The road not taken: Indecision and missing out

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood…

I came relatively late in life to Robert Frost’s famous poem. If you don’t know it – go now, and read it. It will stay with you long after you’ve forgotten my words.

I spend a lot of time with people who are trying to work out what to do with their lives. Which roads to take, and which to ignore. I hear stories of fear and curiosity; of regret and gratitude; of anxiety and excitement.

And for every road we take, we turn our backs on ten, a hundred, a thousand more. A thousand roads not taken. The snickets and cul-de-sacs of life that we will never explore and that will remain untrodden. Perhaps more weighty than the question of “Which way?” is: “How do I deal with the knowledge of the roads not taken?” 

That is, how do I manage the overwhelming sense of Missing Out (I’m currently reading a fascinating book of the same title) on the options I don’t choose? The potential I never realise? The opportunities I allow to slip away, unseized?

I have wrestled with a decision recently. I was tortured, for a while, about which road to take. It seemed as if one road would lead to joy, and life, and fulfilment, and the other to despair and exhaustion and disillusionment. The problem was, I didn’t know which road would lead where. It felt as if choosing one road would close off ten more. I was paralysed with indecision. Even though I’ve written about this before, even though I hold firmly to the notion that there are no bad decisions, I fell into a rut.

I didn’t know what was the ‘right’ thing to do.

And this might make me seem crazy, but eventually, with Robert Frost in mind, I wrote to myself. This is usually my ‘fall back’ option when prayer and reflection and meditation fail me. When I’m getting deeper into fog with no clarity. In these moments, writing becomes an act of untangling: a gentle separating of the threads that have wrapped themselves around my soul. And somewhere, there is usually a still, small voice of divine sense.

So this is what I wrote:

I’m not going to tell you what you should do, or who you should be. The paths are yours to take. You choose one before another and they all lead to joyful surprise and sorrow-filled desolation. Whichever way you go, there will be tight, dark corners and glorious summits – and you will navigate through, step by sometimes painful step, because there is always another step on. I will be with you but I will never force you.

These decisions are not mine to make – but yours. I will give you good, wise people and a capacity to seek out their wisdom. But rarely will I shovel it into your consciousness. You must seek it out: lament it, search for it, find it, and treasure it. And you will. Find it.

But the wisdom is not in the decisions; the roads you take. The wisdom is in how you walk them. No matter what roads you take, you also choose how to travel them. So I’m not going to tell you what to do. That choice is a gift that is yours alone. But choose with confidence and freedom, and know that the road you take shuts off no doors and few opportunities.

And when you do choose a road, walk it wisely.

The wisdom is not in the roads you take, but in how you choose to walk them.

To this point, I have thought of choice as being an exercise of my freedom. But perhaps those of us caught up in the cultural metanarrative of ‘progression’ (that is, we believe that as a race, we need to advance, to progress, to flourish, to succeed, to prosper…) are actually slaves to indecision. We believe a myth that only the ‘right’ decisions will allow us the greatest prosperity (as if prosperity is all we have to hope for…!)

So maybe the decisions – the roads we choose – don’t matter. Maybe what matters is how we live out the decisions we make. We could take one road, or another, and yet on both roads we could make choices that bring life or joy to ourselves and others – or we could make choices that sap us of strength and energy.

So, going forward, I am resolved not to worry too much, with dear Robert, about the roads not taken. There will always be missed opportunities and more potential than can ever be realised. What I will worry more about is how I travel the roads I take:

Will I be a good companion?
Will I seek out those lost on the way, and walk with them?
Will I try and light up the darker corners of the paths I take?
Will I walk wisely, and rest often?

And perhaps, when we become more conscious of how we walk the roads we take, instead of which roads we take, perhaps then we don’t miss out on all that much after all.

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Soaring on air: Ten reflections on vocation

vocation
və(ʊ)ˈkeɪʃ(ə)n/
a strong feeling of suitability for a particular career or occupation.

Everyone has a vocation to something!

Discovering your own vocation begins with quiet reflection, self-examination and conversation. These questions might help:

What are you good at?
What do you enjoy?
When do you feel most at peace?

I spend much of my time listening to people who are trying to work out what their own vocation is. Through these conversations, I’ve noticed some patterns and common themes. Here they are:

1. It will take time to emerge

Few of us have a “stop you in your tracks” moment where we see our life’s purpose stretching before us in an instant. Reactions to a growing vocation are usually surprise, doubt, anxiety, fear, unworthiness, and nervous excitement – but rarely confidence and self-assurance.

You don’t have to decide on your vocation in this moment. Nor in the next half hour, or even the next week or month. Like flowers, vocations take time to grow and blossom fully. They need to be informed and thought-through, and this takes hours of reading, talking, listening and reflecting.


2. It is not your decision (alone)

Vocation is usually about working in partnership with and for others; at the heart of most vocations is a desire to bring about change or improvement for others. We don’t serve ourselves, nor do we serve by ourselves, but for and through people, creation, and institutions. The mutuality of vocation begins at its inception.

In the Church of England, this means that a formal vocation to a particular ministry needs to be rooted in conversation and reflection with others. It is about a process of mutual listening and discernment, and about the coming together of the candidate’s “yes” and the Church’s “yes”.

This is about licensed ministry in a particular context, but it’s a good principle to apply to any exploration of vocation: just as our vocations are not for our own benefit, so we don’t own them. Vocation is about working out our purpose in community, and the burden of the decision about what you do with your life is never yours alone.


3. It isn’t punishment or chore

Desire rests at the heart of vocation. A good way to start thinking about vocation is to ask yourself what you enjoy, and what you want to do. It is tempting, especially for people of faith, to construct a faux-holiness or sense of martyrdom around vocation. We can’t quite believe that God would call us to do something we actually want to do. And when we find ourselves wanting to do something, we convince ourselves it’s not the right thing for us, or that we desire it for the wrong reasons. That’s not to say that vocation is always easy, or that God never asks us to do things we don’t want to do, but (to paraphrase Henri Nouwen) too often “we expect a curse, but instead receive a blessing”.

4. It is more (and less) than a job

Our vocation might lead us to a particular job or career, but it doesn’t always. It is rooted in something much deeper than a 9-5: it is about who we are. Many of us go home from work at the end of the day, but we don’t leave behind the essence of who we are.

As a priest, I am called to live honestly and openly with others as I do life with all its joys and sorrows. I am called to be. And I am – I exist – all the time. Not just in the hours I am contracted to work for. I do have a contract. I do try and stick to my working hours and days. But it’s not always possible, because this call to be is something I do all the time. Every day and every night. I am. Even on my days off. In every place, in every moment, I am living out the priestly vocation to do life with others. I invest in life here as the first task of my vocation in this place.

And perhaps that is the first step in any vocation. To invest in life, wherever we find ourselves, and to see what needs and tasks emerge.


5. It will demand bottomless trust

Vocation is about finding something you enjoy and do well, and then doing it. But that doesn’t make it easy. Living out a vocation will stretch you to your limits, and then some more. It will empty you of your resources and leave you feeling dry and wrung out. It will challenge your priorities and nag at you because the job will never be done. It will demand from you more than you thought you could ever give. It will push you beyond expectation and ability.

Vocation does these things, because it’s vocation. Vocation is about seeing need and meeting it. It’s about being driven by something more than money or status or self-importance. It’s about self-purpose and a rooted love for other people. Your work will never be done. And within all this, you must learn to trust. Trust yourself, trust others, trust God. Trust your intuition about what needs to be done and what can be left. Trust your body when it tells you to rest. Trust your mind when it says you can push a little further. Trust your heart, your soul, your calling. Trust those who love you, and those who have been there, and listen to their wisdom. Trust, trust, trust.


6. It won’t replace your need for self-care and rest

Our culture does not encourage good self-care. We are driven by money and working hours. We measure value in terms of financial worth or dedication to a cause. We are quick to project our dysfunction onto others under the banner of justice or entitlement, and slow to examine ourselves and improve our inner life. Living vocationally without self-care and rest will lead to burn out.

Self-care means working out what you need in place in order to flourish. It’s about being grounded, centred and self-aware. Only those who are self-aware can become truly other-aware, and those who are committed to self-care will be able to give much more in their service of others.

If you need time alone, take it.
If you need time with friends or family, take it.
If you need 12 hours of sleep a night, take it.
If you need to cook or run or garden or read in order to stay sane, do it.
If you need holidays and fun and parties and nights out and good food and slow coffees and trashy TV shows and spa days and long walks and intimacy and space and laughter and tears, then do it. Do it all.

Take it. Do it. Regularly and as a rhythm of life, and not just as an occasional treat. If you don’t get this right, your life-giving vocation will slowly suffocate you.


7. Some vocations are more important than others

All of us will have multiple vocations. Some of these will be about jobs and tasks. Others will be about relationships and roles we have. I have vocations, among others, to be a mum, a wife, a friend, a priest, a vicar, a spiritual director.

And these vocations have to be weighed and balanced against one another. Usually, they hold together in a harmonising tension. Sometimes they don’t. And when they clash, some of them have to take priority.

My vocation to parenthood will always trump my vocation to a particular job. If my kids need me in one place, and my job needs me in another, my kids win. The job can wait: the work will still be there.

Sometimes, one vocation will trump another. Never make the mistake of treating them as equal, or of getting the priority wrong.


8. It will challenge your sense of entitlement

In a culture of entitlement, how do we discern living from luxury? How do we stand apart from everything around us that tells us to fight for what we deserve? How do we stop the language of entitlement from creeping into our language of vocation?

These are big questions for me. I am aware, in myself and those around me, of a creeping narrative of entitlement. I am entitled to days off, to holidays, to a good standard of housing, to a regular stipend, to affordable childcare…

These things enable me to live out my vocation effectively and freely, and I am grateful for them.

But I am also called to service and self-sacrifice. For me, this means taking less pay than I would do in a non-vocational role. It means sometimes giving up an evening off to sit with someone who needs to be listened to. It means settling for less-than-perfect housing, and having no property as an investment for the future. It means working long hours around my children, so that I can give everything to them, as well as to my ‘work’, when they need me. This call to sacrifice constantly challenges me, as self-giving service and self-serving entitlement bicker constantly on my shoulder and clash in the most painful of ways.

The only way through this, for me, is prayer. On my knees, I remember again who I am, and what I have been called to. I remember to trust, to give, and to rest. And I remember to live flexibly and freely: in the joy of the present and not the fear of the future.

Don’t allow your sense of entitlement kill your vocation to service and sacrifice. Sometimes it’s right to fight for something. Other times we take the hit, in the name of vocation. And it’s always ok.


9. It might evolve… or die

Vocation doesn’t stay the same. As we grow and develop ourselves, so the tasks and jobs to which we are called will change. Thank God you or I are not the people we were ten years ago. Through a decade of growing pains our gifts and sense of purpose will have developed and grown. Sometimes this means taking new paths or reassessing what we’re doing.

Sometimes a vocation might die. This might feel joyfully liberating or intensely painful. Sometimes we choose its demise, and other times the decision is made for us. Sometimes it happens suddenly, and sometimes over a long period of time. Sometimes we might be left with a fear that we were wrong all along.

As vocation dies or evolves, so our need for self-care, rest and trust becomes even greater. These are times to go slowly, to reflect deeply, and to nourish your inner life. Winter is never death, but gestation.


10. It will bring you deep joy

When vocation works as it should – despite the hard graft and the self-giving and the times of feeling purposeless and exhausted – when it goes well, it feels as if you’re soaring on air. And perhaps this is a good clue to discovering and renewing vocation: what brings you deep joy? What leaves you feeling as if you’re soaring? What makes your heart sing?

On any of this, I might be wrong, and this list is not exhaustive, so do comment below on what you’d change or add.

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“Called” or “named”? Finding language of vocation for the second half of life

I recently caught up with my wonderful Spiritual Director, and we had what might be considered a “bread and butter” SD session around discernment, vocation, calling and desire. In the interest of working out loud, what follows is some of my ongoing reflection on what we shared. Some of it is pertinent to me personally, and some of it is more hypothetical and related to my interest in the vocations of others (it is, of course, what I, as a Priest, Spiritual Director, Assistant DDO, parent, and friend spend a large amount of my time talking about!). However, I’ve written entirely in the first person below, to enable these reflections to be less abstract.


We started by talking about vocation and some of the questions I wrestle with: for myself or for others. A list of these questions might look like this:

How do I make good decisions?
How do I discern where I am supposed to be?
How do I discern what I am supposed to do?
How do I discern who I am supposed to be?
How do I plan for the future?
How do I prepare for opportunities that are as yet, unseen?
How do I know when it is right to disrupt my settledness, to deviate from a particular path, to try something new or to recommit to something old?
What do I mean when I say “God has called me”?
Is it possible to go against God’s call?
Is it possible to find I have put myself, by choice, into the wrong place?
When it comes to discerning my vocation, is it possible to make a mistake? 
Will I mishear or misunderstand what is being asked of me?

Looking at this list, these questions are mostly concerned with the future. They are anxious questions. They assume that there are “right” paths and “wrong” paths. They fear being left behind or making mistakes. They assume that there is little value in the present moment; that I exist almost wholly for some future destiny; that the best is yet to come. They are questions that are anxious to manipulate time, to control outcomes and to impose a plan on my life.

I have been shaped by the theory, first talked of by Jung but taught more extensively in terms of spirituality by Richard Rohr, that we live life in two halves, summarised as thus:

The first half of life is concerned with establishing my place in the world. I am concerned with discovering who I am and what my life’s aims are. Rohr describes this as building a container that will hold life for me.

The second half of life is about stripping away this identity and the security it brings. It’s about finding a deeper sense of purpose, and being less concerned with myself, at least on a superficial level. If the first half of life is about building the container, the second half of life is about filling that container.

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In terms of vocation, I am beginning to wonder whether the language of “calling” is a language for the first half of life. The questions listed above are first-half-of-life questions. This language, and these questions, assume that I have a particular task or destiny. They construct God as an omnipotent, omniscient being who has a plan for me and is waiting for me to respond to the divine beckon as I am led on through the next door.

There is nothing wrong with seeing vocation in this way. These questions are good and noble, and the language of “calling” is a helpful way to articulate them. But it is a language for building the container, not for filling it. It is a language that develops self awareness, enables experience, discovers God, builds trust, and teaches about failure and success.

What happens when this language has run its course?
How do I think of vocation as I journey towards the second half of life?
How do I articulate these issues without using the language of “calling”?

Suddenly, vocation becomes much harder to articulate. Language of “calling” is safe, secure, tangible, definite. Beyond this, the language I use to talk about vocation becomes much more intuitive, ethereal, and elusive. It becomes a language of being, loving, and just knowing.

And if the language of “calling” and the questions I started with are concerned with the future, so being, loving, and just knowing are a language for the present moment. Talking about vocation in this way slows us down and draws us back. It offers a pause in which we can rest and listen.

No longer is vocation about fear, anxiety or anticipation of what might happen, but about security and trust with what just is. Perhaps vocation, in part, is about the gift of the present moment. Perhaps this is an articulation of vocation in the second half of life.

And so when decisions demand an answer, when the future is suddenly the present, how do I discern what next? Vocation in the second half of life is not about a five year plan or a response to a call. Instead, it’s about attentiveness, faithfulness, and being present to what is happening now. If vocation is rooted in God-given desire (and I think it is) then the dominant question for vocation is “what do I desire now?” and not “what do I think I might desire in 6 months or 5 years?”

And so what of a vocational language for the second half of life? Along with being, loving and just knowing, I’d like to try out naming for a while.

But now thus says the Lord,
   he who created you, O Jacob,
   he who formed you, O Israel:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
Isaiah 43:1

And so here’s a second-half-of-life vocational question for the present moment:

What and who defines my identity and my purpose right now?

And I suspect that the answer is rooted in God’s tender loving naming of me.

Now my heart’s desire is to know you more
To be found in you and known as yours
To possess by faith what I could not earn
All-surpassing gift of righteousness
From ‘Knowing You (All I Once Held Dear)’ by Graham Kendrick

That seems like a good place to root any exploration of vocation. But this is just the start. If you’re reading this then I want to know what you think. Let me know!