During the January blizzard in New York I found myself browsing in Barnes & Noble, wanting something to read before making my way back to the quirky but rather depressing youth hostel where I was staying at the time. I was drawn to a kind of book that I am not typically drawn to - 'Let your Life Speak' by Parker Palmer.
I'm not sure why I was drawn to it, except that it came highly recommended by a friend who I got talking to about books and who has similar reading tastes to myself. Its looks a bit of self-helpy and I loath self-help books. Secondly, its subtitle is 'Listening for the voice of vocation.' I've known for a long time that I want to be a clinical psychologist. Actually, I started out wanting to be a social worker, but found that when I mentioned this to people they made nasty jokes about social workers. Then I realised that psychologists have better working conditions, more academic training and er, more pay. I also realised that when I told people I wanted to be a psychologist they go, 'Oooooh' rather than, 'OMG, what do you want to do that for and did you hear the joke about the social worker and the rottweiller?!'
So why I, a psychology snob who loathes self-help books and isn't struggling with what to do in life (well, I'm struggling to complete my PhD, and to decide what clinical courses to apply for...but that hardly counts as a career or vocational crisis), would be drawn to such a book is something of an oddity. But no matter - I decided I wanted to read this book and I wasn't disappointed. What I met, was not self-help mumbo jumbo, but a wonderful reflection on what vocation is.
There is an old piece of Quaker advice which says, 'Let your Life Speak'. I didn't come across that saying in the Quakers though - it was a concept thoroughly preached on, taught and accepted in the evangelical-charismatic movement I was once part of. I have only ever interpreted this advice as letting one's life speak about one's faith, about God or about the gospel or some other wonderful idea. It was about not preaching one's highest aspirations, but rather living them - and perhaps hoping that others would follow suit.
Palmer turns this concept on its head. To let our lives speak is not about publically living out our highest ideals - but rather an inner journey of listening to one's life. The word vocation comes from the Latin word for voice (Robert, Ken and all the other Latin snobs, are you proud of me?!). Instead of telling our life what to say, we need to listen to the truths, values and desires of our true selves.
I think this living the true self is probably most dramatically demonstrated by people such as Martin Luther King, or Rosa Parks when she decided to live as a person of equal value and refused to sit in the 'black zone' of a bus. Its what our black friends taught us when they refused to live as though they were second class citizens, what our gay friends are teaching us in refusing to pretend they are straight, what our transgendered friends are teaching us in living outside of society's norms.
Now, what about me? I am, by most peoples' standards a rather conventional character with no real crises of identity to speak of. But as I pursue an ambitious career, as I focus myself on getting into a course where I can complete my clinical training - I have realised, that it might be very easy for me to loose sight of my true self in the process. My true self is not truly a wannabe clinical psychologist, but one that cares, one that questions systems that disempower people, one that is fundamentally insulted by inquality and one that sees value in people no matter who they are. There is an element of powerful rhetoric here, but I find I am never more alive than when working for the sake of others. And that is not something I need to be a clinical psychologist to do - that's something I am already, and something that I am becoming out of my true self.
I should remember that when I'm swotting up on clinical psychology, working far too much and giving up my Saturdays to get work experience in preparation for the application I intend to make to start clinical training next year. I could easily loose my true self and my vocation in pursuit of a career in clinical psychology. What I really need is to find a way to express my vocation with the way in which I work, not only in the future when I hope to be a high falutant shrink, but now as I struggle with the inevitable frustration of completing a PhD, applying for further training and getting a job to pay the bills when my funding runs out.
I discovered that the clinical psychologist I volunteer with (selling my soul, giving up Saturday morning lie-ins and generally exhausting myself) is a follower of Gandhi. I was browsing through the slides for a lecture he was giving on how his commitment to Gandhian philosophy impacts on how he works both as a psychologist and as a scientist. It was wonderfully challenging and a powerful integration of his faith/spirituality/personal beliefs and his career. I hope to get a chance to ask him some more about it and maybe I'll write some reflections on it later. It ties in quite nicely with some of Parker Palmer's ideas on vocation and my own thoughts as to my own need to listen to my inner vocation and let that emerge in my work and life.
Does anyone else have any thoughts about how they listen to their vocation, or how they struggle to live their vocation or whatever?