Picking Apart the Concept

Do You Have a Calling?

David Stone
Alexander the Great Mosaic / Naples National Archaeological Museum
Alexander the Great Mosaic / Naples National Archaeological Museum

Have you got a calling? A mission you feel compelled to pursue? I have. Mine’s writing off-key. The first time I put pen to lined, school paper, my story was about interracial romance between teenagers. In 1961.

Stories began escalating in my head when I was thirteen and have pestered me ever since.

Later, I began to wonder, is the common wisdom true? Is it always wise to follow that call?

My Totally Unearned Connection to Greatness

Alexander the Great and Edgar Allan Poe followed their callings, and taking what became of them as evidence, following through on a mission may not be the best thing for you and/or the world at large.

Stirring the chemistry of Peter McCarthy, my fictional hero, pumping blood into his veins, air into is lungs, I volunteered stories from my own life and let him mess around with them. 

Look, I skipped the failures and embarrassments, like when I related to Richard Brautigan’s imagining himself dead and unable to attract a female fly, and also when I sent my poems off to a publisher by parcel post, slower than the Pony Express, to save a couple dollars, and flattered myself that the delay meant my verses were being read, having entranced the editors.

Yes, I used Peter to pursue my calling, and I’ll miss him if I drop it.

But as some wag has surely jested at Keebler, that’s the way the cookie crumbles. Time to sweep up and muddle along.

Castles are built and torn down. A life proceeds from birth to salvage and destruction as a kind of rickety vehicle you might have some fun with, if you’re lucky and you want it.

Young, you’re ordered to take the road ahead seriously, like you have a mission you must discover or risk wasting your precious resources on frivolous distractions. 

That message was feverishly drummed into my generation. 

In retrospect, though, all that bloated, high-sounding garbage just sucks the zip out of life.

A Mission in Life

Alexander the Great: Seven Letter Word Beginning with A

Alexander the Great had a mission, he had work. His calling amounted to slaughter on a scale surpassing humbler comprehension.

You and I don’t have any impulse at all like that, no matter how crowed and smelly the subway gets. Even absent empathy, we’d tire of the carnage once it became same old, same old.

But Alexander never got bored, by all accounts, with ravaging communities, ethnic groups, enclaves, families, etc. It was in his blood and bones, like anyone else granted a mission by God or gods. 

On the positive side, Alexander’s gift made him an efficient and, according to historians, praiseworthy mass murderer who dragged a red ribbon of terror from Greece to India in the Fourth Century, BCE.

You probably have too much decency in your heart to be Alexander. Not many, really, are born both heartless and intensely cruel.

The man, leveraging power inherited from his assassinated father, did pretty much nothing but oversee, hands on, brutal wars until he was poisoned at the tender age of thirty-three.

That, in my opinion, is misspent youth. You and I may make clown-worthy messes of our lives, but we don’t leave behind a river of blood streaming between chopped body parts, do we?

Is Having a Calling Overrated?

Misperception warps into birth when we find something we like to do enough that we practice it even if we’re paid little or nothing for our efforts — writing online is a wonderful example — a big sacrifice and a revelation in a culture crippled by crazy capitalist infusions of wisdom.

For example, while Poe drank himself silly, watching the love of his life separate body from soul at the grinding pace of a glacier, leaving him an empty tank only drinking could refill, the fact that he wrote poetry and stories was taken to mean he had a calling.

But what if he really just had to get away from the horror, hated the idea of day labor and was so socially inept he dealt with pain by rolling it over into words, most of them indirect?

We know Poe couldn’t cut it as a military man, God bless him. 

As far as we can tell, apart from writing, he loved only his sickly and beautiful Virginia, booze and gambling, but none of these are acceptable as a calling.

What if writing was the only thing he had the gift for doing well?

Fans Swoon

The public loves you for your work — after you die, while during your miserable life, as your legs and arms are taking you mysteriously through the streets of Baltimore, they let you collapse into the chilling mud alone, and most don’t give a damn if you ever get up or not, maybe because you’re an impolite pain everyone avoids like crabgrass when you’re sober. 

But they love what you write. You’ve got a calling, a mission to fill pages until the next hotshot comes along. That’s your consolation, the calling that redeems you. Got that, Mr. Poe?

Recipe for Greatness

When you look at the record, you find the recipe most likely to earn what fans anoint as a calling, like painting masterpieces or sending savage troops into battle, is enthusiasm for a skill folded like whipped egg whites into an abundant opportunity to practice it.

It helps if you have a rich Daddy, obviously, as both Alexander and Edgar the Greats did.

Others, equally gifted, lack the time to pursue their callings and end up working at the mall, instead of pounding away at a mission. 

The Mission that Made Alexander Great

Let’s take up bloodthirsty Alexander the Great, the man with a mission, again.

Tutored by his father (also a ruthless, unfeeling mass murderer), given unlimited opportunities to practice his craft after Dad was taken up to heaven, Alex became a juggernaut, doing little but leading slaughters and planning to lead slaughters all his grownup years, which — praise the lord — were mercifully few.

You need that enthusiasm for killing on a large scale plus the chance to do it without serious obstacles to become Great.

That’s the point. Historians love that stuff. They fall all over themselves finding cool things to say about Alexander, excusing his most notable quality, the mental defect that rendered him unable to let the suffering of others dull his pleasure in killing them.

The Great Need Your Help

Or maybe the secret is that the rest of the world has an uncanny knack, a mission, if you will, to attract the brutality of the rich and powerful, but not to hold it against them.

It still takes two to tango, n’est-ce pas?

In the modern context, we still vote into leadership candidates propped up by prickly oligarchs who’d let you die in the cold on the street, soaked in urine and mental illness, don’t we?

Somebody should write a book about that. The critics could fawn over it or take the opportunity to show off their own verbal prowess by attacking it, all in the game. 

Probably, someone already has, and if it attracted critics, they treated themselves to the fantasy that art is actually about themselves. You see that stuff in the New York Times every day.

No, instead of a mission, give me a rickety vehicle and the exculpating blindness of historians.

Nobody ever wanted to poison me enough to go through with it. Well, maybe one or two did but lacked conviction or opportunity.

As for killing, I declined when offered the unfettered opportunity by Lyndon Johnson’s proxy, at the risk of my own freedom, alienating friends and family and leaving scar tissue like an emotional relief map everywhere.

But Jesus, I had fun, sadness and adventure. And I assigned whatever he wanted of it, run through the filters, to Peter. Now, Peter, he had a calling.

 

I gave it to him, so it would stop nagging at me.

 

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