All of my retreats and online courses, and much of my writing, in some way involve an exploration of the theme of ‘calling’. Calling is neither ‘fate’ nor ‘destiny’ and, to me, has little to do with the job you do — though it can have, of course, if you happen to fulfill whatever purpose you believe you have in life primarily through your occupation (this is arguably ‘vocation’, a subset of ‘calling’). But for many people, their sense of purpose is expressed in ways of being in the world rather than ways of doing.
Depth psychologist James Hillman was one of the best-known writers on calling; in his bestselling book The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling Hillman declared: ‘Each person enters the world called.’ The idea wasn’t original, but goes back to Plato, who expressed the idea in a myth he constructed about the goddess Ananke, or ‘Necessity’, the mother of the Fates, and the one who, Plato said, established what is necessary for each soul to do/be before it enters the world.
Hillman argued that we all have a sense of personal calling; some notion that we are alive, here and now, for a particular reason. He suggested that we are all answerable to an innate vision – a kind of concealed invisible potential – which we fill out during the course of our lives. Although Hillman used many terms for this potential, my favourite way of imagining this is to think of it as an acorn: the acorn, like any seed, carries within it the image of, and the potential to become, the oak tree that it might eventually be – given the right circumstances, of course.
The soul, Hillman said, selects the pattern that we live out before we are born. We carry within us an image which guides us, prods us, helps us to remember what we’re here for. It does so through our dreams, and through images and symbols and myths and stories and archetypes which particularly resonate with us. Sooner or later, he said, something calls us to a particular path (again, not necessarily a career path!) and what we must then do is be sure that we take the path which aligns our lives with our calling, rather than that which might seem to be the path of least resistance.
Although this all sounds rather fatalistic, Hillman is at great pains to point out that what we are working with here is very much a potential, not a predetermined pattern. We journey through life, he said, in continual, moving adjustments – not following some grand predestined design. But the paths we take keep on trying to align themselves to our overall purpose or calling. In other words, the path which will ultimately lead us to fulfill our calling reshapes itself in response to the choices we make in life.
When I’m working with these ideas in groups, I often find surprisingly young people distressed by the idea that they have not yet understood what their calling might be — as if calling were a destination, rather than the lifelong journey to fulfill your greatest potential, to express your unique gift, which I believe it is. That sense of a desperate race to ‘figure it all out’ as soon as you can is surely a reflection of modern culture, which tells us constantly that the fastest solutions are the best. Who has the time these days to do the research, learn, reflect, make a mistake, try again … Like Alice’s White Rabbit, we constantly imagine ourselves to be running late for the rest of our lives. For some important date, some ‘aha’ moment when we can tick another box and say well, that’s that then. I’ve done calling. What’s next?
For me, calling is the work of a lifetime. It’s beautiful work because it’s not so much about doing, and accomplishing, as it is about developing and expressing a vision for your life. And one of the things that is forgotten in a task-driven culture which has no appreciation of calling is that developing a vision takes time. Sometimes, it takes a lifetime — for it to emerge, for it then to be developed and expressed in all the ways that are possible for us. Because to express our calling is to allow ourselves to uniquely express one mode of being, one facet of the creative life-force of the universe — whatever you might conceive that to be. It is about being, about endlessly becoming — it is not about doing.
It’s this rush to do, to accomplish, which is one of the most pernicious aspects of contemporary culture: it robs us of our ability to fully participate in the process of our own becoming. We want to have achieved our dreams — but we don’t necessarily value the work that must be put in to achieve them. We want to be writers, for example — but we don’t want to spend the years learning the craft of how to write. We see the results all around us, everywhere we look: overnight celebrities, instant experts, pop-up personalities with more form than substance. This is not how it’s supposed to be.
Here is what we’ve forgotten: we’ve forgotten the value of true apprenticeship. And as ever, we find the treasure we imagine we’ve lost hidden there in full view for everyone to see, embedded in our old myths and fairy tales. For at the heart of so many good fairy tales is the critically important concept of apprenticeship. In one of my favourite stories, ‘The Black Bull of Norroway’, a girl must spend seven long years apprenticed to a blacksmith — the only person who can make the shoes which she needs to scale the enormous glass mountain which prevents her from continuing her quest to save her ensorcelled husband. In the old German tales of Mother Hulda (or Frau Hölle) a girl must plunge down a well and spend a year apprenticed to the old woman before she can return to the world above with the lost spindle she had been seeking — a spindle which now has acquired magical powers. In a rare old story from the Isle of Skye, a girl who is lost in the Cuillin mountains must apprentice herself to an old woman and an old man who create the dreams of the world for a year and a day, before she is guided back down the mountain by fairy deer, and there finds the love of her life.
The messages are clear: sometimes, you have to step off the path you’re so determinedly striding along, and learn a few new skills. And learn them properly — through your own lived experience, not experience copied from others; and by continuing to learn for however long is necessary, from someone who really knows. These stories tell us that sometimes it’s okay to feel that you’re not progressing, because the myth of progress is another of those profoundly pernicious myths which our culture forces upon us. (Sometimes, actually, the greatest ‘progress’ is made during times of apparent stasis — but that’s a story for another day.) Sometimes, it’s okay to say that you don’t know, you’re not sure, you’re still trying to figure it out for yourself — and to avoid like the plague the people who are trying to sell you ready-made solutions of their own.
To fully express our calling, we must be able to tolerate the idea of apprenticeship. To understand what we don’t know, to do the proper research, to find the right teachers, to embody the necessary lived experience before we imagine that we’re ready to share our gift with the world. Apprenticeship requires humility: a little-valued quality in a world hell-bent on glory. All the best fairy-tale heroines knew it to be true: sometimes it’s okay to say that you’re not quite there yet. None of us are ever quite there until it’s time for us finally to die — because when we imagine that our journey has come to an end, the truth is, our ability to live a seeking, authentic life has come to an end along with it.