“It’s a calling.”

On a long cross-continental plane ride today I saw the film, “The Big Year.” Mostly I’m not interested in airplane movies, as they typically scrape the bottom of the barrels, choosing stories that aren’t worth the hours of my life.

But early on the Owen Wilson character explains to his wife why it is he is going off one more day to pursue his obsession with birds, viz. “It’s a calling.” She’s not fully persuaded, even with his reference to Mozart and his music, but with a smile she graces him as he goes.

The story is about three men who are birders, each one doing what is called “the big year,” captivated by the hope of seeing more birds than anyone else in America over the course of a year. Steve Martin plays a mostly retired CEO of a large corporation who has long loved birds, but he has also long loved his family and his work; Jack Black has neither family nor work to hold him, and against all odds sets out on his great adventure.

It could be funny, simply said. There are few other actors who are as good at being funny as these three. But surprisingly the story is more than that. It is actually about calling, and it tells the story with nuance and complexity—even as it does so with humor.

While seeing the best vistas of America—from the Aleutian Islands in the far northwest to the bogs and swamps of the deep south, and much more –day after day, month after month, we follow these three birders on their quest. And we do see birds, hundreds of them, counting them each one. That is its own glory.

But the heart of the film is about the meaning of a good life, of what is required for someone to be more fully human over the long haul; what Nietzsche and Peterson have offered as “the long obedience in the same direction.” Each of the men work out the meaning of their own lives, finding their ways into the complexity of their callings as they do so. They make different choices about what matters, and what doesn’t matter; of who matters, and who doesn’t matter; of what the point is, and what it isn’t.

For years I have been asking people this question, “Do you have a telos that is sufficient to meaningfully orient your praxis over the course of life?” Or more simply, “Why do you get up in the morning?” This unusual film takes up that question in its own way, offering three different answers.

The answers do matter. At the end of the day, it is not a “whatever” world we live in. Choices do have consequences, forming habits of heart that make us one kind of person and not another. But to press the point: to use the word “calling” with moral meaning assumes a caller, and it assumes we can respond. In Francis Schaeffer’s allusive image, God is not only there, but he is not silent.  He has made us responsible, able to respond—so that we are not stuck in moments we can’t get out of. And that is always grace.

If there is a thread running through everyone’s life that makes sense of what we think and say and do, it is calling. Owen Wilson was right about that— the sadness of the story is that he missed his. The birds of his big year came home to roost.

Steven Garber is the Senior Fellow for Vocation and the Common Good for the M. J. Murdock Charitable Trust. A teacher of many people in many places, he continues to serve as a consultant to colleges and corporations, facilitating both individual and institutional vocation. A husband, a father and a grandfather, a he has long lived in Washington DC, living a life among family, friends, and flowers.

Meet Steve