For years I’ve struggled with what it is I’m supposed to be doing during my time here on Earth. I’ve talked in previous posts about many of the things I’ve done: union and community organizing, radio and podcasting, raising my kids. I’ve also talked about things I’d like to do, chief among them some kind of religious position, like being an interfaith chaplain or a minister-without-the-supernatural, which isn’t a real title in any church I’ve heard of.
Over the years, I’ve had conversations with a few important people in my life, particularly my friend Mike Roberts, about the idea of vocation or calling – the concept of a core quality or need that runs like a thread through life. For example, I initially thought mine was communicating with people. That seemed to make sense in the context of my various jobs, from organizing to media to music. I figured my main purpose was to talk to people in one way or another, usually to bring them together for some shared goal.
Several years ago, though, someone said a single sentence to me that completely changed my view of my vocation, and helped me clarify what I want to spend my life doing. I don’t mean that this person pointed to a specific job. Rather, he illuminated what my future needs to contain.
The person in question in John Holt. He’s a Methodist minister on Cape Cod. When I knew him, he was a Methodist minister in Canandaigua, NY. He was famous in our church for the crazy things he’d do – riding a bike down the center aisle of the sanctuary with a rubber chicken in the basket, for example. He’d left the steel industry and gone to divinity school, heeding his own calling. Then he dropped out of the ministry and went into non-profit administration, before deciding that a church was where he needed to be again. By coincidence, his church was very close to the town on Cape Cod where my parents briefly lived. So when I visited them, I asked them to invite John over, because he seemed like someone I needed to talk to.
At the time I was trying yet again to decide what to do with my life, and whether I should try to finish my undergrad degree so I could go to divinity school, either at a traditional university or somewhere like the Buddhist university Naropa in Colorado. I told John about my difficulties figuring out my purpose, and that’s when he dropped the bombshell:
“I’ve always thought, ever since I knew you as a teenager, that you need a job where you get paid to love people.”
(cue dramatic music)
Just like that, in that one moment, so much about my life became clear.
Now, as any of you who’ve followed my exploits over the past few years will know, that realization hasn’t led to a clear path. I’ve bounced around the country a lot since I had that conversation, and I’ve had quite a few jobs.
I know, though, that as I work out my life in the coming years, my main focus is on loving people, and on helping to build intentional communities where people feel safe to love and support one another. I’ll probably never lose my attachment to doing that in a religious setting, though at this point, given both my atheism and my lack of an undergraduate degree, I probably won’t do that formally. I could be wrong, but I just don’t see myself finishing my degree and then going to grad school, especially given my intention to stay here in central Pennsylvania till my kids graduate from high school in 10 years.
Instead, I’m trying as hard as I can to create intentional communities, whether that means the poetry series I started here, or the store where I now work (which is more a cultural hub and meeting place than just a store), or among my family and friends. As I look back on the 23 years since I graduated from high school, it seems clear that’s been a theme running through all that time.
I still hope to do things that are even closer to that core vocation, and I think I will. In the meantime, I’m content to always ask myself how what I’m doing is contributing to the goal of loving people and helping them love themselves and one another. I mess up a lot, like anyone, but I feel that if I can keep returning to this essential concept, I can stay on a path that will result in a life well lived.