Listening to Life
Five years ago at Christmas, my son Graham gave me a book by Parker J. Palmer called Let your Life Speak. He didn’t know anything about it, found it on a table in the spiritual books section of Barnes & Noble, thought I might like it. It has, over these past five years, become one of the touchstones of my life, key words about who we are, who we were meant to be, and how we are to listen for the voice of vocation. If I could, I’d buy you all a copy. Instead, I’ll share the opening page or two and trust it will begin to open doors for you as it did for me.
He begins with a poem by William Stafford, Ask Me:
Some time when the river is ice ask me
mistakes I have made. Ask me whether
what I have done is my life. Others
have come in their slow way into
my thought, and some have tried to help
or to hurt: ask me what difference
their strongest love or hate has made.
I will listen to what you say.
You and I can turn and look
at the silent river and wait. We know
the current is there, hidden; and there
are comings and going from miles away
that hold the stillness exactly before us.
What the river says, that is what I say.
“Ask me whether what I have done is my life.” For some, those words will be nonsense, nothing more than a poet’s loose way with language and logic. Of course what I have done is my life! To what am I supposed to compare it?
But for others, and I am one, the poet’s words will be precise, piercing, and disquieting. They remind me of moments when it is clear— if I have eyes to see— that the life I am living is not the same as the life that wants to live in me. In those moments I sometimes catch a glimpse of my true life, a life hidden like the river beneath the ice. And in the spirit of the poet, I wonder: What am I meant to do? Who am I meant to be?
I was in my early thirties when I began, literally, to wake up to questions about my vocation. By all appearances, things were going well, but the soul does not put much stock in appearances. Seeking a path more purposeful than accumulating wealth, holding power, winning at competition, or securing a career, I had started to understand that it is indeed possible to live a life other than one’s own. Fearful that I was doing just that— but uncertain about the deeper, truer life I sensed hidden inside me, uncertain whether it was real or trustworthy, or within reach— I would snap awake in the middle of the night and stare for long hours at the ceiling.
Then I ran across the old Quaker saying, “Let your life speak.” I found those words encouraging, and I thought I understood what they meant: “Let the highest truths and values guide you. Live up to those demanding standards in everything you do.” Because I had heroes at the time who seemed to be doing exactly that, this exhortation had incarnate meaning for me—— it meant living a life like that of Martin Luther King Jr. or Rosa Parks or Mahatma Gandhi or Dorothy Day, a life of high purpose.
So I lined up the loftiest ideas I could find and set out to achieve them. The results were rarely admirable, often laughable, and sometimes grotesque. But always they were unreal, a distortion of my true self— as must be the case when one lives from the outside in, not the inside out. I had simply found a “noble” way to live a life that was not my own, a life spent imitating heroes instead of listening to my heart.
Today, some thirty years later, “Let your life speak” means something else to me, a meaning faithful both to the ambiguity of those words and to the complexity of my own experience: “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.”
I pray that each of us finds a bit of silence today so that we might listen to what our lives intend to do with us.