How Do We Acquire a Calling?

A calling is a strong inner urge to become religious, or take up some specific way of life, vocation, or activity. I cannot speak for today’s churches, but the ancient concept prospers in the arts. Many writers, poets, composers, and painters will happily describe how they were “called” to their particular art form.

Romantic image of a ruined castle on a rugged coast.

The romantic landscape may summon the feeling. Call it joy, delight, enchantment, or bliss, we all spend more time chasing it than we realize. These special feelings point the way to our spiritual or vocational calling.

How does one acquire a calling? The old myth of the soul choosing its life before it is born presents us with an entertaining idea, but one that is, when one stops to think about it, not very enlightening. In the end, such easy mystical explanations leave one feeling unsatisfied. By hiding more than they reveal, they do not assuage the hunger to know and understand. Let us leave aside such colourful fancies and look for a more substantial way of coming to grips with our question.

I believe the process of acquiring a calling begins, unknowingly, when we are children. An especially-loved toy, a piece of oft-heard music, some enchanting scene, a particularly-fascinating experience, a favourite story, and so on, lays down a half-remembered pattern in the mind which, because it seeks enjoyment, then goes on the lookout for anything of a like nature. The mind stores material together if it has a similar emotional tone. Over time, a network of images and ideas is formed which manifests itself as an “interest” or, if the network is extensive and complex enough, an aptitude.

Genetic factors may help the process along. Some occupations have been part of man’s repertory for so long they have become inherited instinct. These would include such ancient vocations as hunter, fisher, gatherer, storyteller, artisan, warrior, healer, soothsayer, philosopher, and so on. It seems reasonable to assume that each of these requires certain heritable physical and mental attributes that would predispose one to an interest in the area in which one has been genetically favoured.

Jung might say the activation of unconscious archetypes determines vocation, said archetypes being heritable as part of the collective unconscious. I suppose it works out to much the same thing in the end.

In my own experience, the process of developing a calling feels like sheer magic. One intuitively recognizes (albeit with little understanding of the whys and the wherefores) objects and experiences that the developmental process needs, and each shock of recognition is accompanied by a surge of excitement, pleasure, and achingly sweet anticipation. I see the same magic at work in the lives of writers such as C. S. Lewis who, as a young man, was always straining to catch a “whiff of the real joy,” and the insightful Scottish writer Neil M. Gunn who spent a lifetime pursuing what he called “delight.” This process of stepwise recognition is what mythologist Joseph Campbell referred to as “following your bliss.”

I am an intellectual so anything to do with mind and intellect has that magical effect on me, but books have always cast the most potent spells. My imagination adds spice to every encounter with these heady distillations of another person’s thinking or imagining. For me, the title page of a freshly opened book has always been a signpost to new adventures for a curious, questing mind, and a hungry imagination.

The potential to be “called” exists in us all, yet many never find their way. Life comes with time-consuming responsibilities and chance may keep us from encountering the critical experiences and opportunities needed to bring a calling into bloom. If you have not found your calling, but would like to, then it is time you started looking around for the things that seem especially alluring, delightful, or enchanting. All you have to do is pick up the trail of bliss crumbs and follow them to your rightful destination.

Author: Thomas Cotterill

I am a manic-depressive made philosophical by my long struggle with the disruptive mood disorder, during which I spent sixteen years living as a forest hermit. I write philosophical essays, fantasy, and science fiction. My attempt to integrate creativity, psychology, philosophy, and spirituality imbues everything I write. You will find hundreds of related essays and articles on my blog. I live quietly in British Columbia's scenic Fraser Valley, a beautiful place in which to wax philosophical.

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