When Callings Come from the Outer World, Not Just the Inner

Calls come from outside us, not just inside. Here's how to act on them.

Posted Aug 28, 2020

Getty Images/LordHenriVoton
Source: Getty Images/LordHenriVoton

“That which oppresses me, is it my soul

trying to come out in the open,

or the soul of the world knocking

at my heart for its entrance?”

—Rabindrinath Tagore

People typically think of callings as inner experiences—voices of soul or spirit, deep intuitions or symptoms, passions, and talents that want expression. But callings can also come to you—or at you—from the external world, the civic world, the suffering world. Not just from your own soul and body, but also from the body politic, of which you’re a single cell. And where the world touches your life in a personal way—whether through a crisis, an opportunity, a natural disaster, a social cause, or a pandemic—you can find yourself responding to a call, turning from a sympathizer to an activist.

Many of the callings in my own life, large and small, have been responses to the calls of the world and the turn of events—starting with selling lightbulbs on the first Earth Day in 1970, when I was in high school, and including my involvement in service journalism (don't just tell 'em the news, tell 'em what they can do about it), teaching, writing books on personal development, volunteering at animal shelters and soup kitchens, writing letters to editors, marching in antiwar protests, serving food to homeless people, handing out apples to street musicians, and giving money to environmental groups.

What we each determine is a fitting response to these external calls is entirely subjective. One person might take on multi-national corporations or federal laws or the plight of an entire race of people, another might adopt a child from a developing country, and yet another might simply sweep the street in front of a shop every morning. For some, all the activism they can handle in this life is in trying to heal their own souls, though by most accounts this is the work of the world.

Contemplative nuns and monks, writers, and most artists serve the world best, for instance, in solitude, touching the world most intimately when they’re completely alone, conferring their medicine through prayer and painting, through writing books and working the beads. They may seldom see a soul, yet be engaged in the deepest soul-work that simultaneously serves the greater community.

The world, of course, never stops calling, never stops acting as though it belongs to us, and its pain is always gathering force like storms offshore. It sends out flares the way we send signals out into space, always hoping someone will come across them, decipher them, and trace the calls. It shouts to us from the sickroom, from the cold calculus of the daily news, and from whatever you can’t stand to look at and so avert your eyes. But the world gets harder and harder to ignore as it gets smaller and its problems bigger, and as whatever hits the fan gets a little more evenly distributed.

The events themselves can take on the contours of signs and callings if you give them meaning, and you do that when you pay attention to them. “Enter each day,” Sam Keen instructs in Hymns to an Unknown God, “with the expectation that the happenings of the day may contain a clandestine message addressed to you personally. Expect omens, epiphanies, casual blessings, and teachers who unknowingly speak to your condition.” Expect that through the right lens all your encounters have the potential to be meaningful. So keep an eye out for such encounters as:

  • An offer to collaborate with someone on a project that draws you in an entirely new direction.
  • A sudden crisis that calls on powers you didn’t realize you possessed but whose time has come. When a Japanese monk visited writer Gretel Ehrlich after she had been struck by lightning, he said to her, “You have always been strong. Now it is time for you to learn about being weak.”
  • The loss of a job that pushes you over that edge you’ve been peering at for years.
  • An illness or accident that reminds you of what really matters. The car accident that Harvard Medical School professor Joan Borysenko refers to as her “head-on collision with destiny,” helped her take stock of her life and make some long-overdue changes, including leaving academia.
  • A change your partner is going through—getting back into the job market, going back to school, struggling with an illness, retiring, desiring more closeness or less—which becomes your own change, because callings are community property and one partner’s call automatically requires a response from the other.
  • A chance meeting with a stranger that sparks something in you. Early in psychiatrist Robert Coles’s career, he met a 6-year-old girl who was battling tremendous odds in attempting to attend an all-white school in the segregated Mississippi of the early 1960s. They became friends and he was so moved by her strength that it helped redefine his own life’s work.
  • Some harrowing challenge that's imposed on you. The German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s imprisonment during World War II called him later to minister to others who were imprisoned.
  • Something you witness that changes what you believe in or how you live.
  • A tragedy that gives you your life’s work, and determines what it is you have to say to the world from that day on. Scores of organizations and support groups are started in just this way: Mothers Against Drunk Drivers, Parents of Murdered Children, Widow to Widow, Living With Cancer.
  • Any family reunion, because however exalted you imagine yourself to be in spiritual and emotional matters, you only have to spend a few days around your family to see how far you still have to go and what in particular you need to work on.
  • Any strange occurrence. A woman I read about recently described how, at 9 years old, she was saved from drowning off the coast of Oregon—by a seal. Later in life, she returned the favor by working to save that species.
  • An event like the pandemic that at first seems like a crisis but can ultimately become a blessing, perhaps even serving to radically reorient your life. I recently met a couple who, to avoid the initial outbreak, left their suburban life for a remote rural outpost, and decided to make it permanent.

In whatever forms these signal events come to you, they often seem to speak of a conspiracy, a “breathing together,” a way in which events on the outside and the inside work together and match each other. The event and your state of mind at the time become like the two eyepieces of a binocular microscope, looking in on the same subject, the same truth. If there’s no match, there’s probably no meaning for you and no call.

Sometimes these external events take in your life and sometimes they don’t. The events may reveal to you a bigger plan or they may just undo the plans you’ve already made. They can be subtle or they can be the equivalent of a slap across the face, a shock of sufficient voltage to jolt you out of your familiar life. Goliath 1, David 0. You’re not so much called as commanded, conscripted, claimed. In no tradition are the gods timid.

But an affinity between a drama taking place inside you and outside you indicates an immanent meaning, and movement may not be far behind, if you're willing to be moved by your encounters, to be guided and persuaded and changed by them, to ask of them, “What are you here to teach me?” Your experiences will then seem like more than mere events, and more like replies to the unspoken questions you put to the world just by living your life. They'll begin to seem as though they’re not just happening to you, but for you, and the world will no longer seem so anonymous and random but more personal and purposeful. 

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