It can take a long time to become yourself.
I was in my early thirties when I first began to question my calling, teaching at a university and doing it reasonably well. But I felt stifled by the confines of academic life. A small voice inside was calling me toward something unknown and risky, yet more congruent with my own truth. I couldn't tell, however, whether the voice was trustworthy, whether this truer life I sensed stirring within me was real or within reach.
Then I ran across the old Quaker saying "Let your life speak." I found the words encouraging, and I thought I understood what they meant: "Let the loftiest truths and values guide you. Live up to those demanding standards in everything you do." I believed I was being exhorted to live a life of high purpose, as did Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and Mahatma Gandhi.
Clinging fearfully to my academic job even though it was a bad fit, I tried to teach the way I imagined my heroes would. The results were rarely admirable, often laughable, and sometimes grotesque, as when I caught myself preaching to students instead of teaching them. I had simply found a "noble" way to live a false life, imitating my heroes instead of listening to my heart. Vocation the way I was seeking it, had become a grim act of will.
Today, some 30 years later, I've found deep joy in my vocation as a writer, traveling teacher, and activist. And "Let your life speak" means something different to me now. Vocation, I've learned, doesn't come from willfulness. It comes from listening. That insight is hidden in the word vocation itself, which is rooted in the Latin for "voice." Before I tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen for what my life wants to do with me.
I've come to understand vocation not as a goal to be achieved but as a gift to be received—the treasure of true self I already possess. Vocation doesn't come from a voice "out there" calling me to become something I'm not. It comes from a voice "in here" calling me to be the person I was born to be.
Accepting this birthright gift of self turns out to be even more demanding than attempting to become someone else. I've sometimes responded to that demand by ignoring the gift or hiding it or fleeing from it, and I don't think I'm alone. An old Hasidic tale reveals both the universal tendency to want to be someone else and the importance of becoming one's self: Rabbi Zusya, when he was an old man, said, "In the coming world, they will not ask me, 'Why were you not Moses?' They will ask me, 'Why were you not Zusya?'"
When we lose track of our true self, how can we pick up the trail? Our lives speak through our actions and reactions, our intuitions and instincts, our feelings and bodily states, perhaps more profoundly than through words. If we can learn to read our own responses, we'll receive the guidance we need to live more authentic lives. The soul speaks only under quiet, inviting, and safe conditions. If we take some time to sit silently listening, the soul will tell us the truth about ourselves—the full, messy truth. An often ignored dimension of the quest for wholeness is the need to embrace what we dislike about ourselves as well as what we're proud of, our liabilities as well as our strengths.
We can learn as much about who we are from our limits as from our potentials. For years I thought that becoming a college president was the right thing to do with my life, despite the fact that I'm too thin-skinned for the job. But when I embraced this limitation and found work where thin skin—let's call it sensitivity—is an asset, not a liability, the fact that I'd never become a college president no longer felt like a failing. Instead it felt like a homecoming, a return to my true self, full of peace and joy.
We can move toward such homecomings by seeking clues to vacation in childhood memories. When I was a boy, I spent hours putting together little books on how airplanes fly. For a long time I thought that meant I wanted to be a pilot. But a few years ago, I saw that what I'd really wanted all along was to write books.
Our highest calling is to grow into our own authentic selfhood, whether or not it conforms to some image of what others think we ought to be. In doing so, we find not only the joy that every human being seeks but also our path of authentic service in the world. True vocation joins self and service, says theologian Frederick Beuchner, who defines vocation as "the place where your deep gladness meets the world's deep need."
The world's deep needs are met daily not only by caring doctors and inspiring teachers but by good parents, good plumbers, good hairdressers, good friends. And as all those people know, the gladness of authentic vocation is always laced with pain. Ask any parent suffering through the travails of her child's teenage years.
But the pain that comes from doing the right job well and the pain that tells us we're on the wrong track are different—and the soul knows the difference. When we're on the wrong track, the soul feels violated and abused and cries out for change. But when we suffer from doing the right job well, the soul still feels fulfilled, because it knows how to take this kind of suffering and use it to make meaning and extend the heart's reach.
This emphasis on self and gladness has nothing to do with selfishness. The Quaker writer Douglas Steere said that the ancient human question "Who am I?" leads inevitably to the equally important question "Whose am I?" since there is not selfhood outside of relationship.
When we answer the "Who am I?" question as honestly as we can, we will be more authentically connected to the community around us and will serve more faithfully the people whose lives we touch—for the gift of self is, finally, the only gift we have to give.