The experience of being called gives a sense of purpose and direction to things we might do. The call to serve as a Druid, the call to activism, to writing and other forms of creativity. A sense of having been called to act implies meaning, a whiff of destiny perhaps, an impression of being wanted. And if it works, things flow towards you, opportunities to act and speak. Callings such as these result in people like Philip Carr-Gomm, J K Rowling, Caroline Lucas… callings give you Einstein, and Ghandi. On the darker side, calling can also give you serial killers, tyrants, lunatics.
But mostly not.
Callings are not always answered. They don’t always mean that doors will open, or that what you do will bear fruit any time you can see it. Van Gough spent his life poor, obscure and struggling. Only after death was he taken seriously, and the fame that has since validated his work, was never available to him. While it’s possible to go through life clinging to a belief that at some point, what you do will prove worth it, the longer you go on banging your head against a wall and making little difference, the harder it is to justify.
Just exactly how much does a person have to do to answer a calling? How much success? How much usefulness? How much service? There are no tidy answers to this. When is it fairer to say that the call to serve is really a call of ego, a call to be important? Surely, if we believe in our calling our vision, we should be willing to do the work no matter how unvalued, how ridiculed, how financially compromised it leaves us… surely that’s what a real calling means.
But how do you tell, if the thing driving you is truly a calling, truly purposeful, or if it’s just the desire to be loved and famous? How do you tell if the dream is any good, if most of the feedback you get suggests it has little or no value to anyone? The history of cutting edge creative people is a history full of depression, despair, and too many suicides. The roll call of brilliant people, modern and historical, who did not survive their thirties, is almost unbearable to reflect on. Mozart died young and in poverty, so did Robbie Burns. Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain… too many names. Too many callings that could not be survived, too many people who were truly valued only after they were gone.
How do you tell if a dream is worth giving your life to? When do you say ‘enough’? When does it stop being brave and visionary and start being irresponsible, self indulgent, deluded… And if it is not possible to be great or significant, is it worth showing up, day after day, to be small, modest, a little bit useful sometimes, liked by a few people?
I simply do not know, but this is the rock I break against every few months, pouring hours into work that does not pay, conscious that my most useful economic contribution to my family is as housewife, kidding myself each time that the next project will be the one that really takes off. The next project will be the one where I finally manage to do to something I think holds up. When do dreams become insanity?
I recall a recent interview with Leonard Cohen in which he said it was this or wash dishes, he couldn’t do anything else. But that’s ok because he’s Leonard Cohen and he’s never going to need to find something else to do. But for every Leonard Cohen out there, how many of us are there? The hundreds, thousands of never made the grade, never turned that calling into an answer, those of us who put the best we have into the world, and find that we would indeed be more useful washing dishes. With hindsight, fame and success validates the years of struggle, for some, but for many there is never anything to justify to the world the time we spent on the things we made. The scorn and ridicule this attracts is both reliable and unfunny. I talked about the struggles of the creative life before, and got a comment to the effect that I have a hobby, not a job, and how dare I imagine I was better than someone who earned a living doing mundane things. I’ll probably carry that one with me as long as I live. The assumption of arrogance in my desire to live by doing the thing I do best. A call with no answer.