Heeding the Call: Callings, Purpose, Life Work

We flounder while we are still looking for it.

By Peter Clothier | Posted 6/1/11 | Updated 9/8/209
Based on Persist: In Praise of the Creative Spirit

Remember, as a child, hearing your mother's or your father's voice, calling your name? If I close my eyes, I can still hear that call. I'm out in the backyard, perhaps, in the orchard behind the Rectory; or out in front, on the swing that hangs from the great old pine tree; or upstairs, in my room. I'd like to bet, if you close your eyes, that you can hear a similar call, in a place that has a particular resonance for you. Close your eyes. Hear your name. Re-imagine the precise detail of the place, the time of day, the circumstance. Someone, somewhere, is calling you…

And of course you were "called" by a name on the occasion of your birth. I happen to believe that we do not acquire our name by accident. It somehow "fits." In my own case, the fit was obvious. I was born on the first day of August. In the calendar of saints of the Church of England — the Anglo-Catholic church, in which my father was a minister — that's the Feast of St. Peter's Chains, commemorating the apostle's miraculous release from prison by the "angel of the Lord." So inevitably I was Peter. I have a particular attachment to the name, having worked for many years to release myself from the chains of circumstance and habit when I feel them tying me down. My work — my writing — has become a continuing, almost daily dedication to the task of ridding myself of the extraneous, in search of the core self, the real "me."

But that's another story, or maybe a related one, to what I come to do today. I want to talk about "calling" in that other sense, the calling that is the name for what I am given to do with my life, what I was put here on this earth to do. Call it a mission. Each of us, I firmly believe, has that mission, that sense of purpose. When we discover it, when we're able to pursue it consciously, we are most likely to be at ease with ourselves and those around us. We are authentic. We are "in integrity," in the sense that we are on target, whole. Everything we do and everything we say feels right. We are comfortable with it. As some say, we are in flow.

While we are still looking for it — this sense of purpose — or ignoring it, or unaware of it, we flounder. We are scattered. We feel ill at ease with ourselves and others. Remember that feeling when your name was called? You felt, perhaps, recognized, your very being was somehow affirmed. If you follow your calling, this is how you feel. At one with yourself.

I know that I was called to be a writer at the age of twelve. I don't actually remember the moment of knowing — it was not a lightning bolt — but my mother reminded me often, later, that I did know then. Where did that calling come from? I don't know. I don't believe in a higher power, some God who has my life planned out for me. No, the voice is an inner voice, prompted, perhaps, in part by some inherited DNA, in part by the complex of life's experiences and events.

I do know that, in my own case, my love of words started early in life. I offered a workshop, years ago, at the Esalen Institute, in which I invited participants on a journey back into their first experience with language, from the feel of those very first words — mama, dada — to nursery rhymes and fairy tales. I don't know about you, but I still remember many of those rhymes and stories, word for word, even some seventy years after I first heard them. They bring me as much pleasure when I recall them as they did then: Mary had a little lamb, whose fleece was white as snow…

Then I started learning languages: French, when I was five, Latin when I was six… And at school, being good at languages — along with being a mathematical dunce and a total duffer at sports — must have contributed to that calling. Language was a gift, a talent, that held out the promise of reward. No wonder that it called me. Throughout my teenage years I was a poet. At university, I studied Modern and Medieval Languages and French Philology!

So there was the call. And on leaving university, I chose to ignore it. It was clear to me that being a poet did not bring with it a reasonable expectation of making a living. So I chose to listen to another call — the call of social responsibility and acceptance — and set aside my other "calling." I went into teaching. I climbed the educational ladder from high school teaching to university teaching, and climbed the academic ladder still further until I was a Dean. By the time I reached my fifties, I was nearing the top of that profession. I was offered wonderful jobs, vice-presidencies, presidencies of small colleges… And I quit.

I quit because I could simply go no further, not being who I was. We ignore our calling at our peril, and I had ignored mine for too long. The funny thing — not funny, really — is that I had ignored not only the calling, but the signs along the way, signs clearly showing me the way that I should take. In my professional career in academia, I realized finally, on looking back, I had sabotaged each of the three major positions I had occupied. In each one, I had felt that discomfort, that gut-level knowledge that I was not doing what I was supposed to be doing with my life. Had I stopped at any point, as I did finally, and truly read the signs, I would have understood what they were trying to tell me.

There are signs everywhere. You only have to watch out for them with quiet, careful attention and they'll show you the way. Some are as small and unobtrusive as a burned-out light bulb, say, or a chance encounter. There are no accidents. Some come in the form of miraculous messages from the universe. When my wife and I were debating the affordability of our little cottage in Laguna Beach, for example, we found ourselves embroiled in one of those huge quarrels that threaten the very survival of a marriage. We took a walk down to the shore, still arguing hotly, when my wife, Ellie, pointed to a black blob riding in on the surf. A sea lion. It came to rest literally at our feet, rolled over and waved a flipper at us. We wondered whether it was sick and needed help, but as soon as others spotted it from further down the beach and started running in our direction, it simply turned around and swam back out of sight.

Needless to say, we hurried back home and signed the real estate agreement. It would be nice, of course, if all our signs were as unambiguous as this one. They are not. But they are there, if we take the trouble to watch out for them, and pay heed to their invitation — or warning.

I was fifty years old when I finally paid attention to what the signs from the universe we trying to tell me, and learned that it was time to be a writer. I was Dean of the Arts at Loyola Marymount University at the time. I had been attracted to the job by the then President's lure of funds to put up a new arts complex, to bring the fine arts up to the same standing as the excellent existing film and television departments. During my three-year tenure, though, the entire administration changed: the President who had appointed me was shunted out, a new Academic Vice President was installed — and I found him in one of my new painting studios, pacing it out to see how many desks he could fit in there, intending to co-opt it as a classroom for his academic programs…

A familiar pattern of events had begun to repeat itself, and this time I was unable to ignore it. I decided it was time to try my hand at being serious about what had called me from the age of twelve. It was time to be the writer I was always supposed to be. I managed to disentangle myself from those particular chains, and I have been grateful for the freedom ever since.

One last story, one last sign, thanks to which I stand here talking to you. When my most recent book came out, at the beginning of this year, I knew from experience that no one was about to promote it for me. If I wanted to get the word out, I would need to do it myself. So I started, with some trepidation, booking a few venues for speaking engagements. Now, you should know that I have always dreaded public speaking. Not even many years as a teacher inured me from the desperate anxiety I felt, standing up in front of a group of people to share what little wisdom I possessed.

So I planned to write it all out, as I had done in the past, and read it. Unfortunately, prior the first gig that came along, I received an unwelcome sign in the form of a word from the sponsors: no reading. We have a sophisticated audience, and they don't like their speakers to read. Well, panic. An hour to fill — well, forty minutes — and no reading! I immediately set about writing it all out anyway, in the vain hope that I could learn it by heart. Then, realizing the absurdity of this hope, I reduced the whole thing to twenty pages of notes…

Confessing all this to the group of men I sit with to discuss precisely such things, I heard a different message: don't work so hard. It's distracting you. You know everything you need to know already, and you have no trouble saying what you need to say here, in this circle, where you simply come from the heart. Oh, and trust that English accent. People think you're smart even if you're talking utter rubbish.

Amazingly, at that first event, I barely consulted my twenty pages of notes. In subsequent events, I noticed, the pages became fewer and fewer, and I referred to them less often. I still bring them with me, in case it all dries up and I open my mouth and nothing comes out. But generally, I don't need them. The words just seem to flow. In part, I know, it's because I'm entirely comfortable with what I have to say. I'm "in integrity", I'm "on mission." If my calling has always been to communicate with my fellow human beings with words, I have found a whole new medium in which I can fulfill that mission and, as always when you heed the call, it all feels absolutely right.

©2010 Peter Clothier. All rights reserved.

A shortened version of this essay was posted originally on Persist: The Blog.

Next: Nurturing the Artist Within

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Peter ClothierPeter Clothier writes chiefly about art and artists in Southern California. He has published widely in national magazines, and is the author of David Hockney in the Abbeville Modern Masters series. ...

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