Money & Career

Vocation: Action Versus Dreams

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…….


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