It is wonderful to live in an age with access to so many resources. Troves of knowledge on any topic are just keystrokes away. Detailed guides, lessons, classes, and articles are put out into the world in an attempt to add value to people’s lives. It’s truly amazing.
I do fear, though, that sometimes that it can cause our lives to be so outward-focused that we lose touch with our self. There is no shortage of mastermind workshops, coaching programs, and life-hacking guides that promise to resolve our deepest questions.
It can genuinely feel like we’re just one discovery away from finding the program or resource that unlocks our life in a new way. But what about listening to the voice within? What does that voice want to teach us about our life, where we are going, and how to engage with the world?
The following quote from Martin Buber about Rabbi Zusya always strikes me in a profound way.
‘Before his death, Rabbi Zusya said “In the coming world, they will not ask me: ‘Why were you not Moses?’ They will ask me: ‘Why were you not Zusya?”’
Isn’t the goal to be most fully ourselves? Isn’t that what makes interesting people interesting?
The most authentic and intriguing people are not the ones who perfectly consumed the right quantities of the right programs. They are authentic and intriguing because they came most fully into themselves.
Let Your Life Speak, Lest It Be Spoken For
In his book ‘Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation’ Parker Palmer points out that,
‘We listen for guidance everywhere except from within,’
The potential to make money online, as one example, has created an influx of high-value content flooding ad space, feeds, and search results. This alone isn’t bad because there is genuinely a lot of great content out there.
However, it can sometimes feel like everyone is an expert, we are just ordinary, and the only way to bridge the gap is to buy what they’re selling.
We are not privy to the hundreds of hours of research and development that went into building the thing that is now being sold. We only see the final product.
It can feel like there are so many people holding keys to life’s answers and they’re all vying for our attention. If we want to grow or be more like them then we must follow their advice, read their books, take their courses, and so on.
However, Palmer reminds us that there are troves of knowledge within us. These resources are freely available to us, they just have to be listened to rather than consumed. He writes:
‘Vocation does not mean a goal that I pursue. It means a calling that I hear. Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling me who I am. I must listen for the truths and values at the heart of my own identity, not the standard by which I must live — but by the standards by which I cannot help but live if I am living my own life.’
If we are out of sync with our inner voice, we cannot be sure that the thing we are consuming outside is even in accordance to our own identity and values. It may have simply been marketed well and appealed to our aesthetics.
With access to any voice in the entire world, we have to start from a place of centeredness lest we be completely tossed and turned by outside forces.
With a slightly different phrasing, Palmer reiterates this idea:
‘Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you. Before you tell your life what truths and values you have decided to live up to, let your life tell you what truths you embody, what values you represent.’
The Primacy of Cultivation Over Consumption
The challenge is that it can be difficult to listen for that still small voice within. Our authentic voice is something that needs to be cultivated and tended into life. It takes patience to get in touch with our inner spark of authenticity.
It is much easier to consume something from the outside. It gives us a little dopamine hit and the instant access makes us feel like we’ve gained something.
It certainly doesn’t help that our educational experiences have primarily taught us to listen to experts to build our knowledge of the world. In Palmer’s words:
‘The difficulty is compounded by the fact that from our first days in school, we are fought to listen to everything and everyone but ourselves, to take all our clues about living from the people and powers around us.’
We are always being pushed to listen to something outside of ourselves for guidance. Our own voice can so easily get lost in all the noise, but creating space for that voice is one of the most enriching things we can do.
What Is Your Story?
Some years ago I went through a two-year spiritual direction training program. Our first weekend together, we gave space for each person to tell their life story. It was up to each person what they wanted to share and what they defined as the key movements of their story.
I cannot begin to tell you what a gift it was to have the full attention of 8 compassion people and the open space to tell the story of my life. I had a week’s notice to think about what I wanted to say. I did a lot of searching trying to identify the key movements of my life and why they were important. It was the first time I ever put together a cohesive narrative of my story, who I was, and what my most formative moments in life where. It was powerful.
Many tears, smiles, and laughs were exchanged over those two days and I’ll never forget it. What a gift it was to be able to listen to my life, tell my story, and listen to other’s tell their own. It became clearer than ever to me that the value we hold as individuals is our unique story — not what we’ve consumed or adopted from an outside voice. Palmer writes:
‘Trying to live someone else’s life, or to live by an abstract norm, will invariably fail — and may even do great damage.’
The most moving moments from the stories I heard were the times when the person “came back” to themselves. Maybe there was a season where they were living by a different value or a circumstance that took them away from themselves. The moment when they identified this “coming back” to their true self was always the tear-jerker. It was beautiful.
In fact, in every story I know, it is those moments of getting reacquainted with one’s true self that unlock the potential of one’s life.
Both/And Not Either/Or
To be clear, I’m not suggesting that we forgo all outside voices and knowledge. I’m simply reminding us to listen to the voice within. I like the way Palmer puts it:
‘If we can lean to read our own responses to our own experience — a text we are writing unconsciously every day we spend on earth — we will receive the guidance we need to live more authentic lives.’
We need both inner guidance and outside guidance. The more in touch we are with the voice within, the more deliberate we can be in what we take in from the outside. When we allow our lives to speak, we can then cultivate our authentic self and bring it into fruition.
It takes time, patience, mindfulness, and willingness to do our inner-work and become our true self — but it is the most meaningful work to do. As Palmer reminds us,
‘What a long time it can take to become the person one has always been!’