This is an excerpt from my new book, Halfway There: Lessons at Midlife. I hope you enjoy this sample! My book is currently being shopped around to publishers, and I hope to publish it in 2020.
Life Shows You Your Calling
Finding a calling or purpose (or in some circles “dharma”) is a struggle many of us wrestle with on a daily basis. It’s certainly been something I’ve actively fretted over for a large part of my adult life.
I first knew there was a serious problem when I hit my junior year of college. I ran out of general education classes, hadn’t selected a major (and didn’t have any inclination toward one), so I took an entire semester of random courses simply to try to figure it out. I enrolled in art history, sociology, technical theatre, environmental science and a career planning class. These were all interesting, but “interesting” does not a major make.
The career planning class was the one I put a lot of energy into, because it was supposed to help me find some sense of direction. I remember slogging through test after test to try to create labels for my personality and inclinations. We took the MAPP test, which was probably one of the most insightful, as well as a number of other personality and aptitude tests. Then we spent the remainder of our class time talking through the results and about different career paths. I remember feeling like I still had no sense of direction despite all of that chatter and analysis. In fact, I’ll never forget the day one of my tests said that my number one career path was as a mortician. I was horrified that something about my answers matched me up to a career working with the dead. Clearly these tests couldn’t tell me the things I really needed to know.
I ended up becoming an English major in the eleventh hour, and I had some very logical reasons for doing so that had nothing to do with hopes and dreams. First, I liked reading stories and learning about people. Second, I would much rather read stories than textbooks if I was going to have to do so for a few years. And third, my eleventh grade English teacher told me I was a strong writer, so I figured I’d go where my talent supposedly was. The decision felt right and I never regretted it, so for that moment in time I believed I was going in the right direction.
But when I graduated with my plain ole Bachelor of Arts in English, I found myself parked on a dark road that I thought I’d be driving down in the sunshine. I hadn’t planned to be a teacher so I didn’t get the certification. In fact, I hadn’t planned anything at all and was just hoping to be shown some sort of direction when I got there. After I walked across that stage and moved back home to Texas, I found myself with no concrete career plan as I was stepping timidly into my first years of true adulthood. Things were challenging for a long while.
I honestly never thought I would become a writer of any kind—not when I was growing up, not when I was an English major, and not even in those early years of my career when I was struggling to put food on the table and keep a roof over my head as a technical writer. I used to bemoan how much I disliked it, mostly because I was writing about computer software and that was the least important thing on my radar. But I look back with my hindsight goggles and I see that the universe had me there so that I could practice the craft. I would not have had the motivation to write anything on my own at that time in my life; I just had too many obligations and too much stress. So those jobs that I felt like were all wrong for me actually were helping me hone my skills. Something knew more than I did about what was to eventually come.
When I reached my late twenties and my life imploded, I expended enormous amounts of effort repeating those same career tests, thinking about what I was good at, trying to understand what kind of options I might have, and reaching for some sort of direction about where I was to go. I got divorced, I lost everything I had (including my home, twice), I had to rebuild a new life on my own with a future that no longer was written in the way I’d expected it to be. I even lost my technical writing job and couldn’t get another one. In fact, I couldn’t get a job as a copywriter either. So I assumed I was completely off course and needed to redirect myself. Clearly, I said to myself, I’d been lost all along or things would have turned out better.
Sometimes life surprises you with your calling. Sometimes you fall into it even though you’ve been trying to avoid it, and sometimes you just don’t even see it coming at all. Maybe you’re fumbling around in the dark and a light appears in the distance, so you start walking in that direction just to get away from where you are.
While I stumbled around grasping at air, I wrote in my journals and in a blog—for what ended up being about nine years. I say that I wrote, but I more vomited onto the page anything and everything that was bothering me. I considered it something anyone might do to work through their crap—not something a writer might do—so I didn’t pay much attention to it. I find that people often ignore these small clues in their lives.
The first time I even recall thinking I might like to be a writer was when I started trying to pen the story of my first marriage. It was a sad, war-torn experience that went down in flames, but I thought it might make a good story (or at the very least get it out of my system). I never finished that book, or the next book, or the one after that. And this is because right about the time I was finally building momentum and thinking I was getting somewhere, I got sick. Really sick. Like, I almost didn’t exist anymore sick. I had a couple of surgeries and was down for the count for a few years.
As you might imagine, being sick was like stomping the brakes on my life again—on my motivation, on everything. I did try to write another novel during that time in an effort to not waste my life any further, but I crashed and burned harder on that novel than on any before it. Clearly I was wasting my time. Clearly this was not meant to be. I then abandoned writing entirely for a year—a whole year—until one day, almost as if being pushed by something outside of me, I trudged back and sat down at my computer.
Maybe everything that happened needed to happen, just like maybe everything that’s happened in your life needed to happen. Maybe your “thing” will come when it’s time, like a river rushes down a mountain only when the spring comes to melt the snow. This is one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned from being sick and almost signing off of planet earth—you’ve got to let things flow. Stop fighting, just ride along.
From the sum of my experiences came this book. And when I look at my life I can see that it’s been there all along but was waiting for the right time to emerge. I can’t write fiction very well because perhaps that’s not what I’m supposed to do (yet). I couldn’t write nonfiction very well because I’d told myself that it wasn’t “real” writing and therefore I didn’t consider it a valid purpose. In my mind my purpose had to be something real. It had to be something that was less silly than sitting here writing about my life.
But I’ve learned that we all have a purpose that may seem trivial to us, and that actually is not trivial at all. Some people would say that what I’m doing now is ridiculous. Who cares about my life and what I've learned? But then someone else might care. And a few people might care. And that means what I did meant something to the world because it meant something to some of the people in it.
It’s the same thing if you’re a cook on a line. Or maybe you’re a lawn guy, where you trudge in every day not understanding why your lot in life is to mow lawns. But you know what? Someone is happy to see that lawn looking beautiful. An elderly woman who cannot take care of her landscaping is thrilled to be helped by you. A single mother who was abandoned by her partner has one less thing to worry about because you took care of the lawn. You see what I mean?
Life will show you what you’re meant to do, you just have to pay attention and have some patience. My life has been training me for about four decades to do what I’m doing now. It’s been filling my head with experiences, wisdom, life. It’s been making sure my skills have stayed sharp by placing me in jobs that required me to write and to practice my craft, even when I hated the jobs and felt like I was squandering the days I was given. It then moved me into a life position, eventually, where I could sit down and do this thing I’m doing without the pressures I used to have on a daily basis.
Give life credit and allow it to show you what you’re supposed to do. Flow along a little bit. See where the road takes you. When you get there, you’ll bop yourself on the head because it will all seem so stupidly obvious. But that’s okay.
I think some people know what they want to do when they are ten years old and are prepared to do that thing. Others of us have a journey to take before we can do the thing we’re supposed to do, so we don’t understand it until later. If you don’t know what your purpose is yet, take heart. You are already living it. You are already on the journey you are supposed to take. Your purpose exists, whether you can see and verbalize it yet or not.
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Life Shows You Your Calling