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Saturday, October 23, 2004

The Call

Many people have no idea what it is to be called or think that it is limited only to people who are joining a religious order or are seeking to persuade the unbelieving. There are other sorts of callings, though. However, this is not the way that most people find their jobs. Choosing a career usually has to do with chasing money or it seemed like an easy way to get through college or I just fell into it. This is sad to me, sad that most people never get the experience of being called.

I say this because it happened to me. When I tell people this story, they usually look at me like they've just watched me have a nervous breakdown. Since it is not an experience that they've shared, they cannot credit it. Since it did not involve deciding to shove Jesus down the throats of the unbelievers, they cannot find the proper context in which to understand it.

I was 14 at the time, in a strange period of my life in which the friends I had surrounded myself with and the activities we participated in (by this point, mostly scouting parties into the fringes of an area called Trouble) were losing their hold on me. Change was imminent, but I didn't know that. I was just some 14-year-old punk kid.

The catalyst in this story was my English teacher, Mrs Stachurski (nee' Miss Butterworth). Towards the end of 9th grade, she assigned us something that I, for one, had never been assigned before. She had us write fiction. Write a short story, anything we wanted.

A friend of mine had told me about a movie he had seen that George C. Scott was in, called "Bank Shot." It was a caper film about some people breaking into a bank. Being the lazy student that I was, I decided to steal that plot and write my own version of it.

I had study hall in the school cafeteria. There were about half a dozen of us in there, and we sat at the tables in the back, by the milk machines. I can remember starting to write and the feeling of exhilaration that built inside me. My mind raced and my pen flew. Instead of the drudgery that I had expected, I found joy.

As I've told people over the years, always to their disbelief, it felt as though the hand of God reached through the walls of Goff Junior High School, tapped me on the forehead with a giant finger and said "A writer thou art." Talk about your epiphanies.

A year later, I would step on stage in front of 2000 students and teachers in the high school play, sneak a peek at the audience, and think, "Well, this is just like home." Almost 20 years further on, I directed a sketch for a video demo I did with my former partners. After a day of scouting locations on the fly, choosing angles, and directing performances, I thought, "This is something I could do every day."

Neither of those days, however interesting as days in which to choose a career, could hold a candle to that day in 9th grade. I write because that is what I do. I'm a writer because that is what I am.


Robert G. Margolis said...

No incredulity here, Len. You are fortunate in your experience, that your first awareness of, recognition of the call of your vocation was so decisive and definitive.

To exclusively associate a "call" or a vocation with missionary activity or prostelytizing, to make them synonymous, is, of course, mistaken. And, yes, our civilization, our culture, such as it is, does not, in general, cultivate a sense of vocation as part of our children's education or as a way for them to investigate their own abilities and potential. But, too, I think the "call" of a vocation, in its broadest, most inclusive defintion, is experienced in as many subtle, different ways as there are vocations.
I'm convinced, as well, that many people have the experience of vocation, exactly as you mean it here, but who do not use the word to describe their experience, do not conceptualize it as such, if, indeed, it is even remarkable enough in their lives, as the moment of "the call" was in yours, to notice it.

Vocation as distinct from profession, livelihood, "a job": I do think there are many who have some degree of awareness of this, who experience in themselves the 'call' of necessity, of circumstance, of obligation and responsibility in conflict or opposition to what their nature at the same time 'calls' them to 'be' or 'become'. That seems, to me, a basic human experience, whether or not articulated in these terms.

A vocation may be entirely contemplative, and therefore the profession, the livelihood which vehicules it, as much as it can, may be secondary or according to circumstance (though certainly some livelihoods are more compatible and harmonious than others).

As I said, you are fortunate your experience was so decisive and definitive. Assuming one knows it's a reality there to be listened to, it may take much listening to a "still, small voice", before one hears what it calls one to.

Len said...

Robert, you bring up a lot of interesting points. It’s true that there are a significant number of people who experience a sense of vocation in occupations that have nothing to do with religion or the arts. In fact, I worked at a civil engineering firm some years ago, and a very high percentage of the engineers were just that sort of person. A lot of lawyers are like that, too. In fact, there are undoubtedly people in all walks of life who are doing the thing that they ought to. I’ve seen auto mechanics and waitresses who were content with the thing they did and were clearly riding the Tao of it.

Since my particular calling has moneymaking possibilities sprouting out of it like dandelions out of a lawn, I tend to forget that the day job isn’t always the thing. Actually, I envy people who don’t feel that they need to earn their living by their vocation. My life would have been far less stressful had I been able to join their ranks. Unfortunately, for me, every moment spent at a job (and I’ve had almost 50 of them) was a moment stolen. Now, whether this has something to do with my deep-seated problems in dealing with authority and structure is a discussion for another day.

I do, however, know a huge number of people who never experience that marvelous feeling of “this it is!” in anything that they do. They do the things that they feel they ought to do rather than the thing that they need to do. And they’ve suppressed their own self-knowledge to the point where they have no idea what their vocation is or what the basic impulses of their own beings are. It’s sad to see.

Robert G. Margolis said...

Yes, I have seen and met that sadness, in myself first, and then in others. I have held, maybe, half as many jobs as you, but for me, like you, they've all felt like a theft of time and opportunity (though, of course, in a basic respect they have the blessing of honest livelihood), like somewhere, long ago, I took a fatally wrong turn. "I came ashore in the dead of the night. Lot of things can get in the way, when you're tryin' to do what's right," as Bobby D sings. There is however, for me, an essential vocation, awareness of which, remembrance of which, the practice of which 'cures' and effaces that inwardly divisive sense of "theft".

I have one, two, several vocations; none of them has yet been my livelihood (though there is the crescent moon thin hope that one or more of them will be in future); none of them is the essential vocation which I won't put a name to here). It's instructive, too, that, call them, "traditional", "pre-modern" cultures and peoples, and their surviving remnants everywhere, do not make a distinction between "religious" and other kinds of vocation. Anything and everything can be realized as a "way", as you allude to. When I'm "at work", feeling that time, even 'self', are being stolen, that is a precious, life-saving remembrance.

Anonymous said...

You guys make me feel vocationally focused- I think I've only had about a dozen jobs and the really good part is that for the past five years (my personal record) I've been working as an employment counselor and job developer. So if you'd like, I can offer up the wisdom of one of my endlessly photocopied handouts which asks self-assessment questions like: "Do you like to work indoors or outdoors?"... "Do you like to work with pants or without pants?" etc. until you identify your ideal job and then realize it doesn't exist around here so you'd better go apply at Home Depot if you can pass the drug test. Many's the time, right in the middle of one of my red hot workshops on "Interview Skills for the Homeless," I'll find myself thinking that if I really knew the way to identify one's calling and make a great living at it, would I be standing here talking to you? I am definintely not nice enough for this stuff. I think I'm in the wrong line of work.


Len said...


Good to have you aboard. I wouldn't do your job for $25/wk. At least, I don't think I've ever done your job. I have been on the other side of the desk, though. I've always been a problem for "you people." (And I mean that in the nicest way possible.) I take the tests and go through the interview, and then they look at my work history and education and see a guy who is relatively bright and capable who has two noncommital years at a junior college and more jobs than people have teeth. It's just another time in life when people don't know how to take me, and I end up leaving with no more or better work than I showed up with.

When I let it be known that I also dabble in writing comedy, they tend to wish me well with that.

The first time I went to a state-sponsored employment counselor, he sent me off to a job pumping gas. I was 19 or 20 and looking for a way to pay my way as I, let us say, parted ways with the Community College of Rhode Island.

Can I say that I admire your courage in facing up to the mugs that show up at these employment seminars? I've been among 'em and it's not a pretty site.

Anonymous said...

You aren't a problem, you are an opportunity! A very troublesome opportunity. I'm proud to say that I make more than $25/week...and as a bonus, the local Safeway donates their day-old baked goods to our center so I have unethical access to an endless supply of very dry cinnamon rolls. Which may explain how I just landed a second job. It is a four-hour gig playing Santa Claus at the supermarket where my wife is a pharmacy technician. I'm not doing it for the eighty bucks, I'm doing it for the children. And the hope that I come away with some David Sedaris-like stories.


Len said...

With people like me around, I hope you get paid piecework. There'd be a small fortune in it for you.

The $25/wk was really a reference to the amount that I would be paid if I had your job. I would undoubtedly gotten it through a temp agency whose rep would have told me that $25/wk was all they could get me, but it was a good opprtunity just the same. And I'd smile and agree to it while my insides shrivelled slightly at the thought of having to show up someplace every day again.

Anybody who can go out there every day and slog through it is my hero, along with our troops in the field and anybody who wears a cape and tights and knows how to fly.

And, as the father of a six-year-old, I can say without a doubt that there is no more noble profession than that of Santa. May the Ho's be with you.

Super Slacker

Anonymous said...

It's too bad that geographic constraints prevent me from serving as your agent because I'm sure that if you don't already have it, a man of your sensibilities deserves a spot in upper-upper-middle mismanagement, complete with all of the pleasures of the per deim and ergonomic chair. Perhaps better to be a homemaker, when possible. I got to do some of that when I had a six year old and it was one of the best times of my life.

At the risk of appearing to be a do-gooder, I'll admit that I was Santa at the Boys/Girls Club a couple of years ago and I really enjoyed it. But there was one sweet little girl who, when asked, told me that all she wanted was for her mommy and daddy to stop fighting and love each other again. Whaaaaaaa! That broke Santa's heart. Fortunately, I was able to give her a candy cane and a quoted excerpt from Churchill's famous "stiff upper lip" speech.

I may be in the wrong line of work.


Len said...

As an Executive Administrative Assistant (I kid you not), I am a proud lower member (keep it clean) of the lower upper middle Miss Management Pagaent at the company for which I work. (If you want to call what I do working.) I justify my laggardliness by telling myself that the company is supporting the arts by providing me with my bi-weekly stipend.

I wish you were my agent. I need one. Really.