Letting Your Life Speak

On the importance of listening deeply to find your true vocation.

Continued from page 1

My youthful understanding of "Let your life speak" led me to conjure up the highest values I could imagine and then try to conform my life to them. There may be moments in life when we are so unformed that we need to use values like an exoskeleton to keep us from collapsing. But something is very wrong if such moments recur often in adulthood. Trying to live by an abstract norm, will invariably fail--and may even do great damage.

Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling me who I am.

Vocation, the way I was seeking it, becomes an act of will, a grim determination that one's life will go this way or that whether it wants to or not. If the self is sin-ridden and will bow to truth and goodness only under duress, that approach to vocation makes sense. But if the self seeks not pathology but wholeness, then the willful pursuit of vocation is an act of violence toward ourselves--violence in the name of a vision. True self, when violated, will always resist us, sometimes at great cost, holding our lives in check until we honor its truth.

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Vocation does not come from willfulness. It comes from listening. I must listen to my life and try to understand what is truly about--quite apart from what I would like it to be about--or my life will never represent anything real in the world, no matter how earnest my intentions.

That insight is hidden in the word vocation itself, which is rooted in the Latin for "voice." 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.

Behind this understanding of vocation is a truth that the ego does not want to hear because it threatens the ego's turf: Everyone has a life that is different from the "I" of daily consciousness, a life that is trying to live through the "I" who is its vessel. It takes time and hard experience to sense the difference between the two--to sense that running beneath the surface of the experience I call my life, there is a deeper and truer life waiting to be acknowledged. That fact alone makes "listen to your life" difficult counsel to follow.

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Parker J. Palmer
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