On Thursday night of last week, at a celebration to mark 10 years of thirdspace coaching, the organisation I founded in 2005, I spoke a little about events in my own life that had given rise to its founding. And I talked about the some of the people who’d been influential in inviting me to step in, in spite of my own fears and confusions, to what was beginning to call to me.
Our contemporary culture, at least for most of the past 150 years or so, has not given much credence to the idea of responding to a calling. Our narratives about work, and the practices that support it, are mostly oriented towards how to fit in to what our culture has designed for us, and how to get ahead. We learn, more or less successfully, how to mould ourselves to the categories already on offer in the world – lawyer, factory worker, administrator, school teacher, manager etc – and how to use these to try to get what we want: status, money, recognition, security. We’re caught, in this late-capitalist phase of our society, in a promise that was hatched for us by the early pioneers of industrialism – fit into our scheme, work hard, do what’s asked of you, and you’ll eventually get what you want and what you need.
It’s not hard to see the many ways in which this promise often does not work out, and the suffering that it causes when either the material benefits do not arrive, or when our hearts and souls are stunted by the repeated self-abandonment that fitting in can require of us.
And, beyond that, splitting off parts of us that don’t fit in means that what we each have to bring – the unique contribution of gifts and talents – rarely gets brought to the world. That matters way beyond words, because in the multiple crises of our times – crises of ecology, economics, health, meaning, belonging, and community – we need all the art, science, insight, compassion, pragmatism and wisdom we can muster.
And so, I said, it’s vitally important that we simultaneously cultivate a different kind of narrative about us and the world, and the practices to go with it. We could pay more attention, I argued, to what life is asking of us, which might be quite different from what we had imagined we would do, and which could take us far from the path we thought we were following when we began.
Responding to life’s call, which means being sensitive enough to listen to it and courageous enough to take action on it, is the first step in bringing what is each of ours to bring to the world. And we’re blessed by an explosion in technology which, if we’re wise enough to use it well, offers an amazing opportunity for each of us to share our contributions widely. We have more ways of distributing our writing, ideas, art, music and thinking than have been available to any generation before us, if we’re willing to step in.
We also have many reasons to be afraid. We’re afraid of being rejected (we might be). Afraid of our own (inevitable) insecurity. Afraid of not fitting in. Afraid it won’t work out (it might not). Afraid when we see others respond more to life than we are currently doing, and keen to have them fit in so we don’t feel so troubled.
And, often, we’re afraid to love.
Though it turns out that love, with all its risks, all the ways it undoes things, and all of the wholeness it can bring, is a powerful source for our own action and our own unfolding, and for our own responding to life, even when – especially when – we are most terrified.