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What Makes a Calling?

9 August 2016

Reading my friend Psyc Girl’s post about “living your calling” this morning has me wondering, what makes a calling? It’s something I’ve actually spoken out against, in science, but – as with most things on twitter – fumblingly and in brief, unfocused ejaculations. Because I’m not anti-calling. I’m 100% for it! Sort of! What do I mean?

To me, a calling is emotionally inextricable from religion. The first exposure I had to the word was religious – people I knew spoke of being called to missionary service or the priesthood. Being called meant having an irresistible urge to serve God, and to accept hardship, poverty, grueling toil, and perhaps even martyrdom to do so. It meant traveling far and wide, adhering to what was written on one’s sinew as truth, and accepting death rather than compromise.

Religion was not the only realm in which a calling existed though. I soon was given to understand the concept of an artistic calling. A kind of mania that allowed one to do nothing but create. An exultant suffering. Being called to art meant the same ascetic life. Poverty, itinerance, and enlightenment.

Those were the pillars of a calling. Not only being willing, but being compelled by God or from within to pursue a kind of rapturous integration between the self and the profession. An accountant, perhaps, was simply a person with a job. An artist or a nun or a missionary had blended lines where the person melted into the vocation and became a single entity.

There has arisen a culture of the calling in science. Perhaps it’s been with us a long time. Certainly the mathematical ascetic is a stereotype. But now, the biosciences, chemistry, physics, too have adopted the calling as the truest expression of desire for a scientific career.

One must be willing to endure a decade or more of low wages and miserable living conditions to advance to the world of leading a research lab. One must adopt an identity of “scientist” which dominates other aspects of one’s identity and comes with supplemental addenda which cannot be discarded: atheism, skepticism, progressivism. These requirements winnow the identity – with ecclesiastical rigor – into a small field of true believers.

Science is a great pursuit and scientists make critical contributions to society and community. But we have created a religion around it, rather than science simply being a profession at which the adept can labor happily. One must be called, in order to lead a life of science. And once one is a scientist, one is always a scientist, even if one leaves science: it has become an identity which consumes the self.

I am not an academic scientist. I am a sort of faux-academic science engineer. But I am not called to that. It is not my identity. I can imagine changing careers and becoming deeply invested in some other path. I was once sort of on the path to the academic life, but alcohol derailed me. Then I nearly returned to it before accepting the position I have now.

I enjoy my job. I believe in my institution. And I appreciate working here. But it is not the core of my life, the center of my existence. I do not sacrifice for my career, the way an academic must sacrifice for science. My career sustains me. It allows me to do the things I truly love, and be with people I love to be with. It provides me with a sense of contribution and social responsibility. But it is not the thing I love and want to be with. It is not my church.

And crucially, not being called to my work means that I am not a disgrace if I choose to change my career. I am not an apostate or a failure. We have arranged science as a pyramid where those at the top benefit from the labors of those new entries, and those multitudes who cannot, by the constraints of the system, advance are heaped with shame and scorn if they choose to break with the toxic apparatus of academic science.

Being called as a scientist means accepting a miniscule chance rising to the stability and acclaim and rewards of making major contributions, while enduring the much greater risk of being cast out and deemed insufficient. And being told that you yourself must consider yourself a failure if you do not ascend to the rarefied heights of tenured professorship.

So I don’t really want to have a calling. For those that do, I encourage them. If truly the priesthood, or professorship, or artistry is the only thing you can imagine doing with your life, and your vision of contentment is entwined with those goals, then go fight for them. That’s your desire? May you be blessed on your journey.

But I would rather be as I am. Perhaps without so fierce a sense of purpose. But content, and able to find my next path gladly if this one runs out.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. psycgirl permalink
    9 August 2016 11:04

    I completely agree with most of what you’re saying here, but I also think you’re being a bit binary. You can have a calling but still leave your career without feeling disgrace!

  2. AnonPD permalink
    9 August 2016 11:39

    Great post. Might be my favorite.

    I think psycgirl’s points here are valid. To what extent does our calling or even our “identity” determine feelings of self-worth? How rigid or flexible is our identity, and what is the ideal there? Are there “levels” to identity?

    The way in which the scientific culture currently answers these questions is one of the biggest reasons why demographics up the pipeline trend the way they do, why we have an abundance of “quit lit” pieces, why trainee mental health is statistically poorer, why the biomedical science is concentrating even further into a select few cities, even why the academic labor market exists in the state it is in.

  3. 9 August 2016 16:18

    Having been raised with the concept of calling in a religious sense, I believe in them. But I believe I am called to be a mother or a wife (not so much), but not called to be a mental health quality guru.

    It is what I am, not what I do.

    I know this doesn’t add one iota to the discussion, but I feel compelled to post it anyway.

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