The Summoner in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales,
Ellesmere MSS, circa 1400
Last time we looked at the common dualistic paradigm of consciousness, which is based on (a) the belief that humans are made in two parts — an ethereal self housed in a physical body — and (b) the corollary belief that religion and the humanities understand the self best, while science is the proper lens for the body.
Current neuroscience theorizes instead that consciousness arises from brain, body, and environment — all part of the physical, natural world, and therefore best understood by scientific inquiry.
We looked at the origins of the dualistic paradigm last time. This week, we’ll look at an example of how it works in the world of jobs and careers — particularly the notion of being “called” to a “vocation.”
According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the notion of “calling” entered the English language around Chaucer’s time, originating from Old Norse kalla — “to cry loudly, summon in a loud voice; name, call by name.” Being legally summoned wasn’t a happy thing in Chaucer’s day (it still isn’t), and summoners were generally wicked, corrupt, and otherwise worthy of Chaucer’s pillory in The Friar’s Tale.
“Calling” got an image upgrade a century and a half later, in the 1550’s, when the term acquired the connotation of “vocation, profession, trade, occupation.” Meanwhile, “vocation” took on the meaning of “spiritual calling,” from Old French vocacio, meaning “call, consecration; calling, profession,” and Latin vocationem — “a calling, a being called” to “one’s occupation or profession.”
“Calling” and “vocation” together support the common dream of being able to do the work we were born to do, and the related belief that this would make our work significant and us happy. The idea of vocational calling is distinctly Biblical:
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”
Jeremiah 1:5 (ESV
Something in us — an evolutionary survival instinct, I would guess — wants to be known, especially by those in power. Vocational calling invokes power at the highest level: never mind your parents’ hormones, you were a gleam in God’s eye; and never mind the genes you inherited, God coded vocational identity and purpose into your soul.
2600 years after Jeremiah, we’re still looking for the same kind of affirmation.
“Amy Wrzesniewski, a professor at Yale School of Management and a leading scholar on meaning at work, told me that she senses a great deal of anxiety among her students and clients. ‘They think their calling is under a rock,’ she said, ‘and that if they turn over enough rocks, they will find it.’ If they do not find their one true calling, she went on to say, they feel like something is missing from their lives and that they will never find a job that will satisfy them. And yet only about one third to one half of people whom researchers have surveyed see their work as a calling. Does that mean the rest will not find meaning and purpose in their careers?”
The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters, Emily Esfahani Smith
If only one-third to one-half of us feel like we’re living our vocational calling, then why do we hang onto the dream? Maybe the problem is what Romantic Era poet William Wordsworth wrote about in his Ode: Intimations of Immortality:
“Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
“Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing Boy,
But he beholds the light, and whence it flows,
He sees it in his joy;
The Youth, who daily farther from the east
Must travel, still is Nature’s Priest,
And by the vision splendid
Is on his way attended;
At length the Man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day.”
I.e., maybe something tragic happens when an immortal self comes to live in a mortal body. This, too, is a common corollary belief to body/soul dualism — religion’s distrust of “the flesh” is standard issue.
Cognitive neuroscientist Christian Jarrett offers career advice to the afflicted: you might be able to turn the job you already have into a calling if you invest enough in it, or failing that, you might find your source of energy and determination somewhere else than in your work. This Forbes article reaches a similar conclusion:
“Years ago, I read a very thought-provoking article by Michael Lewis … about the difference between a calling and a job. He had some powerful insights. What struck me most were two intriguing concepts:
‘There’s a direct relationship between risk and reward. A fantastically rewarding career usually requires you to take fantastic risks.’
‘A calling is an activity that you find so compelling that you wind up organizing your entire self around it — often to the detriment of your life outside of it.’”
I.e., maybe career satisfaction isn’t heaven-sent; maybe instead it’s developed in the unglamorous daily grind of life in the flesh.
More on historical roots and related beliefs coming up.
 For more Biblical examples, see Isaiah 44:24: Thus says the Lord, your Redeemer, who formed you from the womb: Galatians 1:15: But when he who had set me apart before I was born; Psalm 139:13, 16: 13 For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb; your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.