There’s A Call For You

An Article by David Cornfield

Once upon a time, in a not so far off land, there lived a little boy whose name was David. David lived with his Mom and his Dad and his two younger brothers in a two bedroom flat in a rather large village that was known to its inhabitants as Toronto.

David was a very good boy. David was such a good boy, his Grade One teacher felt compelled to write a note to his parents informing them what a treasure he was. In emerald green ink on shiny vellum notepaper, she spelled out his many virtues: "clever, sweet, gentle, polite, level-headed, sense of humour, never shows off .... altogether one of the best little boys I have ever had the pleasure to teach".

And why was our lad so good? Was he an angel sent from heaven? Was he made of finer stuff than all those nasty little children who were bad? No such luck. David was good because David was afraid.

David was especially afraid of his father. Dad walked around the house angry a lot of the time, glowering, raising his voice, slamming doors, or stomping up and down the stairs in his heavy work boots. Now let us be clear about this. Dad was never physically violent. Not ever. Not even once. But Dad was very scary and David was thoroughly intimidated. David decided very early on that didn't want Dad's angry energy coming in his direction, so he practiced what he called parent psychology. Basically, the way you avoid anger and get the goodies is by being good.

When David was five or six years old, a benevolent princess (cleverly disguised as an older cousin who lived in the flat upstairs), started taking him to the library. David loved the library. The library was chockablock with books, every one of them a magic carpet to imaginary lands where a good boy could indulge his desire to do bad things. And the world David most wanted to be transported to was the world of fairy tales, a fantastic world where the hero, usually small or weak or despised, always prevailed against the villains who were witches or giants or monsters.

Fairy tales were David's saving grace. Fairy tales gave David a secret hiding place where his hopes, desires and dreams could be nurtured and kept alive. As soon as he was able to read on his own, he promised himself that he would read every fairy tale in the library's collection. And he kept his promise. He may not have read them all, but he read most of them - stories from every land, every culture, every tradition, every mythology. He would devour three books in the two weeks between library visits and then rush eagerly back for three more - not because he'd promised himself he would read them, but because the stories spoke to deep needs within his soul.

David's favourite stories were about giants. David knew all about giants. He lived with a scary giant who stomped around in big boots, shaking the ground and intimidating the locals. It was comforting to read stories that said it didn't matter how huge and powerful the giant was because giants were also slow and clumsy and easily outwitted by clever heroes who were small and quick. If the hero managed to steal the giant's seven-league boots, so much the better.

When people asked David what he wanted to be when he grew up, he would tell them that he wanted to be a farmer, or a pilot or (later) an architect. The truth is he didn't give a fig about being a farmer or a pilot or an architect. He was just being a good boy, giving people the answers he thought they wanted. The real answer to their question was hidden within his favourite fairy tales: he wanted to be a giant killer, ridding the world of bullies who misused their power to terrorize and intimidate. It was not just a coincidence that his name was David. His destiny was to slay Goliath and become the king.

You might be tempted to dismiss the secret wish of an eight year old boy as a silly childhood dream. If you did, you would not be reckoning with the power of a vision. Twenty years later, after graduating near the top of his class in law school, David turned down highly lucrative offers from most of the major law firms in Toronto, choosing instead to accept a poorly paid position with the Department of Justice in Ottawa. Why? Because even twenty years later, he was still a wannabe giant killer, hoping that Ottawa would be a place where he could right wrongs and incapacitate bullies.

After being in Ottawa for three years, fate sent him another story about a giant killer. This time it was Lorenzaccio, a play about a man who determines to make the world a better place by assassinating the local tyrant. The problem: the tyrant is protected by a  phalanx of bodyguards. The solution: find a way to become a part of the tyrant's entourage. By the end of the play, Lorenzaccio has easy access to the tyrant and is in a position to kill him, but realizes that he only gained the tyrant's trust by participating in the tyrant's tyranny and that, in the process, he has become as tyrannical as the tyrant. He decides that if the world is truly going to be a better place, he has to kill both himself and the tyrant.

Sitting in the darkened theatre, David suddenly realized that the play he was watching matched the life he was living. The compromises he was making to stay in his job were feeling less and less like compromises and more and more like daily routines. Each day he was becoming more like the tyrants he had come to slay. By the time the curtain came down and the lights came up, he had decided to resign his job. In the soul searching that followed, he realized that many of his colleagues in Ottawa were people just like him - talented people who wanted to make the world a better place. They came across as bullies because they were exercising impersonal power. They couldn't see the faces of the people they were trying to help, so they didn't know when to stop.

Thinking that the answer might lie in exercising power more personally, David took a position as a staff lawyer in a storefront legal aid clinic, bringing his services directly to disadvantaged people. Ten years later, frustrated with fighting for political and social reform, he came to the conclusion that people had to change psychologically before their institutions would be amenable to change, so he left law to become a psychotherapist.

What we have here is a story about someone whose life is given direction by a powerful vision. Where does such a vision come from? There are at least two possible answers to this question. One way is to see David as having forged his vision out of the raw material of his circumstances and his personal resources:

David felt intimidated by his father, he identified with the predicament of a small protagonist oppressed by a giant, and, with the help of fairy tales, he formulated the role of giant killer as his personal mission in life.

Another way to come at the story is from the perspective of a calling to a vocation:

David was put on this earth to be a giant killer, his family circumstances were designed to encourage him to identify with victims of oppression, it was no accident that he discovered giant killer fairy tales, and the vision that he came to was not something he formulated but rather a message he received by listening to what his life was asking of him.

These two approaches have very different implications for the search for a vision. As the sole author of my vision, I have complete freedom to pursue whatever goals I choose, subject only to practical limitations of opportunity and resources. The downside of all this freedom is that it offers me very little guidance as to how to make my choices, especially if I am someone whose resources and opportunities are extensive. If, on the other hand, I'm here for a reason, there is one thing I am meant to be doing. My task is to find out what that one thing is, and do it. What I am looking for does not have to be invented by me. It already exists.

In the Western world before the scientific revolution, no one questioned that we had a role to play in the universe. We thought of ourselves as being at the centre of the universe, both physically and metaphorically. We were at the centre of the universe because we were the focus of God's attention, securely situated within a divine hierarchy. We were on the planet to serve God's will as revealed by king and church and in return we would be nurtured by a benevolent God.

When science wrenched the earth from its position at the centre of the universe, demoting it to the lowly status of an undistinguished planet revolving about a minor star at the fringe of one of countless galaxies in an unbounded universe, there was a loss of faith in our personal significance within a larger scheme. We became an insignificant speck in a vast expanse of nothingness.

By the time Descartes arrived on the scene, scientific investigation had progressed to the point where it was beginning to look as if the entire universe might be a clockwork mechanism where everything that happens is totally predictable by mathematical formulas, and human choice is an illusion. Descartes was not willing to accept that he had no free will, so he cast about looking for a way for free will and the clockwork universe to co-exist. He did it by postulating that mind was separate from body, such that body was subject to the rules, but mind was not.

Descartes salvaged free will but he did so at the expense of meaning. Exempting mind from the rules that govern the universe takes human behaviour outside the order of the universe. In the Cartesian universe, human behaviour is no longer subject to the rules. We are free to make up our own minds about what we want to do and when we want to do it, without regard for any obligation or role we might have within a larger context. It leaves us disconnected, without purpose or direction.

Descartes' fears of a clockwork universe proved to be unfounded. The predictability of the universe turned out to be confined to a very narrow range of controlled experimental situations. There was no need to take us out of the order of the universe to preserve free will. And let's face it, it never made a lot of sense to suggest that humans are the only beings in the universe to get a free ride. Every living entity has a role to play in the larger scheme of things. Even the humble black fly has a role to play. No, the black fly is not here solely to irritate humans. Black flies are here to pollinate blueberries. Bees can't pollinate blueberries because they are too big to get inside blueberry flowers. More black flies in the spring means more blueberries in the summer, and, since blueberries are a staple in the diet of bears, more black flies also means more bears walking around with full stomachs instead of hungry bears attacking campsites looking for food.

If a black fly has a role to play, surely human beings have a purpose as well. The words person and personal both come from the Latin word "persona" meaning role. The universe is personal in the sense that every person has a role to play within the larger context of the universe, and each of us has some purpose, some package to deliver

How do we find out what our role is? Little David asked his mother that question one day while they were standing in the kitchen of their two bedroom flat. Mom looked up from making dinner, thought for a moment, then answered by saying that she didn't know for sure, but she suspected that if what you are doing makes you happy, it has something to do with fulfilling your purpose. Joseph Campbell said the same thing a bit more poetically when he said "follow your bliss". For "bliss" you could substitute interest, excitement, passion, motivation, enthusiasm, satisfaction, desire. Follow them for they are indicators that you are heading in the right direction. The intensity of David's passion for fairy tales was an indication that in some way reading those stories was connected to his reason for being.

We all profess to want meaning in our lives. At the same time, we resist the meaning that is there because we are not so sure we want to be subject to obligation. Having a role to play means that we are not here just to do what we feel like doing, when we feel like doing it. We are here to respond to what the world is asking of us. We are subject to an obligation to something larger than ourselves. Answering the call of our lives means service, obligation, and a giving up of self-centredness. It means tuning in and surrendering rather than making decisions. And it is by surrendering to our purpose that we will feel our excitement and find our satisfaction. We are given our free will in order to be able to surrender it and to do what we are meant to be doing. If we are to feel satisfied, we need to ask ourselves "What is the world asking of me? What is my vocation (in the root sense of something I feel called to do)? What is my life's work"?

Life is a call to adventure, and, if you read fairy tales, you will know that adventures entail risk, commitment, hard work, perseverance, endurance, and the possibility of failure. You don't have to answer the call to adventure, but it is when we resist the call that we get depressed, numbed out, dissatisfied and our lives feel meaningless. As Sam says to Frodo in Lord of the Rings, the interesting stories, the stories worth telling, (and by implication, the lives worth living) are the ones where the protagonists take on the challenges that lie in their path rather than stepping around them. Let yourself know your secret wish, the desire of your soul. Follow your bliss. Go on the adventure. 

David Cornfield

There's a Call for You is a revised version of an article first published as Secret Wishes in Eye for the Future Magazine, November 1997

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