“After all, conventional wisdom recommends the divided life as the safe and sane way to go: ‘Don’t wear your heart on your sleeve.’ ‘Don’t make a federal case out of it.’ ‘Don’t show them the whites of your eyes.’ These are all clichéd ways we tell each other to keep personal truth apart from public life, lest we make ourselves vulnerable in the rough-and-tumble realm.” –Parker J Palmer, Let Your Life Speak
Writing is a true vocation for me. A benefit of being a writer is that I find clues to my own true nature’s voice in my writing. My true self speaks to me through the stories and poetry I write as well as from those I receive from other authors and poets. The danger comes in not listening to my own writings for the clues they hold. The danger comes in forgetting that the stories passed on to and through me are still mine to learn from. The danger comes when I keep some personal truth cognitive or trapped on the page and begin to live a secret life.
I have written much about living a life of possibility – of knowing that there is so much more available to us than what we see with our personal limited views, views that are based on our assumptions, projections and fears. I have written and am still writing about how to open our view to see what is truly possible. What happens then when we don’t see for ourselves what is possible and as a result live a secret life along with the other life?: We trip up. We fall off the edge of our familiar path.
Or, we may be walking along some well-worn path, in some well-known role, not harming anyone but not fully awake either to what is beneath our feet. So we trip. We fall. We find ourselves in a precarious situation. We become depressed or anxious. We are surprised because this path was so well worn by many good people before us. And it is a familiar path; one we know how to walk. At the late stage of turning sixty, I found that I was relying on a well-worn path and role that was no longer true for me. The particular role I was in is not important. It can be any role we find ourselves: partnership, vocational, marital, family or institutional.
“When we lose track of true self, how can we pick up the trail? One way is to seek clues in stories from our younger years, years when we lived closer to our birthright gifts.” – Parker J. Palmer. Let Your Life Speak
I was given this story when I was eight years old:
There was a monk who appreciated his walks along a cliff that overlooked the vast ocean. This path was well used and worn. One day, perhaps not noticing that there was some erosion, or, he just wasn’t paying attention, he slipped and fell. As he fell over the edge of the cliff he grabbed onto a small branch of a tree that hung out from the cliff. After catching his breath and maintaining a good grip on the branch, he looked up. He was close enough to maneuver his way back up. But peeking over the edge was a tiger hungrily looking down at him. He looked beneath him. There was no way to climb down. Letting go of the branch would mean a certain fall to his death. He looked around for other options and saw a beautiful strawberry growing alone on a cliff vine within reach. Oh, how beautiful and sweet it looked to him! But he would surely fall if he were to grab it.
He glanced up again to see the tiger waiting patiently. He looked below at his fall. He waited. Nothing changed. The ocean was shimmering, so vast.
He sighed, took a breath, reached for the strawberry, and enjoyed it as he let go of the branch.
I thought of myself as living like this monk – taking hold of opportunity, taking risks and trusting that there are always other possibilities within my reach. I was living like this. But the true-true turned out, not entirely. I had walked certain paths too many times and just got into the habit of not watching where I was putting my feet. I told myself it didn’t matter that I lived this way, after all, most of my life was purposeful, active, honest.
Marriages, jobs, all the roles we play in life can become like a secret room we enter if we don’t maintain an honest and consistent consciousness with ourselves, in all areas of our life. We can easily find ourselves in roles or relationships where we leave our true self at the door for a myriad of reasons. Could be we are focused on keeping our jobs or homes. Could be that we believe we are doing the “right” thing staying put. We might feel financially bound to this job or relationship. We might come to believe that it “only takes one to save a marriage.” We may be “doing it for the kids.” Could be that we can’t give up a job or relationship that we felt destined from the start to be in. Could be we have become habitual and unconscious in this particular area of our life out of fear of the unknown. We may be in denial (a trait most of us learn early on in life). We may have been shown that living a divided life is the acceptable norm.
This above story of the monk has stuck with me for a reason. I don’t recall any other sermons or particular stories from this minister, though I sat in on dozens as a child and teenager. And, I would feel like an utter fool in my painful discoveries (I only felt like I am such a fool!) if I didn’t have such great company. “Welcome to the human race,” is what Parker says to such reckonings with our limits, faults and brokenness.
I first heard this story from a progressive Lutheran minister, who later left the ministry to pursue other dreams. Looking back, I recognize this young minister as one of my teachers. That story given to me then has resurfaced as my story, now. I found myself on that cliff. The tiger sat on the edge above me, hungrily. I could hang out here and wait to see if someone will come along and rescue me. I know how to do this – wait. Stay. But I had been out here for quite some time. Besides, I may find myself here again and it is better I take this risk, find out how to fall. Find out how to fail. (Maybe even find out what’s possible beyond this holding on).
I want to caution you about waiting to be rescued by a person (or waiting on circumstances to rescue you): the rescuer has his or her story around his or her rescuing. Once rescued you are now caught up in their story. If we let circumstances rescue us, we remain the effect rather than the cause of our life. Beyond the tiger there is a well-worn path, so somebody may be able to come by, scare the tiger away and help us up. The branch may break. The tiger may finally give up and go away. But being on the cliff, having already relied on that worn path, metaphorically means we have likely been here a long time and that someone else who trusts that old path (our rescuer) may just end up down here with us.
(Now we have two people and only one strawberry).
A paradox in this story is that all choices result in death. Well, welcome to our one universally shared experience and the end to everyone’s story: we die. We lose everything. At some point we will be separated from everything we love and cherish. Knowing this, what choice would be most meaningful? What choice would bring more wholeness to our life?
Knowing loss is inevitable, what do we choose?: eat the strawberry, wait to be rescued by circumstance (meaning spending more time hanging out here on the cliff, enjoying the view of the ocean), fall, or be eaten by the tiger?
“So many things are possible just so long as you don’t know they’re impossible.” Norton Juster, Phantom Tollbooth
Letting Go of The Branch Grabbing Hold of The Red Thread
“As often happens on the spiritual journey, we have arrived at the heart of a paradox: each time a door closes, the rest of the world opens up. All we need to do is stop pounding on the door that just closed, turn around-which puts the door behind us-and welcome the largeness of life that now lies open to our souls. The door that closed kept us from entering a room, but what now lies before us is the rest of reality.” –Parker J. Palmer. Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation
Again, this above story of the monk hanging from the cliff is a metaphorical tool of what it feels like to not risk or to risk everything for that strawberry, that immeasurable, unknown possibility. This is what happens when our true self reveals to us that we are living a secret life. As writers or thinkers, we can be tricked into believing something becomes true because we have either (only) written it, or only thought it. What is genuinely possible will happen in the real world of relationships, conversation and vocation.
I went for the strawberry. I let go of the branch of this particular familiar pattern (which had a lot to do with me isolating myself and dividing one area of my life from another). When we let go, we can’t know what will happen. What won’t happen is we won’t remain stranded on some cliff hanging on for dear life thinking the view of the ocean is enough to sustain us. We won’t place our happiness on what someone else does or doesn’t do. We won’t sacrifice our self on the altar of someone else’s fear or perceptions. Keeping the house or the job or our image won’t be as important as making more room for our soul, our true self.
Our main vocation in life, as it turns out, is to be whole.
So this is what it can mean to let go of the branch as we keep hold of the red thread:
We face into the unknown and let go of what’s safe and familiar. Face gently into what we resist. Take 100% responsibility for our experiences and not blame others or outer circumstances for our choice. We don’t blame our bosses, spouses or circumstances. We consciously live from the inside-out, on the Mobius strip. We do our best to trust other’s ability to navigate their own lives where our risking-taking impacts them. Of course we consider and respect others as we let go, as everything we do touches everyone else.
I hadn’t a clue what my fall would be like, or, where and how I would land. I hoped to God (as I understood God as in the Great Unknown, and that which is in everything) that the strawberry was ripe and ready for the picking.
A friend shared this with me: “God is not limited by our lack of imagination.” In other words, the possibilities are beyond my imaginings (especially when we are in resistance, fear or-and doubt) and the possibilities are varied.
Some questions for us to explore with this story and in our journals:
- What do you keep writing or thinking about? How might this be your soul speaking up to you?
- What story or poem keeps coming back to you?
- How can you take your awareness and wisdom off the pages of your journal and out into the world?
- What are you waiting to have happen so you don’t have to choose?
- What’s your biggest fear? Mine wasn’t loss of life or image here; it was (and at certain moments still is) loss of God as I know Her, of Truth, of Reality in that: what if the strawberry is just one big scam? What if I have it all wrong?
- How do you hope or fear others will handle your choice? Do you view others as capable of navigating their way through their own lives?
- Finally, who can we go to for help in exploring these encounters with our true self? It is invaluable to find company in soulful places and relationships, like in circles of trust or 12 Step groups, so that you don’t explore alone. Find a qualified therapist or spiritual teacher. Find a good friend who can hold the space for you to explore without giving advice, and whose not invested in your staying put. (Ideally, someone who isn’t invested in the choices you make but are able to host this edge with you). There will be those (friends, family, colleagues) who want you to keep holding on to the branch of the familiar because they find comfort in it. This, my dear reader, is their story and need not to be yours.
“We cannot get snared in catch-22 unless we consent to it, so the way out is clear: we must become conscientious objectors to the forces that put us at war with ourselves, assaulting our identity, violating the sanctity of our souls.” –Parker J Palmer, A Hidden Wholeness
NOTE: This blog is taken from an excerpt in my upcoming book: The Red Thread: A Journey to True Self, True Community & Authentic Leadership—Based on the Teachings of Parker J Palmer., Chapter 10: Hanging Onto the Red Thread in the World: Rejoining Soul in the Roles We Live.
Related wisdom from Parker J Palmer from his book A Hidden Wholeness:
“The secret lives of children have inspired some splendid literature, of course. In C. S. Lewis’s classic Chronicles of Narnia, we read about a magic wardrobe through which young Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy pass from their humdrum existence in the English countryside into a parallel universe of light and shadow, of mystery and moral demand, confronting the daunting and bracing challenges of the inner journey.’ I have never doubted the truth of the Narnia tales: that magic wardrobe was in my bedroom, too!
But when we turn from literature to life, this charming feature of childhood soon disappears, to be replaced by an adult pathology. As the outer world becomes more demanding-and today it presses in on children at an obscenely early age-we stop going to our rooms, shutting the door, walking into the wardrobe, and entering the world of the soul. And the closer we get to adulthood, the more we stifle the imagination that journey requires. Why? Because imagining other possibilities for our lives would remind us of the painful gap between who we most truly are and the role we play in the so-called real world.
As we become more obsessed with succeeding, or at least surviving, in that world, we lose touch with our souls and disappear into our roles. The child with a harmless after-school secret becomes the masked and armored adult-at considerable cost to self, to others, and to the world at large. It is a cost that can be itemized in ways well known to many of us:
- We sense that something is missing in our lives and search the world for it, not understanding that what is missing is us.
- We feel fraudulent, even invisible, because we are not in the world as who we really are.
- The light that is within us cannot illuminate the world’s darkness.
- The darkness that is within us cannot be illuminated by the world’s light.
- We project our inner darkness on others, making “enemies” of them and making the world a more dangerous place.
- Our inauthenticity and projections make real relationships impossible, leading to loneliness.
- Our contributions to the world-especially through the work we do-are tainted by duplicity and deprived of the life-giving energies of true self.
Those are not exactly the marks of a life well lived. But they are not uncommon among us, in part because the dividedness that creates them comes highly recommended by popular culture. “Don’t wear your heart on your sleeve” and “Hold your cards close to your vest” are just two examples of how we are told from an early age that “masked and armored” is the safe and sane way to live.” –Parker J. Palmer. A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life
“The Opening of Eyes”
“That day I saw beneath dark clouds
The passing light over the water,
And I heard the voice of the world speak out.
I knew then as I have before,
Life is no passing memory of what has been,
Nor the remaining pages of a great book
Waiting to be read.
It is the opening of eyes long closed.
It is the vision of far off things,
Seen for the silence they hold.
It is the heart after years of secret conversing
Speaking out loud in the clear air.
It is Moses in the desert fallen to his knees
Before the lit bush.
It is the man throwing away his shoes
As if to enter heaven and finding himself astonished,
Opened at last,
Fallen in love
With Solid Ground.” – David Whyte
On one of my morning walks as I wrote this chapter I say a small goat in a neighbor’s yard. I have always wanted a goat!
“Hello!,” I said.
A young woman (probably in her early twenties) said, “Hi.”
“Is this a pet?” I asked.
Her mother then joined us and I met her for the first time, though I have passed her house for years. She shared how her daughter also had a large sheep that thought her daughter was her mother. The young woman beamed.
“So are you involved in an animal vocation?” I asked the young woman.
“I WISH,” she said. I saw the stress of this wish flash across her face as she explained, “I’m in nursing school.”
I pet the miniature goat, and said my good-byes.
I wondered on my return home, what prevents this woman from prusing the vocation of her dreams? She hinted too that nursing wasn’t necessarily her chosen profession. So what was she doing investing her money, education and soul into it? Would she create a divided life, a secret life? Will not having pursued her dream vocation in fact create a divided life for her? Would she too find herself on a cliff some day reaching out for what is possible? Will she be resentful to someone or circumstances if she finds herself unhappy in her chosen vocation of nursing?
I’m available for individual counseling and consultations: firstname.lastname@example.org