David Carlson: What’s your calling?


For some people, career and vocation mean the same thing, but there are differences. A career is usually something a person chooses based on several factors — one’s interests, the salary or one’s employability — while a vocation is something a person feels called to do.

It isn’t surprising that vocation is often associated with a person’s spiritual life. The obvious question when people say that they feel called to do something is, “Called by whom?” Some might answer that God or a saint called them, others might say that the universe called them, and others might say that fate or the stars called them. Native American youths who experience a “vision quest” hope ancestors will appear or speak to them during the ordeal and relay to them their calling, their future roles.

Recently, I’ve realized that vocation is more complex and varied than I once assumed.

When I speak with groups of clergy, teachers or medical professionals, it is easy to talk about vocation.

Put clergy, teachers, nurses or physicians in separate rooms, and it’s safe to assume that everyone in their specified room shares a similar vocation or calling. “I’m a teacher; that’s my calling,” or “I’m in ministry; that’s my vocation.”

But there is another dimension of vocation that is open to all of us no matter what our occupations. I might be inventing a new word, but let’s refer to this type of calling as a “micro-vocation.”

To understand what a micro-vocation is, imagine the day you will retire or even the last day of your life. From that vantage point, think back over your life and focus on a moment or an experience when you helped or rescued someone.

Maybe it was a physical rescue, or maybe it was simply a kind word. In either case, you realize looking back that you were meant to be there, meant to help that person.

Contrary to what we might assume, these moments of micro-vocation tend to be humbling rather than ego-inflating.

These experiences seem accidental or coincidental, certainly nothing we planned. Looking back, God, the universe or life itself seemed to invite us — call us — to be the right person at the right time and place to help another person.

If you can’t recall one of these micro-vocation moments, there is still good news.

First, perhaps you can remember a moment when someone was the right person at the right place with the right word or action to rescue you.

In that experience, you felt God or the universe whispering, “You’re worth saving.”

And second, if you can’t recall a moment when you were the right person with the needed response, that doesn’t mean that you never were that person.

Be ready when someone tells you that something you did or said in the past helped them when they needed help the most.

Resist the urge to reply, “Oh, it was nothing.”

No, the other person is telling you that what you said or did was life-changing. Take in the comment, and be thankful that you were there to answer the call.

No, we’re not called to fix the struggles of everyone we meet.

But some person’s struggle will call us to respond, to be the one to throw out a lifeline.

We don’t have to be geniuses. We don’t have to be founts of wisdom. We just have to be willing to help.

David Carlson of Franklin is a professor emeritus of philosophy and religion. Send comments to [email protected].

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