Follow Your Bliss
"I really care about how humans smell smells in the environment and how insects smell smells in the environment, and how they smell humans." -- Dr. Leslie Vosshall, a molecular neurobiologist at Rockefeller University, as heard on the Nature podcast.
I got to do one of my favorite things in the world over the past few weeks: dress up in heavy chest waders and slog through sticky, stinky marsh muck, craning to see the next plot marker over head-high thorny vines and occasional poison ivy, during a humid Mid-Atlantic heat wave, carrying a heavy backpack, a clipboard and pencil, for the biennial emergent vegetation survey. Ah, what bliss! My ecologist friend thanked me profusely and repeatedly, and I just kept on assuring her that I love this! But she says -- and maybe this won't surprise anyone but me -- she can't get anyone else to go out more than once on this project. To me it is almost as hard to grasp that most people would pay money NOT to have to lie down and wet their hair in muddy water to stave off heat exhaustion (whereas I just sit there with my phone trying to get a good enough picture of the snails crawling all over my waders to enable me to identify the species) as it is for me to believe in those old Merry Maids commercials, with the women dancing around with feather dusters and huge smiles on their faces ("house cleaning may not get you going, but it really moves us!"). *shudder*
And that is how I know that this is my vocation (and in fact, I wrote "study of the natural world" into my Rule of Life as a hermit). Not merely that I love it, but that my love for it is weird. It is peculiar to me. House cleaning is not my vocation (if you ask me, enjoying house cleaning is weird). I try to keep my house reasonably clean, but I definitely don't love it. I do love being a hermit, living a prayerful life in substantial solitude. I love it so much that it was totally worth it for me to retire with half a pension -- so I'm not going to be paying Merry Maids to dance their dusters around my house, either.
In secular culture "vocation" is generally equated with "career," which means it is limited to one dominant kind of activity that pays well enough to support the other aspects of life. Some women (and fewer men) consider parenting to be a vocation, but again, generally that implies that it's a full-time job, in this case supported by the other parent's paid work. In the Catholic Church, on the other hand, "vocation" means a "religious vocation;" e.g., priest, nun, hermit, that sort of thing.
Both definitions are more limited than the sense in which I understand vocation. My vocation, for example, includes being a solitary religious contemplative, and it also includes direct study of the natural world around me. I don't get paid for either of these aspects of my vocation. Then again, to one who loves God, all of life is religious life; and if one discerns one's true vocation in prayer and the humility of clear-eyed self-knowledge, then that vocation is a religious vocation, whether it is the priesthood, or nursing, or painting, or football, or molecular neurobiology and the study of how insects smell humans. And/or, I should say, since vocation may as well branch out like streams in a marsh (some paid, some not) as flow together in a single, purposeful channel. Depth vs. breadth is just one of the aspects of vocation to be taken into account in the discernment process.
I'm not sure I've ever actually read a whole book by Joseph Campbell, but his phrase "follow your bliss" lodged itself in my psyche many years ago. I am deeply convinced that God calls us through joy and passion, and that He calls us one at a time, individually and entirely uniquely. We are so used to thinking of, and hearing about, the virtuous life as battling our natural inclinations, and sure, in another sense that's true, too. But let me just take the example that St. Paul uses in his letter to the Philippians (3:13-14), that of the athlete single-mindedly pursuing victory. Elite athletes push themselves through pain and exhaustion and frustration. They must battle their natural inclinations to rest, to give up, to settle for good enough, to have one more cookie or one more beer, to skip practice in favor of hanging out with the exciting new boyfriend or girlfriend, to roll over and go back to sleep on a cold morning. Why do they do it? Because they have a passion for the sport, surely. Because no joy, for them, compares to winning that gold medal or tournament. Because playing at the utmost limits of their ability is elating, exhilarating, and nothing else can compare to it, for them.
There is no real contradiction between self-denial and self-realization. If we are doing what we are called, what we are uniquely designed and motivated, to do, then we will find the burden light, we will naturally want to press on toward the goal. But it's still a burden and a pressing on. We still have to discipline ourselves. It's just that we give ourselves a far better chance if we are disciplining ourselves for the sake of something we love and want, something that we find compelling. Bad habits still have a strong pull, especially when they are first challenged. We are naturally inclined to anger, to sloth, to gluttony, to lust, etc., and we do have to battle those inclinations. But we give ourselves more of a fighting chance if we can oppose them with whatever sparks bliss in us.
And what sparks bliss in each one of us is totally unique. Each one of us has a combination of history, temperament, gifts, interests, strengths and weaknesses, as unique as voice and fingerprint. None of us is ever going to be able to fulfill all of our unique potential. Most of us are so side-tracked, so early in life, by social expectations and the imperative of making a living that we have at best only a vague idea of our deep, unique vocation. And then again, vocation is not static. We grow and change and move on to new challenges and new circumstances. But for a whole lot of people, this pandemic has blasted so many of our expectations and so many ways of making a living, that this might be a fine opportunity for a lot of people to think about turning in a completely different direction.
I'll leave you with this gem that I just discovered recently: Wishcraft, by Barbara Sher, whose unique vocation in life was to help other people discover their own unique vocations, and then find a way to follow them. What God makes you for and calls you to, God will make a way for you to do.
God bless you.