Calling has long-standing roots in theistic spiritual traditions, often associated with being ‘called by God’ to a certain way of life or to a specific course of action. Existential psychologists have commented on how sometimes it feels like a situation is calling for its own response from us. In both cases, the source of the calling is attributed to someone or something beyond us. It’s a phenomenon that can feel like an evocative pull, tugging at something deep within us.
I’ve experienced this many times since becoming a Christian, a strange intuition that feels beyond me, prompting or leading me in a certain direction. Sometimes it seems very clear or inspiring, at others it’s more of a vague notion, a restlessness that compels me to move or change. I’ve often experienced it in coaching relationships too, an almost irresistible impulse to speak or act that feels like revelation, an energising compulsion from the situation itself.
It’s not magic, something I can make happen, something I can manufacture for myself. It’s sometimes unexpected, sometimes challenging and sometimes involves scary risk-taking. It’s not definitive either, something I can measure, test or prove in a lab. This can make the experience of calling feel mysterious, sometimes spiritual, a step in faith in response to a curious, invisible stimulus. It’s as if something ‘out there’ connects with something ‘in here’, setting up a dynamic resonance.
So how to apply this in leadership and coaching? How to listen for and discern calling in the midst of so many other tasks and preoccupations that clamour for our attention? How to weigh up calling in order to act wisely? In my experience, there is no simple formula. It’s mostly about learning to be still, to live with awareness, to tune into my intuition, to be sensitive to prompts from the situation itself, to experiment and see what happens, to be open to God in prayer.
I wish I could say I always follow this call. Sometimes I'm sceptical, sometimes I pull back for fear of embarrassment or failure. Nevertheless, I've seen and felt amazing things happen when I do listen and act. I would love to hear from others on this topic of calling. When have you felt called? What was the situation? What did the experience of calling feel like? What did you attribute the calling to? How did you act in response? What happened as a result?
‘For millennia, humanity has turned to myth and religion to answer our most profound questions, but in this new TV series, professor X uses science to explain…’ A provocative advert for a new cosmology show. The presenter is a talented physicist and gifted communicator and it does make compelling viewing. The thing that struck me most however was the writer's unquestioning confidence in the ability of science per se (a) to explain ‘our most profound questions’ and (b) to supersede alternative explanations.
This claim begs all sorts of important questions. For example, what are the most profound questions in life and what are the limits of the explanatory power of science? By curious coincidence, on the same day as reading this magazine advert, I also read a paper on Gestalt therapy by the late Ernest Becker, international lecturer in psychology, sociology and anthropology. In it, he posed a stark challenge to psychological therapies based on existential questions they cannot hope or begin to address.
‘We have this existential dilemma in the back of everything we do: this terrible anxiety about who we are and what we’re doing on this planet, what it means to have our name and our face; we keep running to the mirror to look at that face – we don’t really know who the person is…so we run back and take a pill or a drink, or we read a book, or we make love or call our mother long-distance or something. We don’t know what we’re doing here, and this is a source of great anxiety for us.’
He goes on. ‘We don’t know how we came to be here. Where do babies some from? ‘Sperm and egg’ I can hear you say. But it’s not an answer at all. We don’t know where babies come from. You get married, you’re sitting at table having breakfast – there are two of you – and a year later there’s somebody else sitting there. They just came literally out of nowhere and they keep growing in your environment. If you’re honest with yourself, you don’t know where they came from. It’s a total mystery.’
I find Becker's challenge refreshing and inspiring, his refusal to allow the totality of reality and meaning in human experience to be reduced to that which can be measured empirically. He challenged the notion that psychological explanations alone can be sufficient to address pressing and persistent questions about human origin, identity, meaning and purpose. Cosmology too explains many interesting and valuable things in the universe, but these are essentially spiritual questions that lie outside its scope.
Nick is a freelance coach, trainer and OD consultant specialising in reflective practice.