The poet, Mary Oliver, asks us, now from beyond, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
For young people, coming of age in a time of near-infinite debt and wealth inequality, imminent ecological collapse and rising tides of white nationalism, this is a relevant question. We know there is something we must do in the face of so much pain. Yet, many of us live in cities where the growth in cost of living is outpacing minimum wage many times over, making the question of short-term survival often more prominent.
With an educational system designed to lock young people into debt, and the subsequent professional careers that can lift them out of it, the idea of exploring one’s vocation can seem a privilege reserved for the few with unearned financial freedom. Yet, I propose, it is important to distinguish between a career/job/role and vocation. While someone might work at a grocery store, an insurance office or a housing non-profit, their vocation might be listening to elders, making beauty or growing food from seed.
Depth psychologist Bill Plotkin speaks of one’s “mythopoetic identity”, an idea that vocation, or, as he calls it, “soul work” lives in a realm beyond job titles and deliverables. It describes one’s niche within the human ecosystem, the contribution that only you can make. It reveals itself uniquely through your life experiences, social location and community.
This sounds like a nice idea, you might say, but how do I go about finding what my vocation might be? Being in one’s vocation is akin to an emotion, felt on the level of intuition and body. I believe we arrive to this embodied knowing through two steps:
1) Answering a call. The etymology of “vocation” comes from the Latin “vocare”, to call. Whether you might name it mystery, creator, God, intuition or none of these, the first step is listening to a longing, a call that comes from a bigger place than the separate self.
2) The mirror of community. There is an idea that we are the sum of the people we spend the most time with. It is these people who can mirror to us where our gifts are needed within our sphere of influence.
We each have a responsibility to be that mirror to others. When we see someone in their gifts, we can reflect it back to them, affirming the choices they are making and courage they are demonstrating. This might look like saying, “when we were in that meeting last week, the way you moved us through that conflict was so powerful. That is really one of your gifts, supporting people to find mutual understanding in moments of tension.”
Your vocation is inherently of service. It’s the place where “your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet,” says writer and minister Frederick Buechner. I’ve had many people ask me over the years “What can I do?” in reference to the intersecting social and ecological crises of our time. My response has become, “well what is it that you love to do?” Once you know that, “how might you direct that in support of those most impacted who are actively organizing for change?”
There is a universal human need to contribute to others, one that has kept our species alive through great tribulations. This need is met wholeheartedly when we act in our vocation. I believe that we can map this outwards to collective needs. Should we design a world that supports all to give themselves to their vocation, I believe we’d be living in a world where all needs are met: safety, community, love, support, shelter, water, food, self-expression... for all.
A final way to understand vocation is that at some level, each of us has a deep affinity for meeting particular needs in others. An artist might be attuned to meeting others needs for beauty, a listener to the need to be heard, a carer to love. The remarkable thing is that this affinity is revealed to us through aligning with our own joy. Civil rights leader Howard Thurman once said, “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs, ask yourself what makes you come alive. For the world needs people that have come alive.”
I’ll close with words a mentor once shared with me: May you find your gift, and make it your service, freely given with love.
About the Author: As a facilitator, coach and educator Morgan works at the intersection of community-building and political mobilization, striving to understand how stories shape human relationships, resilience, and revolutions. From her work with SustainUS, a youth-led non-profit working on climate justice internationally, she is passionate about facilitating youth organizing, personal growth, grief work and direct action, with a grounding in relationship, ritual and storytelling. Morgan is a resident of Canticle Farm, an interracial, interfaith, intergenerational community in occupied Ohlone territory (known as Oakland, CA). As a young woman with many intersecting privileges, Morgan is dedicated to working with fellow young people with wealth towards redistribution, as well as to showing up to build and contribute to cross-class and interracial work and community.