If you have spent any time reading about vocation, you have probably stumbled upon this quote by Fredrick Buechner. It has become one of the most widely-known statements about callings; many career advisors even utilize it as a technique for vocational discernment. Simply identify your deep gladness, then assess if you have the ability to do these activities and if the world needs you to perform them. If all three things align, then you’ve found it.
At the risk of deviating from many of my colleagues, I am not sure I entirely agree with this cold calculation or application of Buechner’s quote. Buechner has contributed significantly to the literature and I am confident that he, too, would agree with the comments I am about to make. The problem arises because the professional community often presents the quote in isolation without a context or other discernment resources.
Taken at face value the statement implies that your heart’s deep gladness is a fundamental prerequisite for discovering your calling. Without it, there can be no intersection with the world’s deep hunger – which may raise the question, what do we mean by “deep gladness?”
Rather than debating semantics, I will instead offer evidence from the life of Christ, who begged His Father to let the cup pass Him in the Garden of Gethsemane. His response looks nothing like deep gladness, regardless of how you define it. No joy. No happiness. No peace. Instead we find anguish deep enough for blood to flow out of it. He knew what it would cost him if He followed His calling, but He still had the courage to pursue it even though it would have been easier to run or hide.
Which brings me to my point: callings can be and often are marked by suffering. Consider the lives of Nate Saint, Ed McCully, Jim Elliot, Peter Fleming, and Roger Youderian. These young men knew that if they were to be followers of Christ, they must deny themselves and take up their cross daily (Mark 8:34).
Callings may also initially be met with fear and doubt. Just ask Moses or Jonah. Yet rest assured – once you surrender to it, a deep gladness often follows. As psychologists will tell you, act first and the attitude will usually follow.
How then, shall we factor in our deep gladness? Deep gladness may be an indication of one’s calling, but it is neither necessary nor sufficient. Like many things in the Christian faith, the tension produces a “both…and” response. Callings can be detected through both joy and suffering. Unconditional openness consists of recognizing and celebrating each equally. As Friar Bannon writes, openness is “the ability to say to God, and mean it, ‘whatever you want of me, I will do.’ It is therefore . . . expressed in prayer that is more an offering than a petition.”
Remember that callings have a way of choosing us. They are discovered on God’s terms, not defined by ours. Prolonged dissatisfaction in your existing occupation combined with a strong interest in another career is worth paying attention to, but be cautious. Think twice the next time you quickly eliminate a major or career simply because of one intolerable characteristic or society’s under-appreciation of it. Consider your heart’s deep gladness and assess your interests, while also surrendering your dreams before God.
And as you do so, consider some of Buechner’s other writings, such as those found in Now and Then, where he writes, “Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery it is. In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.”