Do You Have a Calling? Should You Actually Want One?

Confused

Another 37, Day 31

It’s hard to swing a sack full of existential dilemmas without hitting a book about finding your Calling in life. Or a website. Or someone who approaches you in the mall and asks if you have found a life coach. It is not hard to understand why this is such a pervasive and lucrative industry. Most of us have a vague feeling that our lives are not what we want them to be, and that we could do better and achieve sublime happiness if we just knew how.

It’s possible that this sense of unfulfillment is worse in our era of abundance and individualism than it has ever been, but it’s been with humanity at least as long as we’ve been writing things down. A wide variety of solutions have been proposed over the millennia. In ancient India, the solution was to meditate enough so that you achieve enlightenment and won’t have to worry about it the next time around. In ancient Rome, it was to man up and deal with it—or, if it got bad enough, to fall on your sword. In medieval Europe, it was to be a good and obedient enough person to be rewarded in the afterlife where they don’t have these kinds of problems. If these sound like oversimplifications, it’s because:

  1. They are, and
  2. This problem is so deep, so complicated, and so pervasive that any solution will always been an oversimplification.

In the modern Western world, some of us still follow these solutions. But more and more our culture is pervaded by the sense that the way to get out of what the Buddha called dukkha—a word often translated as “suffering” but which literally means something closer to “the fact that life just kind of sucks no matter what you do”–is to find your Calling. Your Purpose. That perfect job or art or volunteer work that you are Supposed To Do, and that will therefore lead to USC—Ultimate Satisfaction and Contentment.

But does this really work? Is it possible to find your Calling? What’s more, would you even want to? The very concept of the Calling is problematic. Not because it isn’t a beautiful idea. On the purpose if it finding your purpose in life sounds fantastic. But when explored more deeply it is a difficult and flawed idea, with some unsettling implications. How can it not be? It’s a blend of two worldviews, both of which are very popular in our society, which really don’t work together. I call these two views the Great CEO in the Sky and the Existential Entrepreneur.

The Great CEO in the Sky is evolved from Christianity, but it is a very modern version of it. The idea is that God has a Purpose for you. A job for you to do during your time in this world. God is kind of like your boss. Only He’s everyone’s boss, the CEO and founder of the entire company. But He is a very hands on kind of CEO. He takes a personal interest in every single employee, and since he build the whole organization and knows everything about everything that goes on within in, He has designed the perfect job for you and you alone, and structured the organization such that you and everyone else are exactly where you need to be, and all of our positions intermingle into a perfect synchronous whole.

It might sound like this doesn’t leave much room for free will, but the Great CEO doesn’t require that you do your job. He’s not going to fire you, or anything, and you’ll continue to get your paycheck in the form of the continued ability to breathe. But you won’t be happy. The only way to achieve true happiness is to figure out what God wants you to do. It’s not always obvious—our CEO moves in mysterious board rooms. But He leaves hints. Sometimes he puts obstacles in your way, because why else have a flawed material existence at all if there aren’t going to be challenges? But it’s okay. The job He’s got for you is perfectly designed for your exact character and life, and He’s always closing doors and opening windows, so you’ll never get stuck for very long.

The Existential Entrepreneur view is evolved from the existentialist philosophy of thinkers like Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Sartre. In this view there either isn’t a god at all, or else He’s out there but he doesn’t get involved. He set the whole thing up and gave us brains and muscles, but now He lets us do what we want because he is a staunch believer in Adam Smith and the free market economy. In this viewpoint there is no intrinsic meaning to life. You don’t have any prescribed Purpose. You just have skills and capabilities and a world to explore and make your way in. Like Minecraft. Only you are compelled to play all of the time, whether or not you are having a good time. Like Minecraft.

This might sound like a depressing worldview, but they way they get around that is much the same way that Libertarians get around the idea that a cut-throat free market driven by self interest is depressing. Without the Divine Federal Government setting regulations and zoning restrictions and telling you what to do, you can do whatever you want. You are left to find your own path, and what’s more, to choose your own path. No one designed you to be a baker or a fighter pilot or the world’s hairiest UFC fighter. If any of those appeal to you, go for it. The purpose of your life is whatever you want to be. If nothing you do matters, then all that matters is what you do. The fact that this is a quote from Angel doesn’t make it any less compelling.

Both of these worldviews have their good points and their bad points. In Great CEO, you have the comfort of having a flawless and completely fulfilling plan all laid out for you. But at the same time you never really had a choice. Sure you could not follow the plan, but that’s going to be a crappy boss, and it risks angering the boss. What the hell kind of choice is that? In Existential Entrepreneur, you have choices and you get to decide your own destiny. But deep down, you have to accept that nothing really matters. Sure it’s great for people for whom it works out. But what if you suffer from depression? What if your house burns down? There is no one looking out for you, and no guarantee that things aren’t just going to keep getting worse. Plus, you kind of have to accept the fact that some people do and always will just have it better than others.

The idea of the Calling tries to solve all of these problems by squish the dough of both of these worldviews together and baking it into a single cookie that has the advantages of each of them and the disadvantages of neither. The Calling worldview sometimes features a God, but sometimes it replaces it with “the universe.” In this view, you have a purpose, but there is nothing deterministic about it. It’s not part of a Grand Design in some kind of divine business plan kind of way. It’s more that there is something that you are perfect for. Something that, once you find it, will bring you ultimate fulfillment. This is true for everyone, just by virtue of being human. Unlike in the other two worldviews, there is no explanation as to why this should be the case. It just is, because…wouldn’t it be nice? Doesn’t it make sense?

The answer is no. To go back to the free market metaphor, this would be like saying that it’s inevitable that there is some kind of perfect business for everyone in which they are guaranteed to succeed. That everyone has inside of them an ideal product or service or marketing technique, and all you need to do is find it and it’ll explode onto the scene and make you a billionaire. And indeed, plenty of Calling books are geared towards would-be entrepreneurs, and make exactly this argument with fancier words.

But it doesn’t work that way. There is no reason to think that it’s inevitable that you’ll find perfect fulfillment just by doing the right thing. But the unrealism of this approach is only the beginning. It can also be dangerous. Much like the idea that everyone has a Soul Mate, and that once we set eyes on this perfect the world will erupt into a chorus of bright stars and symphony music and we will be happy for the rest of our lives. The Calling theory suggests that once you find your Thing, you are all set. You get that fantastic job in your dream profession, and you’ll be satisfied and full of joy for all of your days. But what if you and your Soul Mate start fighting? Or what if your dream job starts to pale after a few years and you get fed up with the more tedious aspects? The only option in this worldview is to say, “Oh, well, I guess he wasn’t really my Soul Mate. I guess I wasn’t really supposed to be the manager of a Twinkie Factory. I guess I’ll ditch this path and start over. Next time, it’s gonna be great!”

Life doesn’t work that way. Life is hard. Sometimes it’s great, and there probably really are jobs or arts or people who will make you happy. Go for them! They are worth pursuing! But once you decide they are The One, once you decide you have found your One And Only Purpose In Life for All Time, you’ve set yourself up for disappointment. What’s worse, you’ve locked yourself in. You might stay in a relationship or a job for far too long, because once you make something part of your identity it is very, very difficult to tell when it’s time to move on. If the idea of finding your Calling motivations you to do great things, then by all means continue to read those books. Models can be useful, even when they aren’t true. But just recognize that a model is all it is, and that you shouldn’t cling to it too tightly.

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The Entitlement to Happiness

Happiness in Isolation

I’ve long said that I find it pretty easy to be happy as long as there’s nothing actively stressing me out. I used to just say “I find it pretty easy to be happy,” and then I became an adult and found out there’s usually something stressing me out. Still, tucking those moments of joy into my life comes fairly naturally to me. I got lucky in that way, with regards to my brain chemistry and whatnot.

The downside of this is that I don’t know how to handle being miserable. It’s a little like Superman when exposed to excessive red-sun radiation. A papercut can take him out. At least, that’s how it is when it’s portrayed like that. For example, my wife does not have this terrible burden of default-happiness. But it means that sometime when things go wrong she can handle it better than I can. She knows what it’s like to live with anxiety and work straight through a panic attack. A Rogue-style powerset that it’s easy to respect but hard to envy.

Which brings us to today. About 3 months ago, my mother in law broke her right arm. She is 74, diabetic, very overweight, and has tendonitis and back pain. She was barely mobile before this, but the stress and pain of the injury coupled with the loss of her dominant hand left her nearly helpless. Since I didn’t have a job, and since my wife had supported me for months while I wrote a novel and attempted to find myself, I took on the brunt of taking care of my mother in law.

It turns out taking care of an infirm elderly person is absolutely brutal. Especially when she can’t get out of bed without being hoisted, and her size means that is very, very difficult. She was not an easy patient, either. Finicky and sometimes demanding, frequently either giving up too soon or thinking she could  do things she couldn’t do and getting herself into trouble. I was constantly sleep deprived and achy, covered in bodily fluids, and unable to focus on anything, control my schedule, or live my life.

The worst of it lasted about 8 weeks, and it was one of the most difficult and unpleasant periods of my life. It also turned me into someone I didn’t really like. I was impatient and snappy; I got angry at my mother in law for things that weren’t really her fault, but which made our lives miserable. At one point I took all of her blankets and pillows away I was so angry, and went back up to bed. I quickly felt bad about it, and came down ten minutes later. She looked at me, and very contritely said, “If I’m a good kitty, can I maybe have one pillow back?”

And now I have to live with the fact that I did that. And my wife didn’t even think I did anything wrong, because that’s how bad it all got. But I also had a weird guilt complex about the fact that this was my responsibility, and I tried to let my wife do as little as possible. At one point she confronted me about it, and said that what I was doing was killing me and wasn’t fair, and that she wanted her husband back. That night and the next day I relinquished, and she took over all the duties so I could finally get more than 3 hours in a row of sleep.

Things got better after that. The mother in law started to recover enough to take care of some of her own stuff, and life slowly improved. She still needed a bit of help, showering and dealing with her insulin and whatnot, but it was all very survivable. That started about 3 weeks ago, and things have pretty much gotten okay.

About three hours before this writing she fell and broke her other arm.

After they came and took her away to the hospital I did some screaming. I smashed some thing. I made a comment on Facebook implying that I wanted to kill myself, and it turns out there are a lot of people in my life who don’t want me to do that. So that’s good to know.

The mother in law is back, now, and it looks like this break might not be quite as bad as the last one. But the first one hasn’t fully recovered, so the overall situation could be pretty terrible. I’m looking at a period ahead that could be as hellish as the last.

And I’m wondering about it. I know that plenty of people deal with much worse situations all the time, but as we all know that helps a little but not very much. But it’s more thinking about my reaction. I think many people in the modern world feel that we are entitled to happiness. That it’s a basic human right. That it’s something we deserve. And it makes situations that violate the possibility of that happiness, either in the short-term or for longer, feel somehow offensive. They feel personal. Like a violation.

On one level having my mother in law break her previously unbroken arm just as her broken one was almost heals has the characteristics of a bad joke. It’s like something about of a Ben Stiller movie. So because it’s so narrative it’s easy to be angry at whoever wrote the screenplay.

But on the other hand, bad things happen. The kind of happiness we think of when we think of happiness is very modern, and it’s neither a necessary feature of human psychology nor of the natural universe. I was just starting to get some momentum on my actual life goals, and now I feel like all that has been kicked out from under me. But maybe it hasn’t. Maybe this is an opportunity. Maybe I should have actually done something last time I was in the middle of this crisis, rather than just spending the entire time bemoaning my rotten luck. Maybe this is my chance to try again. And maybe happiness isn’t something you deserve, but something you have to build, like a life-sized chupacabra made out of legos originally intended to built a model Death Star but screw you they’re legos I’ll build what I want to dammit.

I figure I’ll have a lot of time to think about all this over the next few weeks. After all, it’s not like I’ll be getting much sleep.