I was involved in a discussion recently, prompted by this question: What’s the difference between a calling and a purpose? I think the question was supposed to have been perceived as loaded. But the distinction seemed clear and elementary to me. (More on that shortly.) I was much more curious about why so many people seem so curious about callings and purposes these days.
As you might imagine, there are more books on the topics than you could shake the proverbial stick at. They’re written of course, by people who could find neither their callings nor their purposes. But they discovered, thanks to our pathological gullibility and our incorrigible lack of self-faith, that they could make very handsome livings telling us how to find ours.
The shortlist, chosen entirely at random, includes Callings: Finding and Following an Authentic Life (authentic is another one of those words for which the best we can hope is that it has a really short shelf life), Calling: Understanding Your Purpose, Place & Position (this may or may not have been a book on sexual therapy — I was too shy to look, plus I’m above that), Spiritual Rebel: A Positively Addictive Guide to Finding a Deeper Perspective and Higher Purpose, and Gene Keys: Unlocking the Higher Purpose Hidden in Your DNA.
The last one seems especially suspect to me because I once had to have my DNA taken by the police. My car had been stolen from my driveway. When it was recovered four days later and two towns away from where I live, the police wanted a DNA swab from me to eliminate my profile from the profiles of the ne’er-do-wells who’d stolen the car. Since they took my DNA, they had to have tested it to create the comparative profile. But they never said a thing about finding a higher purpose hidden in there. Shoot, what a gyp.
There are two words for this avalanche of how-to books hawking the notion that we’re allegedly unable to live happy, fulfilling lives of constructive direction and purposeful meaning if there weren’t a bunch of folks out there whose sole commercial ambition is to tell us how to live happy, fulfilling lives of constructive direction and purposeful meaning. One of those words is marketing. The other one is bullshit. But I’d never put that one in writing.
The State of the Onion
To peel the layers of this phenomenon of calling and purpose, it might be helpful to turn to the age-old philosophical debate between morality and ethics. This distinction, too, seems quite clear to me: Morality is a cultural consensus. Ethics is the study of behavior absent the context of morality.
Case in point: I’m pretty comfortable imagining we’d be justifiably accused of having some rather serious issues, as we say in the biz, if we didn’t inherently possess ethical qualms about the behavior of kamikaze pilots and suicide bombers. On balance, the price of killing yourself to get rid of someone with whom you don’t see eye-to-eye would likely strike most of us as a tad over the top. But we can be quite sure, kamikaze pilots and suicide bombers are the poster boys for morality in the cultures whence they derive.
Part of the problem with which we’ve saddled ourselves in attempting to distinguish calling from purpose — and one of the reasons for which the dichotomous analogy of morality and ethics may no longer cut any ice — is that we don’t have a cultural consensus on anything anymore. We’ve indulged every special interest you can imagine (and some that defy imagination and beggar belief) to the point at which we don’t even use morality anymore. The problem with that is this: When everything’s special, nothing’s special.
Because we have no cultural consensus, we have no shared morality. So, instead of morality, we use moral compass. (“Hey! That dude did [or said] something I don’t like [or with which I don’t agree]! He has no moral compass!”) But all of our moral compasses point in different directions. And that’s perfectly okay because we’ve obtained intellectual enlightenment, you see.
The Heart of the Matter
The clear and elementary distinction between calling and purpose is this:
Your calling is … well … what you’re called to do — what imagination, intellect, faith, and opportunity compel you to do. Kenny Carpenter was called to be a NASA scientist. I was called to be a writer. Some people are called to be kamikaze pilots. Others are called to be suicide bombers. We’re all given callings. But we’re all given different degrees of perception of and receptivity to those callings.
Your purpose is what you decide to do with your calling. If you’re Kenny Carpenter, you work on space flight. If you’re me, you write and hope others derive some sense or meaning from it. If you’re a kamikaze pilot or a suicide bomber, you look to end your life in the act of taking the lives of others.
Among those of us who are able to perceive and be receptive to our callings — and in contrast to kamikaze pilots and suicide bombers — most are drawn to relatively innocuous callings and choose to fulfill relatively benign purposes (thank God!). Some of us even manage to do some good now and then. But for those who haven’t yet perceived your callings, I humbly suggest you won’t find them in books written and sold by people who haven’t found their own.
You Need to Hear from Yourself
It’s a tough world out there. Unless we’re to the manor born, all of us have to make livings. We have to care for families. We have to pay bills and hold up our ends. We have to carefully tread the razor-thin line between realism and idealism. But we don’t have to settle.
No one who ever writes any book about your calling or your purpose can have any idea what either of those things might be. You can. People who dispense self-help advice and ersatz motivational platitudes have never walked a mile in your shoes. You have. (If you let them wear your shoes at all, I hope you make them put on clean socks.) And people who want you to spend your money on their books — rather than to take care of yourself, care for your family, pay your bills, or hold up your end — don’t have your best interests at heart. They have their own interests (not to mention their wallets) at heart.
In proportion as our inward life fails, we go more constantly and desperately to the post-office. You may depend on it, that the poor fellow who walks away with the greatest number of letters, proud of his extensive correspondence, has not heard from himself this long while.
I know we don’t go to post offices so much anymore. We sit in front of our computers. We clutch our mobile devices. We text instead of talk and seek distraction instead of introspection. Stop it.
Ignore the people who’ll look at you like you’re nuts. They’d do it, too, if they had the guts. Have a long conversation with yourself. You’ll be amazed at what you’ll learn.
You may find your calling. You might even find your purpose.