“It is devastating to feel trapped in a form of life where you feel utterly misplaced and all your effort is laboured; everything you do is done against the grain.  You take no pleasure or joy in what you do and your heart is haunted by alternative lives you will never have.”



Someone asked me recently:  “What is it that haunts you?”  I said: “I can tell you exactly; it is the sense of time slipping through my fingers like fine sand.  And there is nothing I can do to slow it.”   One of the Psalms prays: “O Lord, help me to see the shortness of life that I may gain wisdom of heart”.  As we get older, time seems to speed up.  The sense of transience haunts nearly every heart.  You feel that you could suddenly arrive at your last day incredulous that that was it; it was all over.

From time immemorial it has been one of the deepest longings of the human heart to strain against the erosion of one’s life, to learn a way of living and being that manages to find some stable ground within time, a place from where something eternal can be harvested from our disappearance.  This is what all art strives for: the creation of a living permanence.  It is what we are secretly doing when we become parents: endeavouring to maintain our continuity beyond our ending.  The harvesting of transience is what we also are attempting in choosing the form of life we live.   When we arrive on earth, we are provided with no map for our life-journey.  Only gradually, as our identity forms and we get an inkling of who we are, do possibilities begin to emerge that call us.   It is one of the weightiest decisions: to decide what to do with your life.  The challenge is to find a way of life that will be in harmony with your gifts and needs.

Behind each face there is a unique world that no one else can see.  This is the mystery of individuality.  The shape of each soul is different.  No one else feels your life the way you do.  No one else sees or hears the world as you do.  The creation of the individual is a divine masterpiece.  We are dreamed for a long time before we were born.  Our souls, minds  and hearts were fashioned in the divine imagination.   Such care and attention went into the creation of each person.  Given the uniqueness of each of us, it should not be surprising that one of the greatest challenges is to inhabit our own individuality and to discover which life-form best expresses it.

The great law of life is: be yourself.  Though this axiom sounds simple, it is often a difficult task.  To be yourself, you have to learn how to become who you are dreamed to be.  Each person has a unique destiny.  To be born is to be chosen.  There is something special that each of us has to do in the world.  If someone else could do it, they would be here and not us.  One of the fascinating questions is to decipher what one’s destiny is.  At the heart of each destiny is hidden a unique life-calling.  What is it you are called to do?  In old-fashioned language: what is your vocation in life?

For some people, the question of their calling is very difficult to decipher; for others, it follows from an early intuition and practically unfolds of its own accord.  For some, it can be a singular and exclusive direction their life takes; for others, it can change and follow new directions.  Again, some people never seem to find what they are called to do; this can burden them with a continual restlessness and dissatisfaction.  When you find what you are called to do, your life takes on a focus and purpose.  You come into rhythm with the deeper longing of your heart.

The notion of vocation is interesting and rich.  It suggests that there is a special form of life that one is called to; to follow this is the way to realise one’s destiny.  Following one’s vocation ensures that what you choose to do finds itself in harmony with your inner nature.  It also means that this is the optimum way to unfold and develop whatever gifts one has.  A vocation does not clear before you a smooth path through difficulties.  Having a sense of one’s vocation does not in any way relieve one of the travail and turbulence of being human.  Indeed, being true to one’s vocation can often require a level of generosity and risk that will cause great suffering, for more often than not there is no surge of light to clarify direction; the light on offer is only enough to guide the next step.

The nature of the calling can change over time, taking a person down pathways never anticipated.  The calling opens new territories within the heart; this in turn deepens the calling itself.  The faces of the calling change; what at the beginning seemed simple and clear can become ambivalent and complex as it unfolds.  To develop a heart that is generous and equal to this complexity is the continual challenge of growth.  This is the creative tension that dwells at the heart of vocation.  One is urged and coaxed beyond the pale regions into rich territories of risk and promise.

It is devastating to feel trapped in a form of life where you feel utterly misplaced and all your effort is laboured; everything you do is done against the grain.  You take no pleasure or joy in what you do and your heart is haunted by alternative lives you will never have.  When you feel like this, it can make for a resentful and bitter life – a life where you are neither seen nor understood for much of the time and your gifts remain locked away, never to emerge.  It is clearly time to change what you are doing; perhaps sacrifice the familiar in order to find your true calling.  Such change can utterly transform your life.

It is such a relief and joy to find the calling that expresses and incarnates your spirit.  When you find that you are doing what you love, what you were brought here to do, it makes for a rich and contented life.  You have come into rhythm with your longing.  Your work and action emerge naturally; you don”t have to force yourself.  Your energy is immediate.  Your passion is clear and creative.   A new calling can open the door into the house of vision and belonging.  You feel at home in your life, heart and hearth at one.


John O’Donohue was an Irish author, poet, philosopher and  priest who passed away in his sleep 2 months after this book was published on January 4th 2008.

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