Book Review: Callings: The Purpose and Passion of Work

Story and metaphor are a powerful means for education on a variety of subjects, including faith & work. StoryCorps has published a book titled Callings: The Purpose and Passion of Work whose purpose is to tell the story of individuals at work.

Callings is written by Dave Isay. Isay is the founder of StoryCorps and the recipient of numerous broadcasting honors, including six Peabody awards, a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship, and the 2015 TED Prize. He is the author/editor of numerous books that grew out of his public radio documentary work, including four StoryCorps books: Listening Is an Act of Love (2007), Mom: A Celebration of Mothers from StoryCorps (2010), All There Is: Love Stories from StoryCorps (2012), and Ties That Bind: Stories of Love and Gratitude from the First Ten Years of StoryCorps (2013). His TED talk, “Everyone around you has a story the world needs to hear” has 1.4 million total views.

In Callings, Isay presents unforgettable stories from people doing what they love. Some found their paths at a very young age, others later in life; some overcame great odds or upturned their lives in order to pursue what matters to them.

According to Isay, the genesis for Callings came in 2012 when his wife was pregnant with their second child. The Isays had an appointment with their beloved ob-gyn, Austin Chen.

I adored this woman from the minute I met her: tiny, fierce, mercilessly blunt, brilliant at her work. I knew she worked ferociously hard. I knew that she biked everywhere she went. I knew that she had made the commitment to personally deliver the babies of every single one of her patients, which meant she was on call twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year. She told me that she had tried to leave town only once in the twelve years since she’d started her practice, to say good-bye to her father, who was dying. But while she was there, a patient called to say she was in labor. Dr. Chen left so she could meet her patient at the hospital. She was not able to be with her dad when he died.

It is an understatement to say Dr. Chen is dedicated to her work. She is a very dedicated and hard working woman. Yet, during their appointment after Isay’s televised interview, she said

I wish I had done something important enough with my life to be on Colbert.

Yet she has provided pre-natal care to mothers ushering them through pregnancies with unknown variables and challenges. She has delivered thousands of babies. It strikes me, however, that this feeling of insignificance is quite common. Many who feel their work is secondary to “full-time vocational ministry.” Or they may feel that their work is not valuable in general. What I love about Callings is that it shows, by powerful testimony, that all work matters and has value.

My friend Byron Borger from Hearts & Minds Books has written the following recommendation for Callings:

There have been many books over the years on the relationship of faith and work, informed by a Biblical vision of calling and the theology of vocation. This book came out of the beautiful, inspiring StoryCorps radio program so is not overtly religious but it is, without a doubt, an enjoyable and inspiring read for people of faith and offers much to us to realize how so many different kind of people, in so many different kinds of job, talk about their work.. . . No matter what your job is, reading these folks describe their own sense of passion about their work will inspire you. I was glad to introduce this at BookNotes when it first came out and think it is one of the best books of many a year.

It is encouraging to note the connection between StoryCorps and legendary oral historian, Studs Terkel. (Rediscovered tapes from his book Working recently made news at The Green Room.) Terkel cut the ribbon on StoryCorps’ first booth in Grand Central Station. Isay reflects on Terkel’s remarks during the ceremony: “‘We know who the architect of Grand Central was’ shouted a stone-deaf ninety-one-year-old Studs at the launch. ‘But who were the brick masons? Who swept the floors? Studs implored us to celebrate these stories, and we’ve devoted ourselves absolutely to the task since that day.”

Work is the search for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying. -Studs Terkel

I am struck with the great diversity of individuals and vocations represented by the stories in this book:

We meet a man from the barrios of Texas whose harrowing experiences in a family of migrant farmers inspired him to become a public defender. We meet a longtime waitress who takes pride in making regulars and newcomers alike feel at home in her Nashville diner. We meet a young man on the South Side of Chicago who became a teacher in order to help at-risk teenagers like the ones who killed his father get on the right track. We meet a woman from Little Rock who helps former inmates gain the skills and confidence they need to rejoice the workforce. Together they demonstrate how work can be about much more than just making a living, that chasing dreams and finding inspiration in unexpected places can transform a vocation in calling. Their shared sense of passion, honor, and commitment brings deeper meaning and satisfaction to every aspect of their lives. [emphasis mine] -from the flyleaf of Callings

Isay writes in the introduction:

For those of you in search of your calling, consider yourself warned: this pursuit takes discipline, resilience, enormous sacrifice, and tremendous hard work. Whether you have found your calling, are on the journey, or have lost your way, may the heroes of this book—whether astronaut, ballpark vendor, or ob-gyn—help remind you of the importance of finding meaning in your work. May their words help give you the strength to listen to that still, small voice inside—that voice which can help you discover the work that you were born to do.

I heartily recommend Callings for your reading and reflection. The stories contained within this book are genuine, heartfelt, and communicate the importance of all kinds of work to the flourishing of our world.

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