“Vocation does not come from willfulness. It comes from listening. I must listen to my life and try to understand what it 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.” -Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak
Over the past year or so, my husband Craig and I have been part of a Spiritual Formation Cohort with about 20 other people from many different backgrounds. We met as a group for an extended weekend four times over the course of a year, with additional video conference calls in between, along with opportunities to share what God was doing in our lives by posting reflections and thoughts on a shared message board. The richness of this community has been breathtakingly beautiful and life-giving, an aspect which I may share more about in the future.
My reflection today has to do with something personal that has come out of this year of intentional formation as I have asked God to show me how He would desire to form in me more of the image of Christ. One of the questions posed to the cohort collectively and individually over and over during the course of the year was, “What is God inviting you into?” During one retreat this question was particularly pointed and I struggled to believe what I was sensing the invitation might be. Over the course of a few weeks following that retreat, I was convicted of what I do and what I’m attached to in an effort to avoid doing some of the things God has been putting on my heart over the last few years. As irony would have it, He invited me into something I have been deeply conflicted about for most of my life. A multi-faceted invitation to something I have deeply longed to do, while at the same time feeling selfish for having the desire to do it, and in the process, God seemed to be directly addressing my unhealthy attachments and some of the ways I have sabotaged my own life.
For as long as I can remember, the writing life has called to me. Words on the page drifting into my heart have been my companion and soul mate since the moment I could sound out the most basic ones. I remember once on a road trip sounding out the name of a town on a roadside sign and feeling so accomplished when I successfully figured out what it said, giving me a glimpse into the magical world of words. Along the way, literature and poetry especially captured my interest, with the layered themes, beautiful language and intricate landscape both hidden and revealed within the lines. Words were beauty that fed my soul and stirred the unnamed within. Words brought life and new ways of thinking and new ways of being.
Yes, new ways of being. This life that called to me – this life of words and thoughts and ideas, indeed, this life of being someone I was not yet, was the life I both coveted and disdained. Having grown up in a culture where hard work, productivity, and if nothing else, sheer busyness, are highly valued and praised, I pushed away this frivolous and unreasonable longing to bring my own thoughts to paper, and eventually, to the world. What good could ever come of that and who was I to have something to say? Hadn’t everything ever needing said already been said, and anyway, who would want to know what I thought? Besides, weren’t people more important than writing? Shouldn’t I be taking care of people rather than scratching out what would to some be meaningless drivel? What good could come of it? And what would I ever have to show for my time and effort? Anything? Anything worth anything? Would my words matter to the world? Would I matter to the world? The questions scared me. The answers I came up with scared me even more. I pushed it all away. I exhibited disdain and contempt toward the life it would take to write what was deep down in me and beyond, a life of quietude and solitude, of seeming unproductive and senseless “words, words, words,” as Hamlet put it in Shakespeare’s famous play. A life working away in the dark, beginning something new at midlife, starting over, doing what might look like “not work.” I was caught in one of the most conflicting dilemmas of my existence. I wanted to and I didn’t.
Oh , but isn’t that just the way it so often is? That what we disdain most and our deepest desires may in fact be the same thing? Could it be that what we vilify most vehemently is in truth what we desire most? What might our reaction against that which we disdain be trying to tell us? Are we afraid to believe that our desire could actually be our destiny, and that we are meant to embrace it? That it might be within the navigation of our deepest conflicted places where we discover what is really true in our lives and in the world? That what we think matters is proven to matter much less than we believed? That what matters most is that we are faithful and true to the One Who is Faithful and Truest of the True? That our desires are not always destructive and selfish, but sometimes built into our very DNA for purposes we may never fully understand?
As for me, I’m continuing to have to remind myself that what I perceived about desire as I was growing up was neither true nor helpful. I had come to believe that all desire within me was only me and my selfishness, that it could not have been put there by God, and I tried valiantly to eradicate those desires from every part of my being. In many ways, this subverted my life for more years than I would like to think about, as I avoided bringing my true self to what might bring wholeness and life to my soul. I don’t think I realized I may even have gone so far as to, as Parker Palmer so succinctly puts it, commit “an act of violence” toward myself when I pushed away who I was meant to be and what I was meant to do. I’ve pushed away my true self for so long, fearing most the response of people as well as my own distorted inner dialogue of value, worth and what success looks like. I must, over and over, come back to what is true and real. That my value and worth does not lie in what others believe about me, but in what God says is true – that my value is in Him, in me bearing His image and nothing else. That He sees Himself in me and I can boldly and confidently be who He made me to be and do what He put in me to do, letting go of what others think and tell me I should do and the value they might place on my performance. I must remember that to do what I’ve been made to do, I must first be who I’ve been made to be, even when that looks different from what I would like it to, even when I’m misunderstood and maligned, especially by my own self.
So here’s to allowing my disdain to teach me something about myself, embracing the desires the Divine has placed in me, and courageously living into who He has truly made me to be. For now, that looks like pulling back from things I’ve enjoyed doing, becoming smaller and relatively unseen, and living a more simple and thoughtful life. This is the kindest and truest I can be to myself. It is also one of the scariest things I’ve ever done.