Vocation: Action Versus Dreams

by Brett & Kate McKay on May 25, 2010 · 9 comments

in Money & Career

Editor’s note: In conjunction with the series we’re doing on vocation and calling, we will be publishing excerpts from Self-Culture Through the Vocation by Edward Howard Griggs (1914).

Actions Versus Dreams

Since the vocation is a way of life, is it not a pity that it is currently regarded merely as an opportunity of making a living? It is that, and we have seen how imperative is the duty that each human being should give to the social whole at least as much as he receives from it. That, however, is merely paying running expenses in the vocation of life; and any business man will acknowledge that to carry on an undertaking for many years and succeed only in paying running expenses is failure. The test of the business is in what is earned beyond that, and so is it with life. Thus the true meaning of the vocation is as an open pathway to the great aims of life — culture and service; and only when it is so regarded does it take its rightful place in our lives.

Like all other phases of the art of life, the vocation can never be reduced to science. It is always a problem of the artistic adjustment of two factors, each of which is constantly changing. The whole sum of subjective capacities, differing every day, must somehow be adjusted to the whole sum of objective needs and demands of the world, also ever changing. Is it any wonder the problem is difficult? That is not the worst of it: action is inexorable limitation, compared to the ideal inspiring it. While we dream, we might do anything; when we act, out of the infinity of possibilities, we affirm one poor, insignificant fraction.

That explains many of the paradoxes of life, as, for instance, why our babies are so interesting to us. The parent looks into the eyes of his two-years-old child, and dreams of all the possibilities inherent in that little atom of humanity. That child might think Plato’s thought, write Shakespeare’s Hamlet, or live with the moral sublimity of St. Francis of Assisi. Why not?

“I am the owner of the sphere,
Of the seven stars and the solar year,
Of Caesar’s hand and Plato’s brain,
Of Lord Christ’s heart and Shakespeare’s
strain.”

Emerson is right: all these potentialities are in the humblest of us: give us time enough and opportunity enough, and we can develop limitlessly in any direction. Each is a unit part, not a mechanical part, of humanity — a sort of germ-cell containing the possibilities of the whole. We may not be able to think Plato’s thought to-day, but we may take one step forward in the intellectual life: give us eternity, and the point will be reached when we may think Plato’s thought. One may be far below the moral sublimity of St. Francis now; but one may climb a little with each step: if the number of possible steps is endless, no mountain summit of life is unattainable.

Infinite time and opportunity, however, are just what never are given in this world, whatever be the truth for worlds to come. We must live this chapter; we have to plan for time as well as eternity. If we spend all the seventy years, more or less — usually less — granted to us here, merely in laying a foundation, we have no temple of life. If we lay a narrow foundation, and build each story out, wider and wider, as the structure grows, it falls to the ground and we have no temple of life. We must somehow both lay the foundation and erect the superstructure — see to it that we get something done, before the curtain falls on the brief chapter we call life.

Thus what the parent forgets, as he looks into the eyes of his little child, is that out of the endless wealth of potentialities, gathered up in this fresh incarnation of humanity, at best only a poor little fragment will be realized in the brief span of life given us in this world. That is one reason genius seldom survives the cradle.

Emerson quotes from Thoreau’s manuscripts: “The youth gets together his materials to build a bridge to the moon, or, perchance, a palace or temple on the earth, and, at length the middle-aged man concludes to build a woodshed with them.” That is just about the relation of the world of action to that of dreams; but this, after all, is the important point: it is better to build one honest woodshed that will keep the fuel for the fires of life dry, than it is to go on dreaming forever of impossible castles in Spain; and the wonder is that when you have built the woodshed you own the castle. The ideal is vain and illusory just so long as you dwell in the world of dreams; the whole ideal becomes real when, through your struggle, a mere fragment of it is realized…

Each of us is artist, the world is our mountain of marble, and we own it all. We may choose one block, cast it aside, choose another and another, each more wonderfully veined: the mountain is ours. This, however, is the significant point: unless we do decide upon a single block, and work at it so long and faithfully that in the end we have chipped off all the superfluous marble and released the statue (Michael Angelo believed God placed in every block) it means nothing that we own the mountain. Rather, we do own the mountain when we have achieved the single statue, and only then.

In every vocation the meaning of the work is less in the thing done than in the growth of the man through the doing…….

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

1 JG May 25, 2010 at 4:37 pm

Very nice! But more please. I like what I am reading thus far. Makes today’s self-help writers look like kindergartners.

2 Mato Tope May 25, 2010 at 4:41 pm

Excellent article, yet again.
Humanity and its progressive endeavours have always been pulled along by the visions and ideals of a few. The potential of Utopia is hinted at in magical pieces of art and music, offering glimpses of the wondrous possibilities of humankind.
Consider man at his best; Beethoven, Galileo, Da Vinci, Socrates, Shakespeare etc. Were they not also mortal? Did they not also bleed? Yes, but they all had ideals and vision and poured their very souls into creative acts of divine magnificence.
The new Manaissance requires the emergence of free-thinkers, scholars of truth, explorers of the unseen hinterland of human experience.
Byron said; “How little we know what we are, how less what we can become.”

Every moment of our life can be the discovery of something finer, brighter, better.

3 Don Brown May 26, 2010 at 7:59 am

You are talking on 30,000 Km on the air. It is hard to follow what you writing or figuring out what you really mean. Get to the point. Keep your writing simple please.

4 David Walker May 26, 2010 at 8:41 am

Don – Brett and Kate didn’t write that. As they say in the italicized editor’s note, it’s an excerpt from a 1914 piece by Edward Howard Griggs. That’s how things were written then, and really, it’s not that high. The sentence structure is a bit different from what we use today, but the vocabulary isn’t all that different or difficult to grasp. I suggest reading it again, very slowly. It took me a couple of passes and summarizing what I read in my head every few sentences.

Brett and Kate – Nice find. And thank you for the Google Books link.

5 C.M. May 26, 2010 at 9:43 am

Mato, your thinking is clear. Don, it IS hard to follow. Just take what you can out of it and leave it be, Mr. Brown. You are both good men. What a great article! Blessings

6 Gary May 26, 2010 at 12:27 pm

Great piece. It inspired me to start reading the whole book and I’m glad I did. It’s a great read.

That anyone would find this stuff hard to follow is a sad indicator of the poor education of modern men. This kind of writing used to be par for the course. Now a generation raised on junk literature lacks basic reading comprehension skills.

7 Jace May 26, 2010 at 10:13 pm

So the essence of it is…to keep your dreams alive while excelling at everything you set your hands upon? Even though what your hands touch may not construct anything of use for the dream?

8 James May 26, 2010 at 11:54 pm

This has become yet another full circle in the possibilities of affirmation/confirmation in my personal life. As a new friend of mine (20+ years my senior and recently recovered from a bus accident that lost him a lot, to include memory and physical ability) explained/discussed with me today on “vocation”, I am found previously choosing multiple blocks at once, trying each in a different technique and throwing them all out and starting over, (paraphrasing terminology from this awesome article of course). Our conversation got my brain started on the very subject matter of this article only earlier today. And now, while reading the comments, I am “nailed” so-to-speak, on the convictions of those sharing their thoughts. Jace provided a point that I struggle with when he “summarized” his understanding of the article with two questions pertaining to what I have always called “constructive-dreaming”. Yes, I try to excel at everything I do and dream always, yet, for a moment I understood the same way; of there being a chance to “not construct anything” while dreaming all the time. My starting over frequently is proving that point and leaving me with a weakening foundation. Only when Jace asked the final question and I re-read the final sentence in the article, did I make real this fact: I am the only one that knows how to do what I know how to do! No one else can be me! I have been afraid to “settle” on a block for my castle walls because I thought someone else could just copy what I do and run, invalidating my efforts and thwarting my dreams. I cannot be “copied”, not what’s in my head. This is my passion, no one else’s! I kept a style and thread through all my block chippings and only I know what the next steps are to manifest my dream for world consumption.
Put it this way, I’m glad I kept my favorite rock in my pocket while I was throwing all those other blocks away ’cause I still have my original “picture-in-my-head” and through my “doing” will probably build my castle foundation and structure with some sturdy structuralized pizazz!
I over-stand now. (I like that word too.)
Thanks, I love this stuff!!!

9 Cameron Plommer May 28, 2010 at 11:09 am

This is great writing and great words to live by. Like many people I feel afraid to attach myself to any one thing, whether a personal hobby or career/job. But the only way one can really know what they truly see as their calling/passion/vocation is by doing. You must take action, somewhere, doing something. You must try things, discarding what doesn’t feel right and what does. Talk to as many people as you can, figure out what your strengths are, READ.

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