Friday, August 26, 2011

What if the Door Has Slammed Shut on my Calling in Life?

I made a new friend recently. He’s a young man I’ll call Grant (not his real name). I met up with Grant after he wrote to me about my BYU speech titled "What is Your Calling in Life?” (you can see the speech here or read it here). Most people who write me about that talk tell me that it gave them helpful direction, but Grant’s message was very different.  Here’s an excerpt:

“I have found something which speaks to my soul. I have wanted to be an officer in the United States Marine Corps for a very long time… Despite years of diligent physical preparation, excellent grades, a record of achievement and compelling letters of recommendation from professors and former employers, I have been medically disqualified from service. This has been a terrible blow. I am pursuing waivers in order to protect my ambitions but I have to face reality--chances are slim to none (worse, probably) that my efforts will come to anything.

Given that career paths associated with my college degree are totally unappealing to me, how should I go about finding a new calling in life? Frankly, nothing is nearly as compelling to me as military service.” 

I couldn’t get Grant’s note off my mind, so I took the unusual step of inviting him to breakfast when I happened to be traveling where he lives. His question demanded a careful answer, and I wanted to better understand the challenge of unavailable callings.

Meeting Grant was a treat. He is bright, extremely earnest, and passionate about his country and about honoring the men and women who serve in the military. I could feel the heartbreak as he talked about his shattered dreams. And I heard echoes of many other similar stories – ranging from the student who dreams of being a professional athlete, but lacks the talent, to the aspiring entrepreneur who foregoes her dream venture to care for an ailing spouse.

I wish I had a golden answer for Grant. Alas, it’s not as easy as that. But I’d like to share a bit about my conversation with him in case others reading this blog are feeling despair about an “impossible calling.”

My first response to Grant was to ask him some pointed questions: What sparked your interest in being a Marine officer? What, exactly, did you envision yourself doing? Why is it important to you?
Grant told me that being a Marine officer would provide him the perfect blend of at least three of his deepest professional yearnings: physical challenge, leadership and mentorship opportunities, and protecting the well-being of the servicemen and women that he so admires. He’s right. Marine officer does seem the perfect job for him!

But then I explained to Grant something that I have mentioned elsewhere in this blog. A calling is not equivalent to a job title. The great Reformation thinkers (as well as my own research) depict a calling as a constellation of talents and passions that one discovers how to use within the life opportunities with which one is blessed.

This classic definition of calling turns the contemporary definition on its head. Modern management gurus tell you that a calling means finding what you love and then “selling” it to the world. Martin Luther and John Calvin tell us that a calling means looking at the situation life has placed you in, finding out what the needs are, and then using your gifts to serve those needs in your own unique way. That’s a much less romantic view of calling. But it’s much more realistic, and makes callings accessible to virtually everyone. It also has the wonderful benefit of subordinating selfishness and celebrating service to others. And we could spend hours talking about why the latter is a surer route to fulfillment than the former.

What is my friend Grant to do, though? I doubt that I alleviated the sharp sting he is feeling from his bitter disappointment.

I encouraged Grant to continue looking for ways around his medical disqualification. Persistence often pays off, even in the face of great obstacles! But I also encouraged him to open his mind to letting go of his narrow view of how he can best serve the world. That’s tough advice, since Grant has built his entire self-image around his professional dreams. Could it be, though, that the closing of this door was actually for the best? Might God have a different use for Grant’s unique set of gifts and passions that will bring him even greater joy? That was certainly the case for me as I look back at a few doors that slammed in my face earlier in my career.

To figure out what to do next, Grant needs to start asking the following types of questions: Where would other combinations of his interests lead him? Might he find opportunities for leadership and service to country by working for the Federal Government – perhaps in the Department of Defense? Might he combine his desires for physical challenge and leadership by pursuing a career in emergency management or disaster relief? The reality is that Grant (and almost all of us) are much too complex and multifaceted creatures to be limited to a single life path. Your unique gifts (and Grant’s) are vitally needed in more than one place. And, if you are like most people nowadays, your pursuit of a calling will usher you through many different job titles.

My heart aches for Grant. But only in the short term. His dream position might now be unavailable to him. But his calling in life is very much intact. 

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