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Answer Your Calling

My little sister Colleen hid one of my slippers the other day. Although still in an early morning haze. I stumbled around in an unproductive effort to find it. When it dawned on me (by way of her giggling) that she was behind the prank, I insisted that she produce the shoe. Somehow, though, this all turned into a game of “warm and cold.” As I moved closer to the purloined footwear, she would yell, “Warmer, warmer.” And when I would take a step in the wrong direction, she would correct me by saying. “Colder, colder.” Fortunately, her guidance proved flawless. I found my slipper – and at the same time - met my thought for the day.

Undoubtedly, Neanderthal children played the warm and cold game. It's just a part of children. They seem to learn it without needing to be taught, like breathing. Once again, however, we see the simplest practices producing the most powerful metaphors.

When we are close to discovering something important, we become warmer. When we get untracked, and move away from a valuable find, we become colder. If the desired object is the likes of a slipper, we may not notice much change in temperature or temperament. But when we move toward certain crucial visions, we encounter a force that produces a deep feeling of warmth. And those, like Ebenezer Scrooge, who fight their callings, may best be described as cold.

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Inner Voice

In grade school I learned that people receive a “calling.” that steers us toward our vocations. At first I thought it came only to those headed for the clergy. It wasn't until years passed that I understood we all have callings. In fact, I now suspect we each have very special callings.

I don't have the ability to prove the existence of a calling. It doesn't seem to be something one can capture and hand to another. Perhaps it is best to rely on a bit of time-honored wisdom borrowed from Franz Werfel's Song of Bernadette: “To those who believe, no explanation is necessary; to those who do not, no explanation is possible.”

The relationship between courage and one’s calling is not complicated. Courage is necessary only if there is such a thing as a calling. Being true to “thine own self” means listening for and then acting upon one's calling. Nothing easy about this. It requires humility, honesty and courage. “Being me” means answering my call.

Some have described the calling as an “inner voice.” Others have insisted that it comes from an external point. We must understand, however, that this does not necessarily suggest different sources. As with courage, we can connect with our callings at different times and places. Although the return address may change, the sender remains the same. If you believe that callings only resonate from one place, you greatly increase the likelihood of missing your mission in life. No one can predict where or how a calling will come.

Believe you have a calling

We can distinguish dreams from callings. During the course of a lifetime we may have many dreams. Sometimes dreams fade and give way to new ones. But even those that eventually vanish have value in that they add color to a particular era of our lives. Unfulfilled dreams can even produce pleasant memories. It may, for instance, make you smile when remembering that you once hoped to have twenty children.

A calling, however, is relentless. It represents more than a creation of our changeable minds. It arrives at some point (sometimes very early) in our lives, and there it lives on doing exactly what its name implies - calling. It calls us to a particular task or set of tasks. Often people receive a series of callings, each somehow setting the stage for the next. David, for example, a physician , now feels his future may lie in writing fiction. But he does not regret the tremendous effort and sacrifice he went through during all his years of medical training. On the contrary, one path - in some way - led to the other. An aggressive and somewhat discontented doctor, he allowed his life experiences to lead him toward becoming a settled and reflective writer. He seems to be getting warmer.

We need dreams to find our callings. They start us looking beyond ourselves and into the realm of what could be. Callings have never been verified by science. Consequently, they tend to be heard more often by those courageous enough to decide for themselves what is real. I didn't know this for sure, but I gather that one must be something of a dreamer to hear a calling.

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“Believe that life is worth living,” remarked William James, “and your belief will help create the fact.” For our purposes, we can paraphrase James: “Believe you have a calling and this belief will improve your hearing.” It's hard to recognize a force you don’t believe in. Even when it screams in your ear.

Missing the totally apparent

Sometimes it screams. Sometimes it whispers. It can be easy to miss. It can be impossible to overlook. One's calling can make itself known while one touches the depths of despair or reaches the heights of ecstasy.

Just because one's calling may be obvious does not guarantee that it will be discovered. A friend of mine who grew up on the seashore was reminded time and time again how people can miss the totally apparent. At least several times each summer, tourists driving along a road within a stone's throw of that great body of water, would stop and ask for directions to the ocean. It was hard for him to answer such a question without sounding sarcastic. Each time he wanted to say, “Do you see that huge blue thing? That's the ocean!” But that would have been too cruel. Actually, there may be no one more embarrassed than one who realizes that he has been sitting next to the ocean, and could not find it.

I suppose my friend had no right to be too critical. I guess we all have missed an ocean or two in o day. It's such a shame - oceans have so much to offer.

Like oceans, we can miss callings. But because we may be the only ones who can hear our callings, stopping to ask directions from bystanders may not provide all the information needed. Because we cannot rely solely on the advice of others, we need to develop a sensitivity that allows us to notice the sights, sounds and textures contained within ourselves and our world, I really believe that if those tourists had looked for the beach or simply enjoyed the scenery, instead of searching for someone to tell them where it was, they would have found it much sooner. More importantly, if you constantly hunt for others to tell you about your calling. you may miss it altogether.

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Trace the voice

Before we can go on we must consider the question, “Where do these callings come from?” Until we feel comfortable with an answer to this, we may never understand the true nature of a calling.

Several possibilities emerge. First, perhaps we are directed by our genes. Maybe our DNA contains a special set of directions, unique to each individual, that persuade us to move in particular ways. If we asked the scientific community, this theory would likely be strongly supported. After all, a biologist who is only a biologist will tend to look for biological explanations.

And this theory would seem accurate were it not for one thing. I believe I have seen people communicate with the source of these callings: They ask for guidance and clarification. Even when the answers lack absolute precision, the communication continues. Later, they return to the source to express their appreciation and gratitude. Although I know little about genes. I don't believe they are capable of dialogue.

We have to look elsewhere to find the voice that sends the calls.

A second hypothesis comes from the social sciences and is called “conditioning.” This theory suggests that one can be trained to accept any path in life. For example, with the proper reinforcement, a child can be conditioned to become virtually anything from a poet to a thief. It all depends on the child's environment.

But here again we see a popular explanation with severe limitations. I believe that just about everyone in the helping professions has encountered individuals who are miserable with the lives they have been conditioned to accept. One can live out the family myth, take over the family business, receive all the reinforcers along the way and then recognize an enormous void in one's life. In other words, what one is conditioned to do may not be what one is called to do.

We can be conditioned to deny our callings but this denial will not last forever. A calling cannot be conditioned away. Even when circumstances lead us in other directions. The calling remains. Should we continue to refuse our tasks, we become colder and more discontented. Conditioning may influence our behavior, but it does not impact our callings.

So what would we find if we could trace the voice? A particular chromosome. A collection of life experiences that mold one's destiny? No. Our callings do not reach us through our senses or our psyches. They come to us through our spiritual dimensions.

These messages request that we travel paths unique to each of us. And yet our callings urge us all toward similar moral vocations. We all hear a plea to help each other. We are all, as Schweitzer pointed out, called to serve. Not everyone, however, follows this request. We have the freedom to refuse. But if we turn our backs on our callings, we become cold.

I believe that while answering our callings we find God. In fact, this may be how God likes us to find Him. Perhaps this is ultimately what a calling is all about, finding God. So I proceed with a faith that our callings come from God. Although I cannot prove this, I do know that few things provide as much courage as this faith.

Staying true to our callings requires - and produces - courage.

Unhappy lawyers

I wonder how much of what we call “mental illness” and “emotional disturbance” is really the consequence of repressed callings. A great deal of the depression, anxiety and guilt present in our world comes as a result of people turning away from their special purposes.

A “people person” who spends most of her waking hours dealing with computers may never find contentment no matter how many wonderful programs she writes. Finding her road to serenity will mean finding the road where she belongs.

There are unhappy lawyers who need to be teachers just as there are melancholy teachers who need to be attorneys. There are wealthy misers who need to be generous.

There are drug addicts who need to be drug counselors. There are “takers” who are called to be “givers.”

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When one neglects a calling, psychological and spiritual discomfort develops. It may be a dull aching pain for a time but it can become excruciating. It can even build to the point where one can confuse the hurt with the calling.

Pamela, a divorced mother of two, told me: “I'm just one of those people who are supposed to have a bad life. You know, like it's my fate to be the bad apple.” Pam gave birth to her first child at age fifteen. Now at age thirty-three and still on welfare, her sixteen-year-old daughter is six months pregnant. Soon to become a grandmother, Pam feels a powerful urge to review her situation and try to make sense of an existence that seems to her to have consisted solely of retreating from life into a long series of bad relationships with men. At this crossroads in her life, she is becoming aware that she has a calling. In her upset and confusion, however, she grasps for the most available answer. Since she has known more failure and pain than anything else, she had concluded that this must be her “fate”. When she considered her purpose, she felt pain. She mistakenly took the hurt to be her destiny. She did not understand that her despair and guilt were voices urging her to change her life.

In some ways, Pam made the same mistake as modern psychology. They both suggest that our experiences, more than anything else, determine our futures. This, however, is an unfortunate myth. We can, at virtually any point in our lives, be called to take unexpected turns. These unexpected turns should not be confused with impulsive or inconsiderate changes at result from impatience, anger or immaturity. Rather, we can come to an awareness of new tasks and challenges that, after careful consideration, seem to need our special abilities. They catch our eye, then our soul.

Even if nothing in our past prepared us for such an undertaking, a drive emerges to fill this particular void. Should we turn away our eyes and our souls, we come to feel guilt, anxiety, depression or any of a number of spiritual and psychological symptoms.

People like Pam, who believe themselves to be failures will even ally be called to make contributions. Pam may not have en a good mother but she is struggling with a growing awareness that she is being called to be a good grandmother. Inside, she feels fear. Nothing in her past has prepared her for such a role. Still, she is coming to understand what she needs to do. Should she heed her calling, she will find more strength than she has ever known.

If not, well … sadly … her erroneous “fate” may win out.

To live is to suffer

“To live is to suffer,” wrote Viktor Frankl. “To survive is to find meaning in the suffering.” Because we suffer does not mean it is our fate to live tragic lives. The pain is not the calling although the pain can point to one's mission in life. I have seen this point confirmed over and over again. Certain people cannot find their paths until they reach their darkest hours. Like suicidal adolescents, many folks find their way at the point where all seems lost.

Some people seek counseling and not only survive tragedy but emerge from it with a greater sense of themselves and clearer direction in their lives.

Several years ago, a friend of mine had a dream come true. He received a one year appointment to the graduate faculty of a university. He had always wanted such an opportunity and although this was only a temporary position, he was promised that at the end of the year he could apply for a permanent one. He figured he had “made it.”

As the first few months passed, all seemed well except for one thing - he couldn't write. For the first time ever he actually had time to sit and compose but nothing filled the space. More time went by. Still nothing. As the first semester ended, he rationalized to himself that he was going through an adjustment period and that he would soon find may new to write about.

Shortly into the new semester, however, he knew his problem could not be explained away so easily. He became increasingly restless and less involved with the students. He became short tempered and sarcastic and as his frustration grew, the students became more and more disappointing to him. He did not know it at the time, but they could not possibly have provided what he needed.

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When the “college professor year” came to an end, he applied for the permanent position. Disenchanted with university life, he had to keep reminding himself, “This is what you've always wanted!” “Besides,” he thought, “maybe writing isn't that important to you after all.”

Today it seems so predictable that he would be denied the permanent position but, at the time, he was taken by complete surprise and left devastated. He had never experienced such a setback in the professional arena. He felt rejected and humiliated. He couldn't sleep for several nights and eating didn't matter much. He had lost a dream and couldn't immediately see any consolation.

In the middle of one of those sleepless nights, however, important events began to harmonize. The writers’ block shattered and he found himself lost in the writing process. The feelings and the passions as well as the questions and the stories reemerged. He had to lose the dream to re-find the calling. Now he teach on a part-time basis and he love it. It has an important place in his life. But he need to do many other things.

We need to understand that we may not be masters of our missions. I believe my friend was supposed to continue writing but he is also completely cognizant of the fact that there are many many individuals who write better than him. He cannot explain why someone would be called to something he or she is not particularly good at. Perhaps he will be able to in time.

Furthermore, happy endings are not guaranteed. A calling may not lead you to your preconceived notion of success. And even if it does, it may exact a tremendous toll along the way. Consider the path of Abraham Lincoln. Early in his career he tried to develop a small business but he eventually went broke. He ran for Congress twice, losing both times. He also lost two bids to become senator. Attacked daily in the press, he was despised by half the country. Then, only after having his life cut short by an assassin's bullet, did the impact of his life become clear. Now he “belongs to the ages.”

If we could comprehend all the things in this universe, there would be no need for faith or courage. If we wait for a calling to explain itself in complete detail before we act, we will live unfulfilled lives that end before they ever really get started.

These obstacles

We now have a clearer picture of the experience of tragedy. We considered the mystery of how some people emerge from suffering with a stronger sense of direction and purpose in their lives. Just when they seem headed for a breakdown, they achieve a breakthrough. Psychologically, it is unexplainable.

Yet if we understand the nature of a calling, an answer appears. Experiences that bring us closer to God also bring us closer to our callings. Few things cause us to readjust our relationship with God as much as tragedy. There are atheists who become believers and believers who become atheists. Some agnostics make choices while others grow even more agnostic. But those who move closer to God find a path. This path may not be fully prepared. It may need mowing, clearing and work of all kinds. These obstacles, however, are part of the path.

What we do with our suffering helps determine what become our lives. Within every suffering soul there lies the question, “What do I do now?” Whether or not one finds an answer depends on where one goes to find it.

Source of courage

Sam had been an alcoholic for a long time. But this time he believed he was going to make it. He had been sober for eight weeks when he smiled and told me, “I used to do everything I could to stay out of trouble and I was always in trouble. Now that I face the music, I have fewer problems.” That smile then turned to a wince as he paused and added, “Too bad it took me forty-nine years to learn that.”

We may not be able to get on with our lives until we begin to face life. Furthermore, it's not until we get on with our lives that we find the rewards of courage. Paul Tillich described the rewards of courage in a single word - joy. “Joy,” he said, “is the emotional expression of the courageous Yes to one's own true being.” But, of course, joy was Tillich's word; it may not be powerful enough, or quiet enough, for you. Courage can produce feelings as deep as feelings can go and as high as life can take us. Some may call it joy. Others may call it triumph. Still others may call it simple serenity.

Maybe every journey to courage produces a different reward. Maybe we all experience joy in our own unique ways. But we must give credit where it is due. To think only that “I survived” reflects a lack of respect and appreciation for oneself. We begin to build self-respect when we can say to ourselves, “I survived when I could easily have collapsed. I do have the gift of finding courage.”

Then thank your source of courage.

No one is called to evil

No one is called to evil. No calling ever leads anyone to a destructive lifestyle. A calling asks you to contribute to the world in a unique and creative way. It is only when the calling is avoided that evil becomes possible. In his book Escape from Freedom, Eric Fromm correctly observed that “the more the drive towards life is thwarted, the stronger is the drive towards destruction; the more life is realized, the less is the strength of destructiveness. Destructiveness is the outcome of an unlived life.” This destructiveness includes self-destruction. Indeed all forms of destructiveness include an element of self-destructiveness.

We must then ask, “What can thwart our efforts to live our callings?” Although physical circumstances may impose obstacles, the only real barrier is a lack of courage. Yet when we face the fears that come with honestly living our callings, we find courage. And when we walk through these special fears, we also find our direction in life.

Martyrs

G.K. Chesterton saw courage as something of a contradiction. “It means a strong desire to live taking the form of a readiness to die,” he claimed, voicing a sentiment that has been shared by many who have considered the subject. Finding people or causes worth dying for may represent the ultimate courage. Sacrificing one's life for one's convictions demonstrates quite clearly the power of human courage.

Not all who possess the strength of martyrs are called to be martyrs. While few of us are asked to die for our beliefs, we are all - every day of our lives - placed in situations where we are called to live for them. We are called to live our faith, our values, our beliefs. And while we live these qualities, we need to reevaluate them. Our interpretations can change as we age. Growth means change and courage means daring to act in the face of uncertainty.

And the courage that allows us to develop our beliefs is the same force that fortifies us when we feel pressured to compromise an essential value.

Consider the words of the Hasidic rabbi, Susya, who shortly before his death said, “When I get to heaven they will not ask me, 'Why were you not Moses?' Instead they will ask, 'Why were you not Susya? Why did you not become what only you could become?'” He understood the need we all have to live out our special missions. When we do not carry out these missions, when we hide from our necessary tasks, “we feel ourselves guilty on account of the unused life, the unlived life in us.”

If, however, living your calling seems frightening, you might be tempted to put it off until that big “someday” down the road. And if we were guaranteed that our lives would reach beyond that distant someday, this defense might be comforting. But as mortal beings we can be called from this life at any time. We all, at some level, know this. Putting important tasks off until someday does not ease guilt or build security. It only generates feelings of cowardice.

The presence of death adds urgency to our callings. We know that we do not have forever to do what we need to do. We feel the firm yet gentle push to contribute what only we can contribute. In the end, being true to yourself means that you made an honest and courageous effort to answer your

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Furthermore, I suspect that those who insulate themselves most thoroughly from death have the most difficult time finding their purposes in life. It is during moments when we are reminded of our mortality that our missions seem clearest. When we answer the question, “If I died today, what would I regret most about my life?” we are pointed in the direction of what we need to do. Consequently, people who live with stockpiles of medicine and bandages, locked behind walls that never allow anything in but the sterile, the routine and the ordinary are the ones most likely to feel lost and aimless.

Did you ever wonder why in every picture of the Grim Reaper, he is always pointing that bony finger at something? An awareness of death points us toward valuable lessons. Sometimes we have to meet the fear to learn the lesson.

Walk to courage

When you walk through a fear. you walk to courage, a courage that will stay with you and can be used again and again. When you reach the other side of fear, you will also encounter other treasures. You may find a certain kind of peace, a sense of accomplishment, a feeling of triumph, and some wisdom.

Plato described courage as “knowing what not to fear,” pointing to the link between courage and wisdom. More specifically, it speaks of the valor that accompanies a sense of purpose. A soul with a mission recognizes fear but will not let it interfere with the task at hand. Fear did not stop Schweitzer or Lincoln. They knew their missions were vastly more important than the risks involved.

Just as marathon runners feel less p in as they come into sight of their destinations, we are less likely to feel the strains and pains of failures if we keep at least one eye on our ultimate goals.

The idea of running into a burning building may be terrifying. But if you had a loved one trapped inside, you might not give it a second thought before rushing in. Likewise, if you find fulfillment through helping the homeless, you probably won't be too discouraged should someone call you foolish or quixotic. Nor will you be too upset should one of your beneficiaries complain that the blanket you gave him is not the right color. When you believe in what you do, the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune lose a lot of their sting.

Honorable goals have a way of eliminating fears. Fears gain power as we dwell on them. If we keep our attention pointed toward living out our tasks, we will not be imprisoned by threats of criticism and discomfort. As we respond to our callings, we learn what not to fear.

We are all pieces

All callings have equal value. The housewife's mission is every bit as venerable as that of a Supreme Court Justice.

The old man who builds a garden is just as necessary as the young man who builds a skyscraper. All our missions are essential. During the course of our lifetimes we may not see all the consequences of our efforts. Ants never get to see how intricate their farms are and they probably never come to understand how the entire system depends on their individual efforts. In order to comprehend the ant organization, we must look at it from above. It's difficult to get such a perspective on the human world.

We say that animals and insects are guided by nature. (Isn't it interesting that no one ever questions the existence of nature? I've never heard anyone suggest that nature does not exist or that it is dead. And we never ask nature to produce miracles to prove its existence.) Well, we too are guided. But it can be hard to see how the pieces fit. More importantly, we are not in a position to scorn anyone's contribution. I don’t pretend to know how all the pieces fit. But it's my hunch they all fit together better when they respect each other.

We are all pieces, and only pieces. We are all important pieces.

Prepare for life

We now find ourselves approaching the end of this exploration. The temptation exists to add more words, cover all the bases, anticipate all the questions. But I promised to keep this experience a simple one. After all, courage can be lost in words.

Courage exists, always. We need not ask, “Is it there?” Instead, the appropriate question is, “How do I reach it?” Courage remains even when we lose contact with it. In order to tap it, we must hold on to this simple fact.

Karl Jaspers once said, “What man is, he has become through that cause which he has made his own.” A person's “cause” can be anything from working to place a human on Mars to trying to be kind and generous throughout one's life. It is only when we become aware of our cause that we begin a genuine search for courage. Prior to this point in our lives, we only need it to get us through the challenges we cannot avoid.

Once we become aware of our callings, our needs change. We then need courage not only to respond to life but also to prepare for life. Answering a call means stating, “I want to live my life courageously.” It is precisely at this point that we come to really understand our need for courage.

Courage is more available to us if we are on the right path, the path we have been called to travel. Even here, however, it can be a struggle to discover. It can take effort and determination. Because we all receive a calling to help others, behaviors such as kindness and generosity tend to instill strength in us all. This much seems guaranteed. But courage exists that can only be reached through our unique journeys. Thus we share certain avenues to courage and we each find and build avenues of our own.

But this much I can promise. If you stay on your path and remain true to your calling, then, even if you cannot find courage, courage will find you.

Honor your calling.

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