by Emma Philbin Bowman
For that is what is lost in so many lives, and what must be recovered: a sense of personal calling…there is a reason my unique person is here and that there are things I must attend to beyond the daily round and that give the daily round its reason…I am answerable to an innate image, which I am filling out in my biography.
(Hillman, 1996: 4)
James Hillman wrote his impassioned plea on behalf of ‘calling’, The soul’s code (1996), 21 years ago. He argued that Western psychological culture was – almost uniquely among civilisations – deprived of an appreciation of calling. He felt this left us caught in what he termed “the parental fallacy” (Hillman, 1996: 20), where the impact of our formative environment and relationships were overvalued. For Hillman, this bias risked reducing us to an effect of what had happened to us, leaving little room for our creativity, vision or uniqueness. He proposed that we needed to reaffirm a different type of influence on our lives – our higher purpose, our soul’s code – ‘calling’.
Lately, in teaching workshops and on mindfulness trainings, I’ve been struck by how deeply participants respond to this theme. There is a sense of subtle aliveness, intimacy and relief that comes when calling is invoked.
This may be in part because the paradigms we are offered to think about our lives rarely reflect the complexity, subtlety or uniqueness of the humans that we are. This is not to criticise or negate the realities of depression, anxiety, questions of self-esteem or responses to them such as mindfulness, self-compassion and any other salve that enriches our capacity to live well. But it is to challenge the often bland generic ways our culture offers us to talk about ourselves. Calling offers a contrast here, because it specifically invites us to attend to the particular and to meaning that is personal to us, while also inviting us into relationship with our society as a whole. These things are valuable.
So I want to explore some of the gifts that calling may have to offer us in these specific times. I begin with a very broad look at how we may identify and refine our sense of what calls us. I then look at the value of calling in terms of four broad themes: (i) how calling can refresh our understanding of the forces that shape our lives, (ii) how it can serve as an antidote to narcissism and self-neglect, (iii) how it can anchor us in our core values and a healthy appreciation of our uniqueness, and (iv) how it may offer holding in otherwise shaky lives. Finally, I consider some of the paradoxes and shadows we are likely to encounter on our journey with calling, and reflect on the relationship between calling and our wounds.
Depending on our temperament and self-awareness, we can clarify calling in different ways: by looking to the past for a pattern or rhythm of meaning, by asking direct questions of ourselves about what our gifts are and what matters most to us and, by attuning to others we have either deeply admired or felt ‘seen’ by in some essential way (I’ll briefly touch on each of these below).
Calling asks us to look to the past as a place of revelation rather than impact – to look for what it makes known about the self and what matters to us. It invites us to listen to our lives differently: to notice which moments feel significant; which tasks feel central to our purpose; and when we sense ourselves to be in alignment with something essential in us. When we scan our lives this way, we may find our attention falls on certain moments: a scene with a friend, a task or role that captured a kernel of our identity, lines from songs or poems, an object or activity that beckoned forcefully to us. Among these moments, we may sense a thread or threads of continuity – a pattern within us that points to a call.
We can also refine our sense of calling through asking direct questions. Calling has close links with the more pragmatic Japanese concept of ikigai – or ‘reason for being’ (Ikigai, n.d.) – seen as essential both to happiness and to a long life. Ikigai asks us to identify the central point of balance between four questions: What do I love? What does the world need? What will people pay me for? and, What am I good at? (If these questions feel too sharp, we can sense into this territory through more evocative, open inquiries which may take us deeper: What am I here to learn? What am I here to teach? What am I here to overcome? What am I here to complete? What am I here to express?)
Attuning to others:
Calling is also revealed by our affinities: either with those we are drawn to because they mirror something essential and unrealised in us, or when we are ‘seen’ in our singularity and gift. Here’s Hillman: “I try to point out…the role an ordinary person can have in seeing the child’s destiny. We need to get back to trusting our emotional rapport with children, to seeing a child’s beauty and singling that child out” (London, 2016).
The potency of calling
(i) Refreshing our understanding of the forces that shape our lives
Tuning in to calling challenges our view of the causes which shape our lives. Cause is a theme so fundamental we rarely see it. What makes us who we are? Are we inspired by the future or the past? What breathes life into our lives? Where does our momentum come from? These are big, almost unanswerable questions. Yet we all carry intuitive, unexamined hunches about them which have a powerful impact on how we envisage our lives and our capacity to shape them. We may be intensely fatalistic and resigned or optimistic to the point of delusion. Do we feel fundamentally ‘formed’ by our past and what has happened to us – or inspired to realise a vision we find inside us?
Most of us fall between, but for Hillman western psychology amplifies fatalism. In its preoccupation with the psychodynamics of our early life, it is inherently biased to foreground what Aristotle called our “formal” cause (Hillman, 1996: 11) – the substance from which we came. Hillman (1996) proposes that “We are….less damaged by the traumas of childhood than by the traumatic way we remember childhood as a time of unnecessary and externally caused calamities that wrongly shaped us” (4). For all that a psychodynamic perspective reveals and helps us to work through, if it is too dominant a paradigm it can also undermine us, by fixating our attention on one element of cause.
Balance is important, that we remember we are more than what has happened to us, and sense the interplay of fate and destiny:
The Greek word for fate, ‘moira’, means a share, a portion. As fate has only a portion in what happens, so the daimon, the personal, internalized aspect of moira, has only a portion…the portion that comes from elsewhere and is unaccountable and the portion that belongs to me, what I did, could have done, can do…
(Hillman, 1996: 195)
Calling thus offers a way to balance the imprints of the past with the influence of an inner vision which beckons us. This actively raises us toward something we love or value that lies beyond us. In this sense, it highlights what the early Greeks called the daimon – a voice of inner guidance, and has close ties with what Bollas (1989) termed our “destiny drive” – the creative interior style so essential to our idiom (35).
In inviting us to rethink ‘cause’ and tune in, alongside all that has happened to us, to what Aristotle called the Final Cause (Hillman, 1996: 196) – the ‘that for the sake of which’ we are, calling has visceral power. It is a dynamic, vitalising perspective which counteracts resignation and prompts an engaged, hopeful relation to our capacity to contribute and create.
(ii) Calling as an antidote to narcissism and self-neglect
An occupation is the only thing which balances the distinctive capacity of an individual with his social service…
Another of calling’s richest gifts lies in its capacity to address two of our most destructive tendencies: narcissism and self-neglect. Both undervalue our essential humanness, our deeper feelings, and our capacities to contribute healthily to others. Calling is medicine here, because it elevates what is best in us in the name of the collective. This enables us to raise our commitment to ourselves while serving something beyond us. A true relationship to calling can never be a project of the ego, because calling is not about who we want to be, but who we find that we are:
Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you. Before you tell your life what truths and values you have decided to live up to, let your life tell you what truths you embody, what values you represent.
Ultimately, to engage with calling requires humility and receptivity. We cannot be ‘whoever we want to be’; we do not just invent ourselves. In fact, we come upon ourselves – our strengths and limitations – and, if we see clearly, we find that we are quite particular, that our lives have certain possibilities and not others. This recognition of limitation helps counteract our narcissistic tendencies: our calling may come with a grandiose fantasy attached, but as we truly learn to serve it, we’ll find ourselves supported to shed the distracting longings of our ego.
In doing my best to answer the call, over time I will become worthy. Or more than that, it’s in the answering that I feel my worth.
(Mary Jane Verniere, Workshop Participant, reproduced with permission)
One of the outstanding therapeutic reasons to value calling lies in how it encourages us to respect ourselves. If we have sufficient ego-strength to believe ourselves worthy of a calling, we must then value and sustain ourselves in order to realise it. Calling can thus initiate self-respect and sustain self-care in those for whom self-respect for our own sake seems unachievable. Serving calling deepens a genuine care for the self and the world beyond us:
…when you work you fulfil a part of earth’s furthest dream, assigned to you when that dream was born…and when you work with love you bind yourself to yourself, and to one another, and to God…
(Gibran, 1923 : 15)
By inviting us to realise ourselves in-relation-to-the-whole, calling opens a door to self- transcendence: in receiving calling, we open to something mysterious whose source eludes us. We cannot be exactly sure where it comes from, and yet we sense its presence. Calling draws us as deep as we are able to travel into mystery and union, drawing together not just our desire to serve, our kinship with one another, and our ethics, but stretching toward further horizons of mystery, surrender and union.
(iii) Calling draws us toward authenticity and core values
A vocation that is not mine, no matter how externally valued, does violence to the self – in the precise sense that it violates my identity and integrity on behalf of some abstract norm…the best inward sign of vocation is deep gladness…If a work is mine to do, it will make me glad over the long haul, despite the difficult days…
(Palmer, 1998: 31)
Calling also grounds us in the real. It recalls us to our deepest values, our authenticity, and a healthy recognition of our uniqueness. This anchors us to what is most fundamental and good in us, and lessens our tendency to be tossed about by vicissitudes of pleasure and pain, praise and blame, gain and loss, fame and disrepute. Developing an ear for calling strengthens us, by offering a thread to attend to, a fire to keep burning, and a compass to follow that matters. What calling asks of us may surprise us:
Calling can refer not only to ways of doing – meaning work – but also to ways of being. Take being a friend. Goethe said that his friend Eckermann was born for friendship. Aristotle made friendship one of the great virtues…in the past, friendship was a huge thing. But it’s hard for us to think of friendship as a calling, because it’s not a vocation.
(Hillman: London, 2012)
We need to pay attention here – and to really absorb that calling asks us to value something of intrinsic worth to us. In Rogerian terms, we could say this coaxes us toward a locus of evaluation that is not just within the self, but that is located in the deepest, most essential core of the self. An informal element, such as a quality of character or role with others, can be a calling. All of us, if supported to respect the values we find within us, will stumble upon essential things worth treasuring – things which we cannot neglect without great cost. These need not be ‘obvious’ purposes in the eyes of the world, yet knowing them to be a call encourages us to raise them up, to see the greatness they reference, and to align our actions with them.
The Silk Worm
I stood before a silk worm one day.
And that night my heart said to me,
“I can do things like that, I can spin skies,
I can be woven into love that can bring warmth to people;
I can be soft against a crying face,
I can be wings that lift, and I can travel on my thousand feet throughout the earth,
my sacks filled
And I replied to my heart,
“Dear, can you really do all those things?”
And it just nodded, “Yes”
So we began and will never
(Ladinsky, 2002: 75)
Such a broad understanding of calling invites us to value what we value, and to be authentic and loyal to our gifts, however particular. There is an exercise I have done with groups of students. It is extremely simple, but clarifies something I have come to understand about the ability of calling to reduce our competitiveness, and create a more collaborative, relaxed and generous culture.
In the exercise, I invite participants to close their eyes and listen to Rumi’s Silkworm poem. I ask them to sense into something that is a strength for them in their work, that arises on hearing the poem. We then return to dialogue and I ask each of them to do two things: to say something about the strength that came up for them, and to say how it is to speak in the group of that strength. Something beautiful happens here: People are initially tentative – then, almost always, they express something so vulnerable and genuine about the core of who they are that the whole group intrinsically recognise its truth, and the specificity to that person of what is spoken. As each member gives voice to the strength that came for them, we find ourselves in a ‘field’ of qualities so authentic they are undeniable and so particular we are not inclined to compare ourselves. The essence of each gift shines through, and momentarily imbues us all.
(iv) Calling as a source of holding
To the extent that we apprentice ourselves to a calling, we may experience it as a ‘holding’ force. Calling creates a form of discipleship and bond that structures us. As we follow and attempt to serve a call, we bind ourselves to something stable and worthwhile.
This makes calling especially precious to those of us who struggle for stability in other ways – whether financial or relational. When our attachment patterns and relationships are shaky or fraught, or our careers apparently unsuccessful, the perspective offered by calling can dignify and stabilise lives that might, from a relational or material viewpoint look chaotic, failed or tragic. One of the lovely elements here is that developing a ‘secure’ relationship with calling will be within the reach of many who struggle to achieve this level of stability with other humans. We should not underestimate the importance of this. In a culture that often defines the success or failure of our lives in relational, financial or ‘status’ terms, calling offers different frames of reference which we ourselves have more power to influence. This means that a cultural perspective on living that genuinely treasures calling can be profoundly supportive – for some the difference between a life that feels like a failure, and one that has succeeded on its own terms to serve something beautiful.
The shadows of calling
It would be naïve to champion calling without acknowledging some of its shadows – to see how we can be stung by calling; how we can exploit it, how we may unconsciously enact unprocessed trauma through it, how it may burn us out or disappoint us. For some of us, the pull of calling is so great that we risk mistreating other things, people, or parts of who we are. For others, such is our narcissistic wounding that our egos are ripe to inflate us on the back of calling, tarnishing our sensitivity for what we once revered and felt drawn to serve. We may also be inclined to cling to a fixed view of calling and to pursue that doggedly, becoming increasingly inflexible and failing to account for its shadows, to new hints from inside us, or to evidence of imbalance in our lives.
These pitfalls remind us of the ongoing need to stay in a fluid, open dialogue with the daimon within. We need to listen deeply and adapt to changing capacities and circumstance. If our concept is too rigid, calling becomes routine and loses its soul. Receptivity remains central: What are we being guided toward now? Is our calling begging to be refined or updated? Did we abandon a core element of who we are to pursue an exclusive task? Is something important in our life being irrevocably damaged by our fixation with a particular call? John Dewey points out something valuable here – that we are inclined to identify with one calling, but that a balanced human life must have many:
Each individual has of necessity a variety of callings…we naturally name [a person’s] vocation from that one of the callings which distinguishes him… But we should not allow ourselves to ignore and virtually deny his other callings.
(Dewey J, 1916)
Calling and the wound
I shall go down
to the lovers’ well
and wash this wound
that will not heal…
(Geoffrey Hill, The Pentecost Castle, 15; in Housden, 2009: 54)
So often, perhaps particularly for therapists, our wounds imbue calling and show up in the heart of our service to others. This relationship between calling and the wound is delicate: past injury or pain may so deeply form and inform our calling; the others and the purposes with which we resonate speak to something within us which has been hurt. We need to ensure serving calling does not become an enactment, a self-wounding on behalf of others. Those of us who lean too far outward toward others do violence to ourselves when we fail to tend the pain or isolation of the part of ourselves which calling originally touched. Calling is not about duty or self-abandonment; it is more an unfolding journey to integrate self and purpose which benefits, not just the world, but also ourselves. If our calling arises from our wound(s), in following it we are making “sweet honey from all [our] old failures” (Housden, 2003: 118) – but not by wrecking or depleting the self. Calling does not ask us to neglect ourselves to the point of damage, or at least, if it sometimes does, it calls us back to tend the one who is called, to treasure the instrument with which we serve.
Emma Philbin Bowman works as a psychotherapist, writer and teacher, and offers workshops on psychological, existential and spiritual themes: web: www.emmapb.com, email: emmapb@ me.com.
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