Working With Heart

Imagine what a harmonious world it could be if every single person, both young and old, shared a little of what he is good at doing.   (Quincey Jones)


Sister Mary Theresa: a pale, beautiful face framed by a white wimple.  Her hands, long-fingered and powdery clean, clasped her wooden rosary beads as she swished down the aisles. Her gauzy black veil brushed our desks as she ensured that we were earnestly penciling our letters neatly into the blue-lined spaces of our coarse yellow paper.

We loved Sister Mary Theresa, and when she stood in front of the room and told us to be diligent, we listened.  Work hard, she told us, and learn about your gifts.  Even someone who is six years old might discover her vocation.  And maybe, and Sister’s face would shine when she said this, MAYBE, there’s even a child in here–or two!- who has a religious vocation. Maybe, among us, there is a future priest!  Or a future nun!

Ah, my heart leapt, and I knew that was me, that I was destined for a life of sacrifice and prayer. I read the life of the Little Flower, and decided that nothing would do but to join a cloistered order of Carmelite nuns.  I wrote to them and declared my intentions.  They sent me flyers and literature and good advice: Wait a bit and explore all your options.

The next year, I had a lay teacher and the Beatles came to America, and I realized that I was REALLY intended to be a rock star. I wrote to the Beatles, too, but I never heard back from them regarding my future employment.  And a passing year and an impatient family bore the truth down upon me: to be a musician one needs some kind of musical ability.

So there I was, aged eight, without a clue, knowing only that I was destined neither to be a bride of Christ nor a female rock icon.  But I knew deep in my deepest knowing that I was destined for something: that I had skills and gifts and talents waiting to be discovered…that there was a vocation out there waiting for me.  There was a Pam-shaped niche, just waiting for me to grow up and fill it.

I embraced Sister Mary Theresa’s concept of vocation.


We all know people who are in the absolutely wrong jobs.

There’s the teacher (not the norm–there are great heroes in the ranks of teachers!) who chose the field because it was steady and paid decently, and she could be home when the kids were home. She is using the lessons plans she designed for her math class 15 years ago. Math hasn’t changed in that time; why should the way she does her work?  She grades one class’s papers while another is slogging along, completing that day’s assignment, at their desks.  She always gives quick written feedback, but she often ignores the raised hands and puzzled faces in front of her.  In the teachers’ lounge, she is bitter about cell phones and tattoos and rudeness and administrative decisions. She regularly refers to her high school students as ‘little shits.’  She can tell you exactly how many days there are until summer vacation.

There’s the worker in reception who regards the people he is meant to serve as a gross imposition on his time.

There’s the exhausted doctor whose mind is only on her watercolors.

There’s the government worker who plods along at his job for forty years, racking up the retirement dollars doing work he hates.  He and the wife are saving for their retirement, squirreling away money for a little retirement place in Florida.  He dies the week after he retires, from a massive heartache that explodes with no warning.  His kids, grown now, remember him falling asleep in his lounge chair after dinner, cigarette burning down to a nub.  He was always tired, always, remote, always a little bit sad. Not me, each vows. That will not be me.


But there are the others, too–the people who seem made for their position, who, no matter what it is that they do, elevate the role to that of a true vocation.

There’s the adjunct math instructor dancing in the hallway because a struggling student has finally grasped the concept of derivatives.  The classroom ceiling cracked open, a beam of glowing light poured through on the student’s head, and she dropped her pen and looked up at him in wonder.

“I get it!” she said.  “I GET it!!!”

That’s it, he thinks; this is the job I’m meant to be doing.


There is the woman who has waited tables at the same family restaurant for thirty years.  She has her regulars, and she knows exactly what they want.  She knows the kids’ names and where they are in school and she serves each customer a heaping helping of personal interest along with the scrambled eggs. She makes strangers feel welcome; her quick eyes assess their state–tired, in need of comfort, confused or perplexed, excited to be visiting, here for a reason that involves bad news.  She knows when to suggest a soothing bowl of hot soup and when to grab a brochure of local sites and recommend a trip to the wildlife sanctuary or the sculpture park.

She quells the rude without offending and she reaches for crying babies and she makes sure the coffee cups are never, ever empty.  She can’t think of another job that would give her the same joy.  This kind of serving–well, it’s her vocation.


There is…

…The haircutter who makes sure every client leaves feeling as if she looks her absolute best.

…The coach, industrial foreman by day, who inspires kids to stretch, to grow, to push themselves and find out just what they are capable of doing.

…The guidance counselor who plants and harvests dreams.

…The stay at home mom who juggles diapers and library trips and dirty clothes and satisfying dinners day in and day out and makes her life look like a gift.

…The factory owner who knows the names of each of his 200 employees.  He spends at least one day, every two weeks, on the factory floor.  He asks about the kid who applied for a scholarship; he wants to know if the mother-in-law is out of the hospital. His people love him and love working for him.  His business withstands pressures that sink other enterprises.

These ones have found the work that makes their souls sing.

Maybe–although I don’t completely buy this–there’s not a mystical niche that was created for each of us before we were born.  But each of us has our own special formula of gifts and leanings, weaknesses and blind spots, abilities and potential. Tapping those particular talents and attributes taps into happiness.

So a young man we know, Noah, who has a pretty severe development disability, is happily employed at a family-owned diner.  Noah’s job coach realized that he was meticulous and orderly and loved to organize things into neat bundles.  So Noah does the job the wait staffers at the diner hate to do: he wraps silverware into linen napkins and places them in a big plastic bin. Noah never puts an even vaguely dirty fork into a pristine napkin.  He will set aside any piece of silverware that has the slightest hint of residue, and when he is done with his napkin rolling, he will take the suspect pieces back to the kitchen and wash them by hand.  He greets regular customers, his face lighting up; his joy is part of the warmth that draws them back to that diner three or four times a week.

Noah has found his niche, his calling.  (Oh, the wisdom of that job coach!)

So a young woman who loves working with kids, who just wants to help kids find their own niches, takes some social work classes while she is remediating her GPA: she needs a 2.75 to get into the education program.  But a funny thing happens. She falls in love with social work.  Knowing that it is a gritty, demanding field, and knowing that she will never make top pay, she plunges into a wholly unexpected course of study.  She loves her internship.  She gets a job at an inner-city children’s program and earns her MSW in the nooks and crannies of time.

She sees pain and heartache and often is called on to offer comfort.  But she sees, too, gleaming moments of triumph.  And she knows that this–this work, this exhausting and consuming work,–is what she is meant to do.

Self-knowledge is not taught in schools, but it should, maybe, be our first and continuous learning–its blossoming our ultimate goal. It is painful to see the unemployed woman, tender and slow and patient, talk about wanting to work in a fast-paced, high pressure office,–the exact kind of environment that will ignore her skills and sap her energy.  It is frustrating to see the child, awkward and clumsy but gifted with artistic skills, talk about his only consuming passion: to be a fast-moving, dexterous professional basketball star. And it is annoying to work with the real estate broker who goes through the motions, checking his text messages when he could be pointing out the possibilities.

There are tests that show our aptitudes and our communications styles, free tests that we can take, and then wrestle with the knowledge unpeeled by the results. {See links at the end for a couple of examples.}

There are the things that people say to us, offhand remarks–Nobody bakes pies like you do, Carrie! or,–Whenever I want to build something, Calvin, I come to you for help planning.

There is the thread revealed by the journals we keep: Look at how many times in the past six months, Frieda thinks, I wrote about repurposing! Perhaps the clues are there, bread crumbs on the trail, waiting to be picked up.

What happened to Sister Mary Theresa, that beautiful young nun in the early 1960’s? Not many years later, the mysterious habits morphed into practical polyester suits, the swishing veils into pill box hats with short, bouncing plackets. Many, many nuns in those turbulent times tied up their sensible oxford shoes and marched out of the convent into secular life, into marriages and relationships and public schools and not-for-profit management.

I wonder if Sister Mary Theresa found, in those years of discovery, that her definition of vocation underwent a change. Because that’s a possibility, too–that the job that fits exactly when we’re 20 is not the right fit when we are 32.  That our vocation can grow and change as we do.

A constant awareness, I think, must be maintained.

Imagine, though, what life would be like if we encouraged and  cultivated that kind of self-knowledge. Imagine a world where everyone picked up the bread crumbs.

Imagine a world where every person was engaged in work that made their heart sing.


Some free online  inventories:

Find your strengths:

What’s your communications style?



7 thoughts on “Working With Heart

  1. A wonderful world it would be. I feel most days i do get to do that, and I feel very fortunate for that 🙂 Supporting teams of nurses and aides that provide home health and hospice services makes my heart sing.

  2. I did have a work like that once , many many years ago 🙂
    I still haven’t found another one like that , but I haven’t lost my hope 🙂 My interests and skills are different now but I know there must be something out there just right for me 🙂
    Always told my kids : do what you really like , what makes you happy 🙂
    Turtle Hugs

  3. Alifamtravels

    Gotta do want you love even if that changes throughout the years. I’m telling my kids who are graduating soon to do something they love, life is to short.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.