A practice closely related to listening to God is listening to our own life. Last week I wrote about the need to be attentive so we can hear when God “speaks” to us. Today I’ll examine the corresponding need to be attentive and listen to what our life tells us.
The gospel reading for the fourth Sunday of Lent (Jn 9:1-41) is about moving from blindness to sight. As the reading begins, we hear about Jesus restoring physical sight to a blind man. Then, as the story continues, we hear about the man developing a different type of “sight” – spiritual insight.
Listening to our lives is one way we can identify some of our ingrained “blind spots,” By developing a clearer vision of who we are, we can move further along the path of deeper spiritual insight.
Parker Palmer (an American author, educator, and activist) wrote an inspiring book called Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation. He doesn’t use the term vocation the way it’s typically used, as applicable to a small portion of the population who are called to the religious life (i.e., the priesthood or religious order). Instead, Palmer uses this term in a broader sense that applies to us all. He says vocation isn’t a goal to achieve but a gift to receive. “It comes from a voice ‘in here’ calling me to be the person I was born to be, to fulfill the original selfhood given me at birth by God.”
It may seem odd thinking about “vocation” as older adults, but this may be the best time to consider our calling! Career advancement goals and the accumulation of status items no longer drive us. We’ve learned that attempting to fit ourselves into roles set by other people’s expectations is futile. We’ve lived through our unique trials of darkness and hardship that have stripped away our illusions about having or doing it all. We’re now wiser and more aware of who we truly are, including our limitations and our strengths.
One story Palmer recounts is particularly insightful for this phase of my life. Initially, he believed that the Quaker phrase “let your life speak” meant we should make ourselves live up to an abstract and universal set of highest truths and standards in all that we do, so our life speaks of nobleness and goodness. He set about doing this by imitating people he admired. But he eventually realized this was, in fact, ignoring his true self, his own particular set of birthright gifts. He says, “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.”
This takes trust and belief that God made us good people, even though we’re imperfect. Palmer says, “God asks us only to honor our created nature, which means our limits as well as potentials.” I find this startling – God acknowledges that we each have specific limitations! God doesn’t expect us to be a carbon copy of someone else who we admire. We have limitations, even if we’re less than thrilled about acknowledging these to ourselves or others.
Listening to our lives means we must also be willing to hear what we don’t want to hear and what we don’t want to admit or show to others. He explains, “An inevitable though often ignored dimension of the quest for ‘wholeness’ is that we must embrace what we dislike or find shameful about ourselves as well as what we are confident and proud of.” We have to be cured of our blindness – by discovering our blind spots about who we are called to become – and then learning to see the true vocation God instilled in us as a particular, unique person.
Palmer provides insight on recognizing when we’re listening to what our life is telling us and pursuing the appropriate vocation. He says, “When the gift I give to the other is integral to my own nature, when it comes from a place of organic reality within me, it will renew itself – and me – even as I give it away.” We’ve become accustomed to seeing burnout as an inevitable result of trying to do too much, but Palmer offers a different perspective. He says that burnout often comes from trying to give what we don’t possess; we’re trying to give too little (of our true gifts) rather than too much. When I’m acting from my true self, doing the work that comes naturally from the talents and gifts God gave me, the work flows easier. That doesn’t mean that it is effortless. It can be difficult, but I (mostly) enjoy the process of doing the work as much as the result. I don’t need as much external validation that I’m doing something worthwhile because there is joy inherent in the work.
After retiring and investigating volunteer work, I attempted to will myself into being “better” than my created nature. I found an organization doing meaningful work and signed up to volunteer. But I discovered that some “limitations” of my nature (aspects that I dislike about myself – being an introvert and uncomfortable talking with people who I don’t know well) made my volunteer work more of a chore than a fulfilling activity. Rather than accepting the limitations inherent in my nature, I wanted to be what I thought was necessary to be a “good person” and so I worked harder to “fix” myself. (Spoiler alert – it didn’t work.)
Palmer warns us of the cost of choosing a vocation that isn’t faithful to our true self and instead insisting on doing something we think is nobler. And it’s not only us who pays this price. He says we also extract a price from others. “We will make promises we cannot keep, build houses from flimsy stuff, conjure dreams that devolve into nightmares, and other people will suffer.”
By continuing with volunteer work that didn’t come from my true self and the talents God gave me, I showed up, but I couldn’t give people what they needed and deserved. The work became something I wanted to avoid. And then, I berated myself for feeling this way and not being good enough to help people who were in need. Even after leaving that volunteer position, I’ve continued to be disappointed in myself.
It wasn’t until reading Palmer’s book that I now feel ready to let it go. I might finally be prepared to accept that I can contribute more effectively when that work comes from my authentic self. That means acknowledging my limitations and personality traits and factoring those into the decision of where and how to volunteer.
As we age, our priority shifts to sharing what we’ve learned and leaving a legacy for people to remember us by when we’re gone. This is a perfect time to consider our second half of life vocation (which may not even involve a paying job). Frederick Buechner famously said about vocation, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” As we move into our second half of life, we’re now wiser about understanding what brings us deep gladness. And the world in 2023 has readily apparent deep hungers waiting to be filled. Palmer’s book provides insight into how and why listening to our lives allows us to find our “deep gladness.” And then, acting from that knowledge of what our life tells us, we can be of service to filling the world’s deep hunger.
Suggestions for Further Reflection
Over the next week, I invite you to be attentive to what your life is saying about your vocation, regardless of whether you’re working a paid job.
- Have you, like Palmer, felt that living your best life meant living up to the highest standards and truths by imitating heroes rather than developing the particular gifts that God gave you?
- Palmer claims that self-care is never a selfish act – good stewardship of ourselves and the gifts we’ve been given is what allows us to give to others. Are you practicing good stewardship of your gifts?
- Our life speaks through more than just our spoken words. Our actions and reactions, our likes and our dislikes speak louder than our words. Is there something your life is saying to you through these mechanisms that you’ve been ignoring?
- If you’re now retired, what is your life trying to say to you now? Is there something from your childhood that fascinated you but you didn’t pursue because it wouldn’t support you financially, or you felt it wasn’t practical for some other reason? Maybe now is the time to re-engage with that interest.
God, as I get older, I still want to serve the world. Help me listen to what my life is telling me and find a way to act on it.
Although I may be finished with my career and what I thought was my only vocation, help me see the opportunities and open doorways in front of me. I trust that I can still find a way to use the talents You’ve given me to help make my part of the world a better place.
Let this desire burn deeply in me and inspire me to take action. Give me courage and persistence to pursue what evokes deep gladness, even if it appeared impractical or downright impossible earlier in my life.
And help me trust that pursuing this path with the desire to serve others is a noble vocation, even if my judging mind weighs it out as less important than what I see others doing.
Palmer, Parker J. Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation. San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2000.
Seems to me that writing this blog is a way for you to live your best life and, simultaneously, help others.
Yes! I think writing turned out to be an ideal thing for me to do. It’s such a natural fit with my personality and love of reading. Kudos to Mom & Dad for always taking my sister and me to the library and reading to us before we could even read ourselves.
I agree, this seems to be a great calling for you Cathy, and you do it beautifully. Thanks for sharing yourself in this way
Thanks, Shauna. Who would have guessed that I’d transition from Program Manager to Writer/Blogger in retirement?
“God asks us only to honor our created nature, which means our limits as well as potentials.” Wow that’s profound IMHO – reminds me (again) we are created in His image, living with limits and potentials is a never-ending tension….
thanks for this post Cathy!
And I found it interesting that Parker Palmer’s words fit so well with Greg Boyle’s message about service to others! It seems we need frequent reminders that we don’t have to force ourselves to be someone other than our true self who God created.
Cathy, I agree that writing is your gift to others!!!!!!! Keep writing!!!! Deb
Having just entered retirement, I am printing your prayer and putting it on my desk to help me as I consider what to do during retirement. I’m so glad you are using your talents to be a writer/blogger!
Congratulations, Lori! I think you’re going to love retirement and I have no doubt you will find something meaningful to do in your next life chapter. Very exciting!