Is Law Bringing Meaning to Your Life? Then Call It a Calling

The following insight of a 13th century Sufi poet, Rumi, survived eight centuries because of its truth, its clarity and its uncanny ability even now, in the 21st century, to still bring us up short: "There is one thing in this world you must never forget to do. Human beings come into this world to do particular work. That work is their purpose, and each is specific to the person. If you forget everything else and not this, there's nothing to worry about. If you remember everything else and forget your true work, then you will have done nothing with your life."

Although we spend less time in our lives devoted to our "work" than our ancestors did, work still manages to constitute some 70 percent of our waking existence. Given this extraordinary life commitment, it continues to amaze me how little time we devote to the examination of our work's meaning.

What does your work mean to you? How do you consider your "time spent" in its pursuit?

One useful inquiry describes three approaches to the notion of work - a "job" that focuses primarily on financial rewards; a "career" that centers on growing talent and accumulating recognition out of a desire for personal gain and advancement; and a "calling" that arises from an intrinsic commitment to an individual's core values, which is pursued in its own right, without regard for money and advancement.

This structure corresponds to the "hierarchy of needs," described by psychologist Abraham Maslow, in which he postulated the self-actualized human being, fully and constructively engaged in life. So, it is not a surprise to find Maslow supporting our Sufi poet and declaring "One must respond to one's fate or one's destiny or pay a heavy price. One must yield to it; one must surrender to it; one must permit one's self to be chosen."

With both mystics and scientists confirming the importance of finding one's calling, how does one proceed?

First, let's take a moment to find out where you are now. If you find that: you like what you do, but don't expect much from your work; or your work is a vehicle to fund the balance of your life; or you are not excited to start a new work week; or you build your life around your vacations and opportunities for time off; or you think too much of your life is spent at work and you would prefer not to think of it during your off hours, your work is probably a job. If your primary motivation in your work is to become a success; if you view your career in its relationship to your standing with peers or competitors; if the goal of your work is to rise to the top of your field; if your greatest professional experiences center on achieving recognition from others, you are likely in a career. But if you tend to lose yourself in your work; if you feel that you are continually in "flow" almost without a conscious sense of the passage of time; if you are working to truly make a difference in the world; if you see the source of your achievement as coming from something bigger than yourself; if you do what you do just because you love it; or if you believe that what you do allows you to utilize your natural gifts, you are probably in a calling.

Of course, as with all categorization systems, there are no bright lines. In my own 35 years of practice, I certainly have had jobs. Although I believe most of my work has been in the career category, in the last few years I have begun to fully appreciate the calling of my work. But in any given workweek, there are work aspects that could more honestly be categorized as a job or career. For me, it's hard to find practice group administration or attention to billings as anything other than a job. How does your work look to you?

Another consideration, as you examine your place in the work hierarchy, is the exploration of whether you have found the right occupation. Many of us made career decisions when we were quite young. Others were greatly influenced by our family or culture in choosing our careers. Even if you possess the intellect and proficiency to excel in law, is it the match for you? Positive psychologist Nicholas Hall conducts research in the area of psychological profiles of various occupations. His research identifies unique profiles of character strengths for various occupations, particularly when compared to the population at large. Hall cites, for example, how artists have appreciation for beauty and excellence as their top strengths, while lawyers rank particularly low in spirituality. Hall currently is conducting research to see if he can identify special characteristics in those who see their occupations as a calling, and to ascertain if their character profiles are distinguishable from others in the field, who don't see their work as a calling. While such research may prove useful, the fundamental inquiry remains personal. What are you doing with your life in this work?

From my own experience, I have found that the job/career/calling inquiry is too narrowly framed. I began to see the calling aspects of my career only as I undertook completely unrelated work as a hospice volunteer at a community hospital. There, I changed my perception of what was important. I accessed personal capacities that I had not known existed. And, I developed a profound curiosity for seeing how these changed perceptions and expanded capabilities could be applied to my legal work.

In other words, by doing service of an entirely different nature from my profession, I obliterated the line between work life and non-work life so that I was able to access my life purpose, values and intentions. I adapted my professional life to create a resonance that gives my work the aspects of a calling.

Try this exercise. Find a quiet place to sit, where you are likely not to be disturbed. Bring with you some paper and a writing implement with which to take notes. Give yourself five minutes to simply slow down, breath and quiet your mind. Now imagine that you are 95 years old. You are looking back on your life. Consider your responses to the following: What is it that you would have wanted to accomplish? What type of person would you have been to accomplish these things? How would you have had to spend your time? What would you have learned? What type of relationships would have surrounded you? What would you have wanted to experience? How would you want to feel about yourself? What brought the most meaning to your life? What did you contribute to the world? How well did you love others? What opportunities did you give others to love you?

These are not an easy questions. It takes patience. In fact, it may be hard to complete this exercise in one, two or even three sittings. But what these reflections do, as you spend time with them, is help you see what is important to you. From the inquiries that you can't answer, you are given some direction as to further inquiry. Thinking about these questions also has a way of putting your work in its proper perspective. As you work through this exercise, you may begin to see, through this imaginary retrospective, what your purpose in life could be. And, you may find that some of that purpose has a direct and powerful link to your current work. If that is so, make that connection in your work and expand upon it.

Twentieth century poet Rainer Marie Rilke wrote a series of letters to an aspiring young poet, encouraging him in his work. His words are particularly relevant to this inquiry. "Be patient with all that is unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves ... Do not now seek the answers which cannot be given you because you have not been able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then, gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer."

Good luck on your journey.

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