On calling, and the lost fairy-tale art of apprenticeship

All of my retreats and online courses, and much of my writing, in some way involve an exploration of the theme of ‘calling’. Calling is neither ‘fate’ nor ‘destiny’ and, to me, has little to do with the job you do — though it can have, of course, if you happen to fulfill whatever purpose you believe you have in life primarily through your occupation (this is arguably ‘vocation’, a subset of ‘calling’). But for many people, their sense of purpose is expressed in ways of being in the world rather than ways of doing.

Depth psychologist James Hillman was one of the best-known writers on calling; in his bestselling book The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling Hillman declared: ‘Each person enters the world called.’ The idea wasn’t original, but goes back to Plato, who expressed the idea in a myth he constructed about the goddess Ananke, or ‘Necessity’, the mother of the Fates, and the one who, Plato said, established what is necessary for each soul to do/be before it enters the world.

Hillman argued that we all have a sense of personal calling; some notion that we are alive, here and now, for a particular reason. He suggested that we are all answerable to an innate vision – a kind of concealed invisible potential – which we fill out during the course of our lives. Although Hillman used many terms for this potential, my favourite way of imagining this is to think of it as an acorn: the acorn, like any seed, carries within it the image of, and the potential to become, the oak tree that it might eventually be – given the right circumstances, of course.

The soul, Hillman said, selects the pattern that we live out before we are born. We carry within us an image which guides us, prods us, helps us to remember what we’re here for. It does so through our dreams, and through images and symbols and myths and stories and archetypes which particularly resonate with us. Sooner or later, he said, something calls us to a particular path (again, not necessarily a career path!) and what we must then do is be sure that we take the path which aligns our lives with our calling, rather than that which might seem to be the path of least resistance.

Although this all sounds rather fatalistic, Hillman is at great pains to point out that what we are working with here is very much a potential, not a predetermined pattern. We journey through life, he said, in continual, moving adjustments – not following some grand predestined design. But the paths we take keep on trying to align themselves to our overall purpose or calling. In other words, the path which will ultimately lead us to fulfill our calling reshapes itself in response to the choices we make in life.

When I’m working with these ideas in groups, I often find surprisingly young people distressed by the idea that they have not yet understood what their calling might be — as if calling were a destination, rather than the lifelong journey to fulfill your greatest potential, to express your unique gift, which I believe it is. That sense of a desperate race to ‘figure it all out’ as soon as you can is surely a reflection of modern culture, which tells us constantly that the fastest solutions are the best. Who has the time these days to do the research, learn, reflect, make a mistake, try again … Like Alice’s White Rabbit, we constantly imagine ourselves to be running late for the rest of our lives. For some important date, some ‘aha’ moment when we can tick another box and say well, that’s that then. I’ve done calling. What’s next?

 

For me, calling is the work of a lifetime. It’s beautiful work because it’s not so much about doing, and accomplishing, as it is about developing and expressing a vision for your life. And one of the things that is forgotten in a task-driven culture which has no appreciation of calling is that developing a vision takes time. Sometimes, it takes a lifetime — for it to emerge, for it then to be developed and expressed in all the ways that are possible for us. Because to express our calling is to allow ourselves to uniquely express one mode of being, one facet of the creative life-force of the universe — whatever you might conceive that to be. It is about being, about endlessly becoming — it is not about doing.

It’s this rush to do, to accomplish, which is one of the most pernicious aspects of contemporary culture: it robs us of our ability to fully participate in the process of our own becoming. We want to have achieved our dreams — but we don’t necessarily value the work that must be put in to achieve them. We want to be writers, for example — but we don’t want to spend the years learning the craft of how to write. We see the results all around us, everywhere we look: overnight celebrities, instant experts, pop-up personalities with more form than substance. This is not how it’s supposed to be.

Here is what we’ve forgotten: we’ve forgotten the value of true apprenticeship. And as ever, we find the treasure we imagine we’ve lost hidden there in full view for everyone to see, embedded in our old myths and fairy tales. For at the heart of so many good fairy tales is the critically important concept of apprenticeship. In one of my favourite stories, ‘The Black Bull of Norroway’, a girl must spend seven long years apprenticed to a blacksmith — the only person who can make the shoes which she needs to scale the enormous glass mountain which prevents her from continuing her quest to save her ensorcelled husband. In the old German tales of Mother Hulda (or Frau Hölle) a girl must plunge down a well and spend a year apprenticed to the old woman before she can return to the world above with the lost spindle she had been seeking — a spindle which now has acquired magical powers. In a rare old story from the Isle of Skye, a girl who is lost in the Cuillin mountains must apprentice herself to an old woman and an old man who create the dreams of the world for a year and a day, before she is guided back down the mountain by fairy deer, and there finds the love of her life.

The messages are clear: sometimes, you have to step off the path you’re so determinedly striding along, and learn a few new skills. And learn them properly — through your own lived experience, not experience copied from others; and by continuing to learn for however long is necessary, from someone who really knows. These stories tell us that sometimes it’s okay to feel that you’re not progressing, because the myth of progress is another of those profoundly pernicious myths which our culture forces upon us. (Sometimes, actually, the greatest ‘progress’ is made during times of apparent stasis — but that’s a story for another day.) Sometimes, it’s okay to say that you don’t know, you’re not sure, you’re still trying to figure it out for yourself — and to avoid like the plague the people who are trying to sell you ready-made solutions of their own.

To fully express our calling, we must be able to tolerate the idea of apprenticeship. To understand what we don’t know, to do the proper research, to find the right teachers, to embody the necessary lived experience before we imagine that we’re ready to share our gift with the world. Apprenticeship requires humility: a little-valued quality in a world hell-bent on glory. All the best fairy-tale heroines knew it to be true: sometimes it’s okay to say that you’re not quite there yet. None of us are ever quite there until it’s time for us finally to die — because when we imagine that our journey has come to an end, the truth is, our ability to live a seeking, authentic life has come to an end along with it.

19 thoughts on “On calling, and the lost fairy-tale art of apprenticeship

    1. Oh wow! Such an amazing and timely piece! I honestly needed to read these words-sent the article to my daughter as well. Thank you.

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  1. So well stated. I have felt that pressure to check “calling” off the list but the truth is that I am still figuring it out at almost 62 years old. Thank you!

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  2. I cannot believe how much this post is speaking to me. Today, while on a rigorous hike with my husband, he was preaching to me most of the way, about how I should go about figuring what I am going to be doing with my life now. I lost my job, that I have worked at for 28 years.
    I came off the trail so discouraged, I spent most of today feeling so disappointed in myself.
    But, on the way down the hill, I found an acorn, still green, but there it was right in front of me. I took it home with me hoping it would give me some guidance.
    Thank you for your acorn, today! You have given me some guidance.

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  3. Wise words .I’m still an apprentice at 61 and the route often changes. But when I really reflect there’s a path I’m following to a life that’s trying to respect and be part of our beautiful natural world

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  4. Interesting the comments from those who are older like me. At 70 I’m not sure I even have a calling much less what it is! I think about it often without coming up with an answer. So I say to myself. what the heck…I enjoy my life a lot, feel present to its beauty and wonder, and am generally delighted with being. Not feeling called isn’t so bad after all!

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  5. Like a lot of you I am older, 72, and wonder what have I brought to this world. And then there are days like the one where I walked through the grocery store with firework dahlias on the top of my cart and listened to the comments of wonder and delight. Sometimes it’s the little things that bring magic!

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  6. Beautiful and thought-provoking as ever and yes, I completely agree. I am reading ‘Falling Upward’ by Richard Rohr at the moment and he is saying much the same thing. Thank you for sharing this work of deep heart x

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  7. I love this piece and resonate with the idea of apprenticeship. What I have been been noticing, that I would call an evolution of the traditional tales, is it’s now possible to apprentice to our own inner wisdom. It often helps to walk the path for a time with someone, an “inner wisdom guide,” for example. The magic and miracles are within. By approaching it as “First BE. Then do,” the BEing is the key that unlocks the gates to that inner path. Thank you for this beautiful and insightful reflection.

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  8. Loved reading this, Sharon — it’s a wise commentary on how we proceed in the world, and the pitfalls along the way. I’ve been seduced by the dictates of the “don’t you have this figured out now” culture of many of us in the western world (and maybe the “Eastern” world, too, now that I’m thinking about it.)

    Now, in my early 60’s, I’m willing to think about the ebb and flow of contributions, work, apprenticeship, and knowledge – and what the sharing of that means.

    And how rewarding it can be to do that, wherever those contributions lead.

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  9. Thanks Sharon. A post that really chimed with me. I must admit I do think of my life as a quest to seek out knowledge of what the soul can achieve during this lifetime. Of course that would mean I am the seeker, creating my own myths as I travel on my path. It’s very liberating, if a little scary. Especially as the rest of the world wants to achieve perfection in everything and then remain static (as if it could anyway!).

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  10. Thank you so much for this wonderful essay! It has come at a time when I am “struggling” with what I feel is my calling but then of course guidance always comes at the right time. The concept of apprenticeship has defintiely resonated with me.

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  11. Thank you. I was offered an apprenticeship for Ethnobotany. I am studying American Indian Studies, so I can go back home, and teach the youth.

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  12. Fascinating stuff. I’d previously jumbled the terms ‘calling’ and ‘vocation’ and been very frustrated by the lack of support for folk who have a vocation within paganism/polytheism. Intriguingly I’ve been led into an apprenticeship to a particular god who has shown me that my calling is as an awenydd ‘person inspired’ which fits with how I was called to read deeply into poetry and philosophy and myth and learning to live mythically before I found a name for this path. I’ve also found it can’t be rushed, which is a difficult lesson to learn for an impatient person!

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  13. I searched for the rare story you mentioned – The Dream-Makers, and couldn’t find it. Any tips on where to find a copy? Thanks.

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