Beliefism [Part 4]: Believing is Seeing/ Belief Turns Toxic

Believe your way into a new reality – visualize it, set an intention, create a vision board… soon you’ll manifest it! You’ll get the mansion, the corner suite, the all-inclusive beach vacation! That’s how life works – it’s the law.

So goes the self-help gospel, and guess what? It works. Well sort of. The world does conform to what you believe. You actually do see what you believe. Belief creates worldview, worldview creates reality, and there it is – right in front of you.

Only trouble is, it’s a self-validating loop. You are in fact seeing what you’re believing. And that’s a problem.

Behold Your Algorithm

Belief works like the Algorithm Gods. You shop something online, now it’s all over your feeds. You think, oh come on, that’s so obvious. But algorithms are dumb, they don’t know any better, they just crunch the data. You looked at some ads, you must want to see more, and never mind that you already bought it — algorithms are slow to get to message. Our brains process belief the same way – they’re fleshy lumps of responsiveness. Once you believe something, your brain is on it. Get interested in that car and it’s all you see on the road — it’s the same dynamic, except once you buy it, your brain is quicker to move on.

Join the Club

The Algorithm Gods offer up social media support to keep you focused and happy so you’ll tithe that five-star review. Our brains have been doing the same thing for a long, long time – long before the Algorithm Gods were a gleam in some techie’s eye, since the human race developed language about 150,000 years ago. You tell somebody what you believe, and their brain zips through the dummy algorithm belief thing, and now there’s two of you with neuropathways installed and running the same outlook on life. Then the two of you then share it with a bunch of other somebodies who share it with more, and soon everybody’s brains dutifully line up and you’ve got a group, team, tribe, cult…

When communal belief goes viral, it consolidates, strengthens its grip on all those brains. They share a similar outlook, which creates similar experience, which reinforces similar outlook, and around it goes. All that similar outlook and experience builds institutions, creates cultural norms, myths, and symbols. Now you’ve got law, government, economics, religion, literature, history….

The process is known as emergence:  what starts inside (as belief) takes on external shape; the word becomes flesh and dwells among us until we share worldview and reality. If you don’t see it the way the community does, it’s because you don’t believe. Change what you believe, and you’ll get with the program.

Beliefism 101

I was immersed (baptized – literally) into this communal belief dynamic when I went back to college after becoming a Christian during a gap year. At first I hung out with my old friends in party central, but it  was boring, listening to Led Zeppelin when everybody else was taking hits when the joint went around. So I hung out on my new dorm floor, which was not a party animal zoo, and we got busy doing the non-party things you do at college.

I’d see my new Christian friends at meetings, say hi around campus, sometimes join them for lunch… but before long I got the word:  I needed to be around more. I needed to stay “in fellowship,” needed to sit with the pack at meals, that sort of thing. I was new at the Christian gig, so I complied. I complied so well that pretty soon I’d been selected to be “discipled” by the leadership, so I could help take over and run the fellowship after they graduated.

That was the end of my new friends in my new dorm. My roommate was a nice guy from Iowa, a serious student who’d lived — , mostly as a spectator — in party central where I did the year before my gap year. After I got my calling into campus Christian leadership, I became the Christian Roommate From Hell – never around, always too tired from being up late every night “doing ministry,” nothing to talk about anymore, always doing something weird, apparently too uppity to hang out and do the usual dorm stuff. It never occurred to me to change course – my new Christian life was too important.

Sigh.

Beliefism is the same, no matter the object of belief.

What I experienced was communal belief in action – the power of a shared belief system to control thought and behavior – what I now call “beliefism.” I have since converted back out of Christianity, where I’ve learned that what I experienced back then would have been the same if I had joined a different belief system (such as the campus Communists, which my roommate accused me of doing). Beliefism readily swaps belief in this for belief in that — religion, humanism, capitalism, fascism, extraterrestrials, self-help, past lives, you name it, it’s all the same.

Beliefism also doesn’t distinguish fact from fiction, truth from madness, clarity from delusion. Reason and discernment only enter the frame once beliefism has built its self-referential judgments about what is reality and how things really work – that’s when they get busy codifying what conforms and what doesn’t, what to encourage and promote vs. what to punish or eradicate. They also start keeping a list and naming names of who’s with the program and who isn’t, who belongs and who doesn’t, who’s friend and who’s foe, who’s us and who’s them.

Communal belief and its institutions manage entrances and exits, enforce conformity, and punish dissent, resulting in a special kind of brain shutdown known in other circles as “mind control” as “brain washing” – terms coined in the Korean War and developed in the Cold War, when American fingers pointed at China and the Commies because we’re the good guys and we would never do that! Yes we would. We do it all the time. It’s an everyday, worldwide experience – it’s what happens to the human brain and to human culture when we build individual and cultural identity around beliefs.

Brain Shutdown

Beliefism shuts down nonconforming brain activity. There are some places we just don’t go – they’re out of bounds, they don’t conform. We don’t see them because we don’t believe them. Our mental options are now limited – like what was going on in the mind of the street evangelist I heard once who made a pitch for Creationism. “The universe is way too complicated for me to understand,” went his pitch, “so there must be a God who does.” That was his proof for the existence of God, and for Creationism. He could have understood the complicated universe if he took the time to learn the math and physics, but instead he took the shortcut:  he believed instead of knowing. But then beliefism led him to take another step:  he started knowing what he believed it was The Truth, with two capital T’s. His reality was True; the rest of us unsaved people waiting for buses needed to get clued in.

He wasn’t in possession of all that Truth and Reality, his brain was possessed by it – his brain was running it over the requisite neural pathways, supported by the requisite brain chemicals. That’s why he was certain that he knew something else the rest of us didn’t. Being a decent sort of a guy, since he was now in possession of the Real Reality Forever and Ever Amen, it was worth lugging his amp and microphone to the street corner across from the bus station to tell the rest of us about it. He was there on the street corner to help us out, because part of his pitch was that if we didn’t get it right, we’d all go to hell. But the good news was, all we needed to do was believe what he believed and we’d be good, no problem.

The Path to Toxic Belief

It’s not hard to see how belief’s mind control goes toxic. Beliefism runs in stealth mode:  we see the things we believe and all the doctrines, ideologies, societal structures, institutions, and practices that support it, but we don’t see beliefism at work. Like a friend of mine used to say, “The trouble with blind spots is you can’t see them.” We don’t notice or examine the worldview our beliefs have created, or how that worldview creates and sustains our world. Instead, we see the emergent reality and accept it as The Way Things Are, Forever and Ever Amen. We believe in the things we believe in until we know them. And when we know them, we defend and promote them, we become faithful believers, we become evangelists.

At that point, belief becomes ideology – honored and held sacred to the point where the risk/return matrix gets warped and passionate belief becomes mass delusion and unchecked ambition, where belief’s communal mind-control becomes way too powerful for its own good — a clear and present rolling on, gaining momentum because there’s nothing to check it, no outside reference, no commitment to an external ethical standard, nothing to keep it honest, nothing to validate it except its own good opinion of itself. Belief-as-ideology consolidates its power, crowns itself with its own authority until we’re left with only what is belief-approved – the standard, authorized version.

That’s when belief takes its final shape as fundamentalism and fanaticism, committed to the eradication of its longtime nemesis doubt. Power becomes domination becomes oppression, and belief opposes, bans, shuns, shames, punishes, tortures, and murders doubters and unbelievers. It becomes nationalistic and militaristic, launches campaigns of domestic and international terrorism and genocide. The faithful march off on the Crusades. They seek the purity of the race. They drink the Kool-Aid. They storm the Capitol. They repeat history. They replay the western civilization biograph in the name of the western God. And they call it all “progress.”

And to think it all began as a release of brain feel-good hormones in satisfaction of an evolutionary survival urge to band together and share information. We needed that, all those 150,000 years ago. We still do. Which is why belief still gives usa sense of purpose and meaning and mission, still provides incentives and rewards, still makes us feel inspired and enthusiastic, fired us up to try to do great things.

But now this….

Continued next time.

Narratives of Self, Purpose, and Meaning [Part 2]: The Supernatural

It’s Youth Group night at church; I’m a high school senior and have been tapped to give the sermon. I start with, “Religions are the vehicles through which human beings try to make sense of life.” Honest, that’s what I said. I remember writing it, I remember standing at the pulpit saying it. At home afterward my dad and my sister’s seminarian boyfriend (his name was Luther – honest) were snacking on roast preacher. “Where did you get that?” Luther asked, ‘Religions are the vehicles through which human beings try to make sense of life’ – where did you get that?” He was impressed. I don’t know, it was just an idea, it seemed obvious — religion is one of the things humans do.

Making Sense of Things

As we saw last time, religion is a “teleological”[1] strategy – it’s one of the ways we invest things, events people, ourselves, our lives, and life in general with purpose and meaning. For many people, religion and the supernatural are the go-to standard for teleological thinking.

“Academic research shows that religious and supernatural thinking leads people to believe that almost no big life events are accidental or random. As the authors of some recent cognitive-science studies at Yale put it, ‘Individuals’ explicit religious and paranormal beliefs’ are the best predictors of their ‘perception of purpose in life events”—their tendency ‘to view the world in terms of agency, purpose, and design.’”[2]

The prefix “super” in “supernatural” means above, beyond, over, apart from. When we say supernatural, we mean there’s something or Someone out there that’s not limited to the natural world and flesh and blood, that has it all figured out, sees what we don’t see, knows that we don’t know, explains what we can’t explain, is better at life than we are. The supernatural is personified or objectified in what we call God, who has a better take than we’ll ever have: as author Madeleine L’Engle wrote: “I have a point of view. You have a point of view. God has view.”

Religion tries to teach us God’s view but generally accepts there are limits. Besides, if we could share God’s view, we wouldn’t need God anymore, we’d be God. Short of that, we can only believe God has view, and that it’s better, more complete, more perfect than our point of view. Which means that, compared to God, we and our existence are lesser, partial, flawed, while God represents the perfected version of us – what we would be if we could be God. And somehow, knowing that’s a comforting thought — I know it was for me when I first began to believe in God (a couple years after I gave that sermon), because at least God was better than the alternative, which was me having lost my bearings and making a mess of life.

“From a scientific point of view, we were not created or designed but instead are the product of evolution. The natural events that shaped our world and our own existence were not purposeful. In other words, life is objectively meaningless. From this perspective, the only way to find meaning is to create your own, because the universe has no meaning or purpose. The universe just is. Though there are certainly a small percentage of people who appear to accept this notion, much of the world’s population rejects it. For most humans, the idea that life is inherently meaningless simply will not do.”[3]

Believe First, Then Rationalize

Enter the supernatural. Now I felt better. And once I was in, I backfilled the case for believing. Over the next few years I built my case, devouring Christian apologetics and other books that were making the rounds of my collegiate fellowship. That ancillary material became part of my new religious narrative, supporting the primary doctrinal narrative.

These days, neuro-psychological research indicates that we believe first, then rationalize. Rationalizing is not the same as acting rationally. Belief in the supernatural is a story – the story we tell about ourselves and our life that gives us identity and our life purpose and meaning. To the believer, it’s nonfiction – the way things really are, who they really are. If we’re not of similar persuasion, we may think it’s fiction – a fish story, or case of “teleological error”[4]. – but neither of us can prove the other wrong. Belief is ultimately indefensible and unassailable – it’s a “first thought” from which a host of others originate. Still, we like to think our beliefs are rational, chosen in the exercise of our own free will.

Free Will (or not)

Take away free will, and you take away a key sense of personal power. Free will gives us something we can do in the face of the apparent nonsense of life: we can stem the onslaught of meaninglessness by choosing to believe – in this case, in the supernatural. We still don’t understand, we still screw up, but at least we can rely on the supernatural to understand and model what we would be like if we weren’t so… mortal.

These days, neuro-psychology also challenges our usual assumptions about the self and free will, holding that our free will isn’t as free and intentional and rational as we’d like to think. Maybe so, but at least one leading brain scientist thinks that sometimes it might be better just to fool ourselves into believing we can choose what to believe – at least we’ll feel better.

“Psychologist Dan McAdams proposes that when it comes to making sense of our lives, we create narratives or personal myths to explain where we have come from, what we do, and where we are going… These accounts are myths because they are not grounded in reality but rather follow a well-worn narrative path of a protagonist character (our self) and what the world throws at them.

“This core self, wandering down the path of development, enduring things that life throws at us is, however, the illusion. Like every other aspect of human development, the emergence of the self is epigenetic — an interaction of the genes in the environment. The self emerges out of that journey through the epigenetic landscape, combining the legacy of our genetic inheritance with the influence of the early environment to produce profound and lasting effect on how we develop socially. … These thoughts and behavior may seemingly originate from within us, but they emerge largely in a social context. IN a sense, who we are comes down to those around us. We may be born with different biological properties and dispositions, but even those emerge in the context of others and in some cases can be triggered or turned off by environmental factors.

“We may feel that we are the self treading down the path of life and making our own decisions at the various junctions and forks but that would also assume that we are free to make our choices. However, the freedom to make choices is another aspect of the illusion.

“Most of us believe that, unless we are under duress or suffering from some form of mental disorder, we all have the capacity to freely make decisions and choices. This is the common belief that our decisions are not preordained and that we can choose between alternatives. This is what most people mean by having free will — the belief that human behavior is an expression of personal choice and is not determined by physical forces, fate, or God. In other words, there is a self in control.

“However, neuroscience tells us that we are mistaken and that free will is also part of the self illusion… We think we have freedom but, in fact, we do not.

“For example, I believe that the sentence that I just typed was my choice. I thought about what I wanted to say and how to say it. Not only did I have the experience of my intention to begin this line of discussion at this point but I had the experience of agency, of actually wanting it. I knew I was the one doing it. I felt the authorship of my actions.

“It seems absurd to question my free will here but, as much as I hate to admit it, these experiences are not what they seem. This is because any choices that a person makes must be the culmination of the interaction of a multitude of hidden factors ranging from genetic inheritance, life experiences, current circumstances, and planned goals. Some of these influences must also come from external sources, but they all play out as patterns of neuronal activity in the brain. This is the matrix of distributed networks of nerve cells firing across my neuronal architecture.

“My biases, my memories, my perceptions, and my thoughts are the interacting patterns of excitation and inhibition in my brain, and when the checks and balances are finally done, the resulting sums of all of these complex interactions are the decisions and the choices that I make. We are not aware of these influences because they are unconscious and so we feel that the discussion has been arrived at independently — a problem that was recognized by the philosopher Spinoza when he wrote, “Men are mistaken in thinking themselves free; their opinion is made up of conscious of their own actions, and ignorance of the causes by which they are determined.”

“Even if the self and our ability to exercise free will is an illusion, not all is lost. In fact, beliefs seem to produce consequences for our behavior.

“Beliefs about self-control, from wherever they may derive, are powerful motivators of human behavior.

“When we believe that we are the masters of our own destiny, we behave differently than those who deny the existence of free will and believe everything is determined.

“Maybe that’s why belief in free will predicts not only better job performance but also expected career success. Workers who believe in free will outperform their colleagues ,and this is recognized and rewarded by their superiors. So, when we believe in free will, we enjoy life more.

“The moral of the tale is that, even if free will doesn’t exist, then maybe it is best to ignore what the neuroscientists or philosophers say. Sometimes ignorance is bliss.”[5]

It seems we often greet paradigm-shifting scientific findings with a shrug. Maybe somebody in a lab coat figured something out, but there’s no apparent impact on us. Maybe somebody says free will is nothing more than the confluence of multiple neural pathways — okay fine, but we’ll take own misguided, self-deceptive sense of agency any day. It’s how we’re used to feeling, and there’s no apparent downside to contradicting a bunch of intellectual hooey. In fact, the downside is all on the side of science, which wants us to think there’s no point in anything.

Plus, if we believe in the supernatural, we enjoy the safety of numbers– especially if we live in the USA, where a 2019 Gallup Poll found that 64% – 87% of us believe in God, depending on how the question was asked. (By contrast, also in 2019, the Pew Research Center found that only 4% of Americans said they were atheists.[6])

For me personally, when I first learned about neuroscience’s case against free will, it didn’t feel devastating or hopeless, didn’t throw me into a pit of despair, didn’t make me want to wallow. It was weird, but no more. I was skeptical, and still assume there’s more to be discovered before we get the whole picture, but in time, I came to like the changes in outlook the absence of God and belief in God offered. Life and my place in it were cleaner and simpler somehow – if for no other reason that I no longer needed to expend the energy belief in the supernatural used to require.

The Religious Brain

Also back when I first got religion, I experienced something else current neuroscience tells us: that religion shapes the brain as the brain shapes religion. Jordan Grafman, head of the cognitive neuroscience laboratory at Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago and neurology professor at Northwestern University, says that religions and their community behavioral codes helped to make the brain what it is today, and vice versa:

“Neurotheology is important in part because early religious practices helped develop our brains to begin with. ‘Religion has played an incredibly important role in human evolution. It’s funny, people want to separate the two but in fact they’re intertwined,’ [Dr. Grafman] says.

“Of course, it’s a two-way relationship between the brain and religion. Our brains had to develop the capacity to establish social communities and behaviors, which are the basis of religious societies. But religious practice in turn developed the brain, says Grafman. ‘As these societies became more co-operative, our brains evolved in response to that. Our brain led to behavior and then the behavior fed back to our brain to help sculpt it,’ he adds.”[7]

The mutual reinforcement loop still operates, so that the brain steeped in religion gets better at religion, finds way to reinforce and substantiate its beliefs. As a result, the religious narrative becomes more and more true the more you practice it –experience increasingly conforms to religious dictates on both an individual and community level. Neuroscientist Andrew Newberg, a pioneer of “neurotheology,” observes that the religious brain promotes social cohesiveness and conformity to social moral norms.

“‘There’s the argument that religion has benefited human beings by helping to create cohesive societies and morals and help us to determine our behavior and interact with the world more effectively,’” says Newberg. ‘The ability to think about this from a neuroscience perspective is part of that discussion.’”[8]

As a result, when you stop practicing your religious narrative, as I did, your brain circuits are no longer engaged in actively supporting it, and are now available to process alternatives. As you detach from religious immersion, your prior conviction about its truth – i.e., its ability to explain reality, which was increasingly conforming to it — fades away. At that stage, the brain’s formerly religious wiring is equally adept at promoting other individual and communal beliefs and behaviors, as well as other narratives. Andew Newberg’s website provides a sample of research findings from his book[9] indicating that the formerly religious brain is equally adept at generating rule-breaking behavior:

“The prefrontal cortex is traditionally thought to be involved in executive control, or willful behavior, as well as decision-making. So, the researchers hypothesize, it would make sense that a practice that centers on relinquishing control would result in decreased activity in this brain area.

“A recent study that Medical News Today reported on found that religion activates the same reward-processing brain circuits as sex, drugs, and other addictive activities.

“Researchers led by Dr. Jeff Anderson, Ph.D. — from the University of Utah School of Medicine in Salt Lake City — examined the brains of 19 young Mormons using a functional MRI scanner.

“When asked whether, and to what degree, the participants were “feeling the spirit,” those who reported the most intense spiritual feelings displayed increased activity in the bilateral nucleus accumbens, as well as the frontal attentional and ventromedial prefrontal cortical loci.

“These pleasure and reward-processing brain areas are also active when we engage in sexual activities, listen to music, gamble, and take drugs. The participants also reported feelings of peace and physical warmth.

“’When our study participants were instructed to think about a savior, about being with their families for eternity, about their heavenly rewards, their brains and bodies physically responded,’ says first study author Michael Ferguson.

“These findings echo those of older studies, which found that engaging in spiritual practices raises levels of serotonin, which is the “happiness” neurotransmitter, and endorphins.

“The latter are euphoria-inducing molecules whose name comes from the phrase ‘endogenous morphine.’

“Such neurophysiological effects of religion seem to give the dictum ‘Religion is the opium of the people’ a new level of meaning.”[10]

These findings explain a range of religious behaviors: charitable good deeds, the use of music in worship, and beneficial “fellowship” dynamics at one end of the spectrum; and clergy sexual crimes, cult abuses, and terrorism on the other end. Plus, the entire spectrum is supported not only by religious neural network, but by the brain’s addictive feel-good hormones — right alongside sex, drugs, and rock n roll.

Lost in the Story

Religious narratives draw upon ancient storytelling for their source material, making liberal use of metaphors and allegories in scripture and wisdom literature to create parables, koans, riddles, myths, fables, cautionary tales, and poetry. Religious storytelling illuminates the human condition, illustrates what happens when Earthy existence is aligned or at odds with Heavenly purpose.[11]

Normally, metaphors and allegories are representational: they describe one thing in terms of another – i.e., in the case of religion, worldly, fleshly experience in light of divine, spiritual truth. Sometimes, though, religious practice recasts human experience into literal, explicit religious storytelling, in which the devotee is “in but not of the world”[12] to an extreme. As a result, the zealot dwells in religious metaphor, views themselves and others as religious characters, and interprets circumstances in terms of religious drama. At this extreme, reality becomes a pious fantasyland, in which religious imagery supplants worldly experience. Religious storytelling no longer illustrates and represents, it becomes perceived reality, as the believer remains in a closed, self-reinforcing system. The condition is euphoric, supported by feel-good brain hormones – as close to what it feels like to have God’s view as we’ll ever get.

I know this experience well — I did this a lot in my religious days, and not just with religion, but also with film, theater, books, and other stories – just as I had as a child. I have a lively imagination and have “the ability to become easily engrossed, such as in movies, novels or daydreams” [13] – traits that make it easy for me to generate religious experience and make me a good subject for hypnosis..

The best example of this kind of religious storytelling excess that I can think of are the lyrics of a hymn I remember singing in the church where I grew up:

I love to tell the story
Of unseen things above,
Of Jesus and His glory,
Of Jesus and His love.
I love to tell the story,
Because I know ’tis true;
It satisfies my longings
As nothing else can do.

 I love to tell the story,
’Twill be my theme in glory
To tell the old, old story
of Jesus and His love.

I love to tell the story;
More wonderful it seems
Than all the golden fancies
Of all my golden dreams,
I love to tell the story,
It did so much for me;
And that is just the reason
I tell it now to thee.

I love to tell the story;
Tis pleasant to repeat
What seems each time I tell it,
More wonderfully sweet.
I love to tell the story;
For some have never heard
The message of salvation
From God’s own holy Word.

I love to tell the story;
For those who know it best
Seem hungering and thirsting
To hear it like the rest.
And when, in scenes of glory,
I sing the new, new song,
’Twill be the old, old story,
That I have loved so long.

I used to wonder why religious experiences were so easy for me, compared to other people, until I became aware of the neurological underpinnings of this cognitive disposition. Discovering it, and learning to keep it from running away with me, turned about to be a key development in my drift away from religion, and from narrative in general.

More on narratives next time.

[1] Wikipedia.

[2] Andersen, Kurt, How America Lost Its Mind – The nation’s current post-truth moment is the ultimate expression of mind-sets that have made America exceptional throughout its history, The Atlantic (Dec. 28, 2017). See also Routledge, Supernatural, op. cit.

[3] Routledge, Clay, Supernatural: Death, Meaning, and the Power of the Invisible World  (July 2, 2018)

[4] See this blog’s Narratives-Of-Self-Purpose-And-Meaning-Part-1-Fish-Stories.

[5] The Self Illusion: How the Social Brain Creates Identity, Bruce Hood (2012)

[6] /The Pew Research Center report is intriguingly nuanced, and worth a look if you like this sort of thing.

[7]The Neuroscience Argument That Religion Shaped The Very Structure Of Our Brains,” Quartz (December 3, 2016)

[8] Ibid.

[9] Newberg, Andrew, How God Changes Your Brain: Breakthrough Findings from a Leading Neuroscientist (2009)

[10] “What Religion Does To Your Brain,”,: Medical News Today (July 20, 2018)

[11] For more on metaphor, see the classic and definitive text Metaphors We Live By, by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson.

[12] See, for example, this online Bible study on the phrase.

[13] See The Five Traits Of A Good Hypnotic Subject, Your Visual Mind. See also Wikipedia re: “Hypnotic Susceptibility.”

“Before You Were Born I Knew You”

The_Summoner_-_Ellesmere_Chaucer-300x282The 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:[1]

“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.

[1] 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.