way, being intentional about positively impacting others fulfilled a vocational calling to make the world better.

If this seems basic, it’s because it is. But, it was the basic realization I had completely missed for years. And, more importantly, it was one that was essentially life-changing for me. I had carried a heavy weight with the focus I placed on finding a vocational calling that met a need in the world and made a difference through some large-scale systemic change. What I had missed was the opportunity to make an impact right where I was.

I’m willing to guess I am not alone in experiencing conflict between what I thought I should be doing and what I actually ended up doing. In fact, my husband and I recently read a devotional article that discussed the notion of finding the “perfect job.” The article stated that almost no one in the author’s test poll indicated they had landed their dream job. At a fundamental level, I believe many of us desire to make a difference in the world, have an impact, influence change for the better in some way. Sometimes it’s a challenge to reconcile notions of envisioned large-scale impact with the reality of everyday roles and responsibilities. But, what if the focus was shifted slightly, and the internal and external pressure to find the “right job” in the “right location” was released, and the focus was instead placed on encouraging growth in our personality strengths as well as our skills for use in serving others right where we’re at, regardless of a particular employment field, position, or location? What if this could ultimately change the world for the better?

While it is important to discern, hone, and utilize our unique gifts, talents, and skills to meet specific needs in the world, I think the discussion on vocation should also incorporate the important roles of demeanor, personality, and behaviors that could be used in a variety of jobs. Maybe an increased emphasis on everyday interactions and attitudes (listening, helping, offering compassion) would add up to help change the world and make it a better place. I like to think so.

“May our vocation be the pursuit of love. And may the wonderful, unique, and grace-filled gifts God gives to each of us be shared and used to change lives and change the world.”

-taken from a prayer in a devotional-

Wendi, her husband, and their two kids are currently perfecting their best “ya sure you betcha” accents, having recently relocated to northern Minnesota. She is co-author of the blog The Unexpected Ever Afters and a member of the podcast Moms Who Wine.

photo credit: personal photo

One thought on “Vocation: What’s in a Calling?

  1. Pingback: Ripples of Good – the unexpected ever afters

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