How to Avoid Studying Your Calls to Death

It's easy to think too much about your callings. Here's how to override that.

Posted Feb 20, 2018

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Among the challenges of discerning your calls and passions—what they are, how and when you're supposed to respond—is the danger of studying them to death. If you've ever been told you think too much, you're probably already familiar with this dilemma. 

But to some degree, anyone who takes the challenge of discernment seriously can find him/herself over-analyzing the signs and signals of calls, which is easy enough to do given that it's a marvelous way to procrastinate on actually acting on them. There's always one more angle to consider, one more expert to consult, one more skill to build, one more workshop to take, one more month or one more year until you've got all your proverbial ducks lined up—which happens roughly around the same time the cows come home.

For most people the refrain goes like this: “It's one for the money, two for the show, three to get ready, three to get ready, three to get ready…...”

I consulted with a fellow last year who told me that he was waiting for “absolute clarity” before he'd take action on a certain call. I told him the clarity he seemed intent on finding he might only find by taking action, and wondered aloud to him which was the more heroic: waiting until he had absolute clarity before acting or acting in the absence of absolute clarity?

Either way, it's important to remember that a calling is to some extent a message from the province of mystery, and like any wild thing will die under dissection. Better to approach it with wonder, which is the knowledge that you can never fully explain the thing. “Let the bird sing without deciphering the song,” said Ralph Waldo Emerson. 

There is such a thing as thinking too much about a calling, turning it inside out like an old sock rather than, to some degree, simply exposing yourself before it, and this can not only make it go bony with refusal, but can be a pretty good way of avoiding the call altogether. You can analyze every facet of it, probe every consequence of following it or not following it, ponder whether it’s really yours or whether you’re appropriating someone else’s, whether the time is now or later, whether it’s being murmured to you by God or not-God. You can hold off and then beat yourself up for not taking action sooner, or take action and beat yourself up for not being more patient. You can scare yourself witless by contemplating the enormity of the call and the modest talents you bring to bear on it. You can break yourself against the rock of debate.

In other words, you can spend so much time dithering with possibilities and probabilities, definitions and exactitudes, that you do little more than chase your own tail and eventually collapse into bed too exhausted to do anything at all.

This is a lesson Dante and his guide Virgil discovered on their outing to the Inferno. They weren't permitted to pass through one particular threshold on their journey until they left all reason and intellect behind. The point being that these faculties are very useful, but only up to a point, and beyond that point the door will be barred if you attempt to force it with brute reason. No amount of intellectual authority, arrogant confidence, name-dropping, or ego and ambition pounding on the door demanding to be admitted, will allow you passage. Beyond a certain point, faith is the magic lamp, and humility the abracadabra. And faith begins, if it begins at all, where knowledge leaves off.

Even those of a decidedly scientific bent will usually admit that they do all the homework they can, but eventually rely on an intuitive leap called informed intuition. And though it grows naturally out of periods of dogged rational work, which provides the raw materiel it needs to go on, the bits of clothing laced with scent, reason alone only goes so far. Intuition is the last baton-carrier. It doesn’t win the race alone, but it’s the one that crosses the finish line. The more practiced it is, the less likely it is to get winded at crucial moments.

One of the reasons to practice intuition is that the psyche traffics in all sorts of knockoffs, and you need to distinguish between true intuition and, say, fear or anger or wishful thinking or the desire to be right. I recently had an “intuition,” for example, that a friend’s project wouldn’t succeed, and only after it succeeded did I recognize that I was angry at him for something and only hoped it wouldn’t succeed.

Intuition has receptors that seem able to hook all manner of passing emotions, like a bus that rolls through downtown picking up passengers. The passengers aren’t the bus, however, they’re merely hitching a ride. 

Practicing intuition is, ironically, best accomplished the scientific way. Test and observe. Keep a record of your hunches over a period of time and see how often they’re accurate. If you feel like you’re meant to work with someone, to accept an invitation by a stranger, to slow down as you approach a particular intersection, to encourage your child in a certain direction, to intervene in a situation or bite your tongue, to make a move or stay put, try it out and document the results.

You might even try acting on impulse as a way to practice your intuition, suggests Philip Goldberg in his book The Intuitive Edge. Make quick decisions, within ten seconds, on minor matters: ordering from a menu, picking up the phone or not, deciding what to wear, choosing among books to buy. Or practice making predictions. Who’s calling? Who’ll win the game? Who’ll get the Grammy? How will the movie end? Or cover the captions on photographs and guess what’s going on.

With enough practice, when intuition finally tips the scales in favor of following a call, precisely because you've devoted time to practicing it, you'll know that “just a feeling” now carries a weight of authority you can trust.

Still, a calling is ultimately mysterious, and the process of discernment always a bit of a guessing game. In Greek, the word mystery means to close the mouth, which, says Lewis Hyde in The Gift, may refer to the secrecy to which initiates into ancient mysteries were sworn, but it may also refer to the belief that a mystery ultimately couldn't be spoken of, or fully explained. “Shown, witnessed, revealed, but not explained.”

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