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"Do what you love." How many times have we heard this? And who could object to it? It seems like the perfect advice for anyone seeking to live a happy and meaningful life. However, I recently read a New York Times article by Gordon Marino that points out a number of problems with an uncritical acceptance of the "Do what you love" mantra-problems that I believe are solved brilliantly by the concept of the special function in A Course in Miracles.
Marino is an occupational counselor at a college, and in describing his encounters with perplexed students wondering about their post-college future, he himself admits to a tendency to reflexively ask, "What are you most passionate about?" There is, of course, nothing wrong with this question in itself. The answer to it can be very revealing, and no doubt all of us would love to devote our lives to something we feel truly passionate about. The problem arises when we regard some variation of "Do what you love"-especially a variation that is shallow and undiscerning-as "the first and last commandment," as he puts it, the only criterion for determining our vocation in life.
In his article, Marino highlights a number of specific problems with uncritically subscribing to this popular idea. (The summary of problems here is my own encapsulation.) There is, for example, the problem of knowledge: As philosophers and theologians have pointed out for centuries, we don't necessarily know where real happiness comes from and are prone to deluding ourselves in this matter. What if, Marino wonders, our happiness comes not from simply doing what we like to do, but instead from becoming "a mature human being"? Unfortunately, basing our choice of vocation solely on our own notions of personal happiness and self-fulfillment is all too likely to lead us in a superficial and narcissistic direction.
Then there is the problem of need: Basing the choice of vocation on "Do what you love" is the privilege of those who can afford it. Most people-Marino cites the example of his own father, who hated his job-are just doing what they need to do to put food on the table and a roof over their heads. Citing another recent article by Miya Tokumitsu, Marino points out that the "Do what you love" ethos could be regarded as elitist, because it can implicitly demean the work of those who don't have the luxury to select work on the basis of something other than the need to make ends meet.
Closely connected with this is the problem of duty: Our seeking a vocation on the basis of our personal happiness may be in conflict with our duty to use our work to serve others. One duty, of course, is duty to family: Marino writes of working with economically disadvantaged youths, whose primary concern in finding work is not personal fulfillment, but supporting their families and ensuring a better future for them.
Another duty is duty to society at large: Our focus on personal satisfaction may well be at odds with our obligation to serve a cause greater than our own personal satisfaction. Even seeking a sense of personal meaning-certainly a desirable thing-might be putting the cart before the horse of our responsibility to others. Speaking of great "paragons of humanity" like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela, Marino writes, "They, no doubt, found a sense of meaning in their heroic acts of self-sacrifice, but they did not do what they were doing in order to achieve that sense of meaning. They did…what they felt they had to do."
Closely related to the problem of duty is the problem of talent: Choosing our vocation on the basis of personal happiness alone may be in conflict with our duty to utilize our talents in a way that best serves those who depend on us and best benefits society at large. Marino cites the traditional notion that our talents are gifts from God, to be used as He directs for the benefit of others. Even if we don't believe in God, many of us have a moral intuition that we should use our talents for a purpose greater than ourselves, rather than letting them go to waste. Marino offers the possible counter-example of a real-life doctor (now known as "Slomo") who gave up his practice to devote his life to skating along the boardwalk in San Diego. Sounds fun, "But is it ethical for the doctor to put away his stethoscope and lace up his skates?"
In conclusion, Marino doesn't suggest that "Do what you love?" is completely off base. There's absolutely nothing wrong with finding work that we genuinely take satisfaction in-who wouldn't want that? Indeed, "For some, a happy harmony exists or develops in which they find pleasure in using their talents in a responsible, other-oriented way." It is certainly a wonderful thing if we can find this harmony.
But these important qualifiers aside, the central point of his article is that "Do what you love" shouldn't be the one and only criterion in play when contemplating our vocation. Most of us don't have the resources to make that the sole criterion anyway, and even if we do, placing our personal desires above all else is likely to lead to a self-centered life. In general, we should seek a vocation that enables us to fulfill our duty to use our talents to serve a goal greater than ourselves, with the question of whether we love the specific work we're doing being only part of a larger constellation of elements. Our desires do matter, but we will probably need to "submerge and remold our desires" to some extent in the course of discovering what we are really being called upon to do with our lives.
I have to admit, I'm actually quite fond of "Do what you love," and I think there is truth in that idea. I do think our work should ideally be something that is truly satisfying and meaningful to us, and I've had the good fortune to find such work myself (after doing my share of things I didn't enjoy at all in order to make a living). Ultimately, as we'll see below, I think we really are meant to do what we love in the deepest sense.
Yet I think Marino's concerns have validity as well: Let's face it, even if "Do what you love" has validity if approached with deep discernment, in a culture steeped in a "me first" ethos, it can easily be commandeered by the ego to serve its needs. Valuing personal satisfaction above all else can easily degenerate into a self-serving ethic in which we satisfy our shallowest inclinations at the expense of deeper (and ultimately much more rewarding) responsibilities.
So, how can we salvage the elements of truth in "Do what you love" while also addressing the problems that Marino brings to our attention? As I mentioned at the beginning, I think A Course in Miracles addresses this whole issue masterfully in its concept of the special function: its contention that God has given each and every one of us "a special function in salvation he alone can fill; a part for only him" (T-25.VI.4:2). The special function could be called our calling or life's purpose, and while it may not literally be what we do to make a living, it is meant to be central thing we do with our lives. In my mind, the special function solves all of the problems we have examined here in a truly brilliant way.
It solves the problem of knowledge because our special function is not something we select based on our own, painfully ego-ridden notions of what makes us happy, but is instead something the Holy Spirit selects for us: "Whatever your appointed role may be, it was selected by the Voice for God, Whose function is to speak for you as well" (W-pI.154.2:1). And He has absolute knowledge of what brings real happiness: He knows that what really makes us happy is to extend love and healing to our brothers, and our special function is our particular way of doing that. Thus, it is not work that will simply bring us some hollow egoic satisfaction, but instead cannot help but be work that we genuinely love.
It solves the problem of need because committing to our special function, we are told, fully ensures that all our needs will be met: "Once you accept His plan as the one function that you would fulfill, there will be nothing else the Holy Spirit will not arrange for you without your effort" (T-20.IV.8:4). This applies not only to the spiritual and mental capacities we need to fulfill our special function, but even to physical provisions. (Of course, the way we receive the Holy Spirit's provisions may well take the form of compensation for the work we're doing.) Thus in the special function, our legitimate need for earthly sustenance is married to our need for genuinely meaningful and joyous work.
It solves the problem of duty because our special function is the best way that we can meet our "responsibility to [our brother]" (T-8.III.5:11), what is elsewhere called "your debt to your brother…something you must never forget" (T-4.VI.2:1): our God-given duty to set aside our egos and truly love and serve other people. This duty, however, does not conflict with our happiness; on the contrary, the Course speaks of "the graciousness of [our] indebtedness" (T-4.VI.2:3) to our brothers. Fulfilling our special function of extending love to others as guided is the true source of our happiness, because helping them awaken to God is the way we awaken to God. Doing our duty to them is simultaneously our way of doing our duty to ourselves, a duty that brings everyone lasting joy.
And it solves the problem of talent because our special function is designed by the Holy Spirit to perfectly fit the talents that we have. He makes His choice while "seeing your strengths exactly as they are, and equally aware of where they can be best applied, for what, to whom and when" (W-pI.154.2:2). True, in the Course's view our earthly talents and abilities are not God-given, but were originally tools the ego developed to further its goals. However, the Holy Spirit takes the talents we developed to serve the ego and transforms them into talents that serve God's plan for salvation. In His hands, they become the perfect tools to fulfill our special function, our way of loving and serving our brothers. In His hands, "[Your] special hate becomes [your] special love" (T-25.VI.6:8).
What should we do, then, as we contemplate the question of our vocation in life? Should our dictum be simply "Do what you love"? By itself, I think this is inadequate. Indeed, I think we would do well to be suspicious of our own notions of doing what we "love," notions that often amount to doing what will serve our egos best, which ironically is ultimately unsatisfying.
Instead, in a nutshell, I would say that we should embark on the process of discovering our God-given special function. I think this process involves contemplating many elements, including the kinds of things Marino brings up: what we love, who needs our help, what our responsibilities are, what our talents are, where we can best serve, and more. The idea is to discern over time-through prayer, guidance, careful thought, listening to others, observation, etc.-what the Holy Spirit is calling us to do, and step into that role. We need to trust that the Holy Spirit, Who knows, will give us everything we need to enable us to do our blessed duty to use our talents to serve the Sonship.
If we follow this path, then as I said earlier, we will be doing what we love in the deepest sense. I don't think this means that we will always enjoy everything we do. Because we still have egos, we may well find that our special function brings up a lot of conflict and resistance, as Helen found when she was fulfilling her special function of scribing the Course. (By the way, it's hard to imagine Helen ever scribing the Course if "Do what you love" were her only consideration. Though she eventually regarded it as her "life's work," it wasn't something she relished doing.) I have found this resistance in my own life: though I am doing what I love, I don't enjoy every part of it, and aspects of it deeply challenge me, especially those that call me to leave my self-serving ways behind and be there for others. But to the degree that we really commit to doing the special function that is God's will and our own, we will find true happiness and live lives of genuine meaning and fulfillment.
What might our world come to look like as more and more people start doing their special function? I imagine that it would become a much more happy and harmonious place as people assume roles that are truly tailor-made for them, deeply meaningful roles that are genuine callings, roles that are perfectly integrated with the roles of others by One Who has in His mind the unified plan behind them all. This may conjure up images of everyone doing jobs that look exciting on a form level, but here a question intrigues me: the question of how the special function idea fits in with the fact that, as Marino points out, there are lots of mundane jobs in the world that we don't normally regard as especially rewarding, but need to be done by someone. Can people find authentic fulfillment in such work rather than hating it, as Marino's father hated his job? Can someone have a special function as a trash collector?
I think so, and along these lines, I'm intrigued by a comment that Jesus once made to Helen about Rosie, her and her husband's maid:
Retain your miracle-minded attitude toward Rosie very carefully. She once hurt both of you, which is why she is now your servant. But she is blessed in that she sees service as a source of joy. Help her straighten out her past errors by contributing to your welfare now.
There's a lot packed in these few brief lines. Normally, even in these more enlightened times, people tend to look down upon their maids, and maids themselves tend to think of their work as meaningless drudgery: Let's face it, when girls are dreaming of their future, they don't say, "When I grow up, I want to be a maid." And even here, it is said that Rosie is serving Helen and her husband now as a way of atoning for some "hurt" she gave them in a previous life-one more reason Helen might look down upon Rosie and Rosie might resent her current station.
Here, though, Jesus counsels Helen to not look down on Rosie, but instead to very carefully retain a miracle-minded attitude toward her-to extend love and healing to her as she atones for her previous mistake by serving them. But what is even more intriguing to me is what is said about Rosie: Rather than seeing her work as meaningless drudgery, "she is blessed in that she sees service as a source of joy." Given the importance Jesus places on Rosie performing that role, it really sounds to me like this may be a big part of Rosie's special function, her way of serving God's plan for salvation. And since Rosie is experiencing joy in this role of service, it sounds like she is doing what she loves.
Therefore, when I think of a world in which more and more people are doing their special functions, I imagine a world in which people are doing all sorts of different jobs-not only jobs we normally regard as exciting, but also jobs we normally regard as drudgery-with joy and a real sense that they are making a meaningful contribution to something greater than themselves. (Even Slomo, that former doctor I mentioned earlier, seems to be doing that, since he is inspiring many people on the boardwalk with his skating and his unique perspective on life.) In letting go of their own egos' notions of what would make them happy and in discovering their special functions, all of them-yes, even the garbage collectors-find vocations that make them happy in the deepest sense of the word.
May we all, then, find and fulfill our special functions. In this way, we can turn our lives over to Someone who knows what vocation makes us happy, receive everything we need to fulfill our role as He directs, do our blessed duty to our brothers and sisters as He has given it, let Him use our talents to best serve His plan, and as a result truly do what we love.