Wendell Berry's Jayber Crow on How to Find Your Calling
Cumberland River, Kentucky. (Photo: Josh Michaels on Unsplash)
In Wendell Berry's novel Jayber Crow, Troy Chatham marries Mattie Keith, takes over her family's well-kept, sustainable farm in Kentucky, and proceeds to run it into the ground, mechanizing production, growing cash crops, leveraging assets, and wringing the land dry. The novel ends with Troy clear-cutting the last pocket of old growth forest on the Keith land, straining to maximize value as he loses the farm to his creditors.
In a telling passage, the first-person narrator, Jayber Crow, describes Troy's behavior as an effort to "make something of himself":
But, really, I don't think he liked himself. If he did, why would he have worked and suffered so to be something he wasn't—to make "something" of himself? (p. 336)
In Jayber's language, "making something of yourself" involves a willful striving toward accomplishment—in Troy's case, becoming a big-shot agri-businessman. But it also implies striving after something that doesn't quite fit, trying to be someone that you're not.
Jayber himself recalls times when he tried to make something of himself—or at least felt the impulse to do so. As a young man he thought he should become a preacher. But, after attending Bible school, he realized he had too many questions about his faith and the Bible to stand up on Sunday mornings and preach sermons.
Later, he attended literature courses at a university in Lexington, "pushed by the feeling...that I ought to make something out of myself and rise above my humble origins" (p. 71). But, his motivation for study soon waned:
I kept attending classes until the Christmas vacation began,...but I could see that I had come to another end. I had completely lost the feeling that I should make something of myself...I know now that even then, in my hopelessness and sorrow, I began a motion of the heart toward my origins. Far from rising above them, I was longing to sink into them until I would know the fundamental things. (p. 73)
Making Something of Myself
I relate to Troy and Jayber's impulses to make something of themselves. All my life, I've wrestled with an urge to be more than I am, to achieve great things that, ultimately, were not a great fit.
For example, I grew up playing soccer. From age seven through eighteen, I played with more or less the same team and the same coach. I was a natural. I was tall for my age, I could kick the ball far, and I had good defensive instincts. I developed into a strong center back, captain of my team. When I was sixteen we won the British Columbia provincial championship for our division, and I scored a header in the final match.
I never really thought much about my soccer-playing. I never fretted about whether I would get game time (I always did). I never evaluated my performances too deeply (there were good ones and bad ones). I just played, unselfconsciously, and the world opened space for me to do so.
In contrast, around eleven I began also playing volleyball. At first, I played because I did it well and enjoyed it. But after a few years, I began to see things I could accomplish with volleyball. I set goals for myself, I made progress. By the time I was sixteen, I was no longer tall for my age—in fact, I was short for an elite player—so I trained like a fiend. I measured and increased my vertical jump. I aimed to play on the best teams. I subscribed to Volleyball Monthly magazine. I dreamed of playing for an NCAA team in California. I dreamed of the Olympics.
Some of these goals I achieved. I played at a high level through my high school years, and I ended up walking onto the Stanford men's varsity team as a freshman. But none of these volleyball achievements were especially natural. I fought hard for everything I did in the sport. I prised open space for myself. I fretted about my performance. I worried I might not make it. The contrast with soccer couldn't have been more stark: volleyball was making something of myself, while soccer was not.
A pattern of rejecting things that felt natural in favor of things that felt difficult and ill-fitting has played out many times in my life, especially in my education and work. There's been more than a measure of self-rejection in it. Deep down I felt not enough. As a result, things natural to me seemed not enough. I had to do things that were more than mere me. Troy and Jayber make me think I'm not alone in this compulsion.
In Berry's novel, the opposite of "making something of yourself" is to follow a calling. Jayber's calling was to be a barber. At the orphanage where he grew up, he was made assistant to a barber and learned to cut hair and shave beards. While at university in Lexington, he fell into a job as a barber to support himself. After drifting back to Port William, the town near where he was born, he stumbled into buying the vacated barber shop and became the town barber, a role he occupied (more or less) into his old age. As Jayber put it,
Surely I was called to be, for one thing, a barber. All my real opportunities have been to be a barber...and being a barber has made other opportunities. I have had the life I have had because I kept on being a barber, you might say, in spite of my intentions to the contrary. (p. 66)
In Jayber Crow, a calling is a life that fits a person, that feels natural. You don't decide on a calling and strive after it—that would be "making something of yourself." Rather, a calling decides on you. You stumble upon it, perhaps contrary to your other intentions, almost by accident. And, as Jayber says, that calling opens other opportunities for you; it opens a road ahead. If volleyball was, for me, making something of myself, soccer was a calling, at least for a season of my life.
How to Find Your Calling
I believe there is a calling for everyone. This doesn't mean everyone's calling will make them rich, or even that it will make them any money at all, despite the ideas of our money-hungry culture. I just mean that for every person, there is a natural fit between the world and a life of a certain shape.
Embracing a calling can be difficult. Socio-economic pressures to make something of ourselves can crush us. And if, like Troy Chatham (or me in certain periods of my life), we don't like ourselves or don't feel that who we are is okay, then psychological resistance to a genuine calling can also mount. As a result, many of us get stuck doing things that seem outside our calling. To follow a calling, we must be honest about what motivates us and resist the pressures to make something of ourselves.
What if you want a calling but don't know what yours is? The challenge here is we can't control our calling. We can't just find it through some systematic process that works every time. Nevertheless, Berry's novel suggests there are things we can do.
First, we should ask, what seems to fit? What feels natural? What brings joy? What do you do when you don't have to do anything? Activities like these can be clues to a calling.
Second, where are the opportunities in your life? Which doors have just fallen open, in contrast with those that may have required great effort to open? Answers to this question may have only a loose connection to calling. After all, the easy path is not always the right one, and I don't mean to say there is never a place for hard work. But it can't be blind over-work. It has to be work in the right direction. And sometimes past or present opportunities can prompt us to that right direction. At a minimum, if opportunities do not open in a certain direction, it's unlikely that's our calling.
Third, we must slow down, be present, and attend to our lives and our world. Wendell Berry's writing is known for its deep sense of place. Jayber Crow is replete with extended descriptions, especially of the natural world, that call us to go slow and really attend to the world around us rather than rush by it on our way somewhere else. For example, Berry describes Jayber navigating a massive flood while on his way back to Port William:
The air was full of a hundred different sounds of pouring and of tree branches beating together, and my mind got full of those sounds. I was going along, not listening but just hearing, not looking but just seeing, not thinking anymore of where I was trying to go or even of how I was going to find something to eat, just setting one foot in front of the other. (pp. 89-90)
Here Jayber is absorbed in the sights and sounds of the natural world surrounding Port William. It's no coincidence he's on the cusp of embracing his calling as barber in that town. Berry's message seems to be that unless we slow down and really notice our current place in the world, our calling will remain opaque.
Why is this? Because, ultimately, our calling is the fit between ourselves and the world. We must understand something of the world and of ourselves—our "humble origins," the "fundamental things" about us, as Jayber might put it—if we're to recognize that fit. Of course, the true identity of a human being is slippery and malleable. None of us will ever codify who we truly are. But we can often distinguish between what fits and what doesn't, if we're sufficiently attentive.
Finally, be compassionate with yourself. To follow a calling, we must accept who we are and how we fit with the world, including our limitations and flaws. Be kind to yourself, friend. Trust that there is something good in you. Embrace what you know of that good self and the good world, beneath the layers of sorrow, struggle, and sin that might obscure them. There is a way you fit in this world.