What would you do if you could do anything you wanted? I don’t mean what would you do if you had all the money in the world and could indulge every whim. I mean what would you do with your time . . . with your life . . . if you didn’t have to worry about earning a living? If you didn’t have to do something just for a paycheck, what would you do? If someone generously deposited $4,000.00 in your bank account on the first of each month, and you didn’t have to earn that in some way, how would you use your time? If you could spend your days doing what you wanted to do instead of what you had to do, what would you do? To what would you give your energies?
Interesting question, isn’t it? I’ve been asking myself that question for the last five years or so. And furthermore, I think God’s been trying to help me answer it.
You see, nearly every career path I’ve explored has been because I knew someone for whom that career path fit so perfectly, it was beautiful. A delight to behold. Callings are like that. To watch someone live out their calling is truly a pleasure to behold. It looks so natural and seems so effortless. It’s not, of course, and they would tell you that. But it seems so to the rest of us who are watching. To witness others live out their calling can’t help but make you smile. And it looks so natural and life-giving that we mistakenly think if we did the same thing, we’d have the same result.
So years ago, I signed on as a Loss Prevention Agent (shoplifter-catcher) for Sears because a good friend of mine was doing that job magnificently. He was so competent, so at home in that kind of work, or so it seemed at the time, and was highly respected because of it. I thought I could do that work just as well and with the same results. Sign me up! But I didn’t do it as well as he did, or with the same results, and it took me two years to realize that.
I entered ministry because the first minister I knew well was so magnificently good at it — he was so loving, so helpful, so pastoral — I thought that was the career for me. And I was good at it . . . or at least I was good at part of it (probably the most important part). But there were parts of what full-time paid ministry required that didn’t suit me at all, and sucked the life right out of me. And it took me fifteen years to sort that out.
It’s like the shirt or the dress you buy because it looks so good on the model. You imagine it’ll look just as good on you, but when you put it on, it just doesn’t seem to work. With some garments, it’s clear the first time you try it on that it’ll never work, and mercifully you can put it back on the rack without spending any money on it. With other garments it’s not bad when you try it on, and so you commit. You plunk down your cold hard cash and take it home with you. And for the next few months, you put it on once a week and off you go to work, thinking it’s your new power suit. But it doesn’t fit, not really. It chaffs a bit here or there, it’s not really your color, or for some other reason just isn’t you. And eventually it winds up hanging in your closet neglected, the victim of another failed attempt to be someone you’re not.
In the end, it doesn’t really work to wear someone else’s clothes, to do someone else’s job, or to live someone else’s life. We all have to live our own lives, and we all have to live out our own calling. The trouble is, what’s my calling?
This is one of the most difficult questions for anyone to figure out. It’s difficult, I think, for a number of reasons. First, because in America, we’re not used to thinking about calling. We’re used to thinking about jobs. Success. Initiative. Proactivity. “You can be anything you want to be,” we’re told. The truth, though, is that you probably can’t! Each of us has built-in limitations. Some of those are physical, and some are driven by our personalities. The reason we’re awed so much by people like Steve Jobs and what he accomplished is that people like that are so rare. Genius is relatively uncommon. And yet many of us believe that we could achieve similar things if we just had the right opportunities. Probably not.
The second reason calling is so difficult for us to sort out is because most of us are carrying around a lot of internal baggage. Fear of failure, for example, paralyzes us and keeps us from trying new things. Insecurity and low self-esteem tend to breed either people-pleasers on one hand, or people-users on the other. None of these quagmires are terribly conducive to sorting out one’s own calling. I flirted with the idea over the last couple of years that I was cut out to be a librarian. I worked at a library, and to my boss, I was a miracle-worker (or at least I enjoyed believing that she thought that). I love to be appreciated. The people-pleaser in me is easily seduced by appreciation, and often mistakes that appreciation for calling. I found I could do that work, and it wasn’t life-sucking like some other things I’ve tried, but it wasn’t terribly life-giving either.
The third reason calling is sometimes difficult to discover is that some of us are just fairly competent people. It’s easy for us to excel at a lot of the things we put our hands to. There are a lot of things we can do well. Doing something well always has its own rewards, and we often mistake those rewards for calling. I can do automotive repair, I can do it reasonably well, and I don’t find it absolutely life-sucking, so this must be my calling.
The fourth reason will sound strange after all of the above, but sometimes we confuse career with calling. We assume our calling will also pay the bills. This may indeed be true for some people, but it may not be true for everyone.
And fifthly, calling is hard because of the expectations of others. We live in a world where the other people we interact with every day have very real expectations of us. Sometimes those expectations are verbalized, sometimes not. But even if they’re not verbalized, they are perceived and felt by us. And the expectations of others often push us into activities that are far, far removed from our calling. Give into those expectations often enough and you can easily begin to believe those activities are in line with your calling.
So back to our initial question. What would you do if you didn’t have to worry about making a living? What would you do if you could divorce yourself from people-pleasing, fear, and envy? The root question here is what do you want? What is your heart saying to you? What engages you? Eliminate all the other voices in your head and what do you hear?
And that’s the key, I think. Eliminating all the other voices. When you push aside all the other voices and listen to the quiet pleadings of your own heart, what do you hear? I believe God is most present in moments like this. When we’ve silenced all the other voices and noise in our world and are content with the whispers of our own hearts and the sound of our own breathing. It is in these moments that God whispers into our lives both his love and our design. And he whispers those tender words in the midst of the deepest longings of our own hearts.
That’s what God has been doing with me over the last five years. And I want to end this post by emphasizing the truth that it’s actually taken five years.
You’ll notice, if you used to read this blog, that I haven’t posted anything here in over two years. In fact, I’ve probably become that guy who used to write a spiritual formation blog. (For the record, I haven’t been entirely silent; see my photography blog at http://www.ronlongwell.com/blog). But part of the reason for my absence on this blog over the past few years is that I’ve been sorting through a bunch of this stuff. And some of it’s been painful and challenging, and at times, deeply unsettling. Transformation is often that way, by the way. So honestly, I haven’t felt much like writing. For the record, I wrote most of this post back in October of 2011 and quit because I didn’t know how to finish it. I’m finishing it today, because I finally feel like I can.
But the point is, you can’t do this kind of deep soul-searching in an hour or two (or even a month or two). God usually needs to do far too much untwisting of the twisted places within us for any of this to happen quickly. There are no shortcuts here. Significant time spent quieting all the other voices, listening to God, and listening to your own heart is the only real way to arrive at clarity about our design and our calling.
So what would you do with your time if you didn’t have to use it to earn a living? I finally believe I’ve come to some certainty in my own life about how I’d answer that question. I feel much more settled today about who God has created me to be and how I can better live out of that place. I know what to say no to and what to give my energies to. That, for me, is a really good place to be. As a result, I intend to start writing here again, because I’m good at it, and that’s one of the things I know I’d do with my time if I didn’t have to worry about money. I hope at least some of you are still around to read it. 😉