A Life Lived Whole
Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk and mystic who wrote these words, was speaking of the human world as well as the world of nature. But in our every?day lives, Merton's words can sound like wishful thinking. Afraid that our inner light will be extinguished, or our inner darkness exposed, we hide our true identities and become separated from ourown souls. We end up leading divided lives, far removed from our birthright wholeness.
The divided life comes in many and varied forms. To cite just a few examples, it is the life we lead when:
• We refuse to invest ourselves in our work,
diminishing its quality and distancing ourselves from those it is meant to serve
• We make our living at jobs that violate our basic values, even when survival does not
absolutely demand it
• We remain in settings or relationships that steadily kill off our spirit
• We harbor secrets to achieve personal gain at the expense of other people
• We hide our beliefs from those who disagree with us to avoid conflict, challenge, and change
• We conceal our true identities for fear of being criticized, shunned, or attacked
My knowledge of the divided life comes first from personal experience. A “still, small voice” speaks the truth about me, my work, or the world. I hear it and yet act as if I did not. I withhold a personal gift that might serve a good end or commit myself to a project that I do not really believe in. I keep silent on an issue I should address or actively break faith with one of my own convictions. I deny my inner darkness, giving it more power over me, or I project it onto other people, creating “enemies” where none exist.
I pay a steep price when I live a divided life, feeling fraudulent, anxious about being found out, and depressed by the fact that I am denying my own selfhood. The people around me pay a price as well, for now they walk on ground made unstable by my dividedness. How can I affirm another's integrity when I defy my own? A fault line runs down the middle of my life, and whenever it cracks open—divorcing my words and actions from the truth I hold within—things around me get shaky and start to fall apart.
Real people, real relationships
The more dividedness we perceive in each other, the less safe and sane we feel. Every day as we interact with family, friends, acquaintances, and strangers, we ask ourselves, “Is this person the same on the inside as he or she seems to be on the outside?”
Children ask this about their parents, students about their teachers, employees about their supervisors, patients about their physicians, and citizens about their political leaders. When the answer is yes, we relax, believing that we are in the presence of integrity and feeling secure enough to invest ourselves in the relationship and all that surrounds it.
But when the answer is no, we go on high alert. If our roles were more deeply informed by the truth that is in our souls, the general level of sanity and safety would rise dramatically. A teacher who shares his or her identity with students is more effective than one who lobs factoids at them from behind a wall. A supervisor who leads from personal authen?ticity gets better work out of people than one who leads from a script. A doctor who invests selfhood in his or her practice is a better healer than one who treats patients at arm's length. A politician who brings personal integrity into leadership helps us reclaim the popular trust that distinguishes true democracy from its cheap imitations.
The media are filled with stories of people whose dividedness is now infamous. They worked at such places as Enron, Arthur Andersen, Merrill Lynch, WorldCom, and the Roman Catholic Church. Surely these people heard an inner call to wholeness. But they became separated from their own souls, betraying the trust of citizens, stockholders, and the faithful—and making our democracy, our economy, and our religious institutions less trustworthy in the process.
These particular stories will soon fade from the front pages, but the story of the divided life is perennial, and its social costs are immense. As the poet Rumi said 800 years ago:
If you are here unfaithfully with us
you are causing terrible damage.
How shall we understand the pathology of the divided life? If we approach it as a problem to be solved by “raising the ethical bar”—exhorting each other to jump higher and meting out tougher penalties to those who fall short—we may feel more virtuous for a while, but we will not address the problem at its source.
The divided life, at bottom, is not a failure of ethics; it is a failure of human wholeness. Doctors who are dismissive of patients, politicians who lie to voters, executives who cheat retirees out of their savings, clerics who rob children of their well-being—these people, for the most part, do not lack ethical knowledge or convictions. But they have a well-rehearsed habit of holding their own knowledge and beliefs at great remove from the living of their lives.
That habit is vividly illustrated by a story in the news as I write. The former CEO of a biotechnology firm was convicted of insider trading and sentenced to seven years in prison after putting his daughter and elderly father in legal jeopardy by having them cover for him. Asked what was on his mind as he committed his crimes, he said, “I could sit there … thinking I was the most honest CEO that ever lived [and] at the same time … glibly do something [wrong] and rationalize it.”
The divided life may be endemic, but wholeness is always a choice. “Being whole” is a self-evident good, and yet time after time we choose against wholeness by slipping into a familiar pattern of evasion:
• First comes denial: surely what I have seen about myself cannot be true!
• Next comes equivocation: the inner voice speaks softly, and truth is a subtle, slippery thing, so how can I be sure of what my soul is saying?
• Then fear: if I let that inner voice dictate the shape of my life, what price might I have to pay in a world that sometimes punishes authenticity?
• Next comes cowardice: the divided life may be destructive, but at least I know the territory, while what lies beyond it is terra incognita.
• Then comes avarice: in some situations, I am rewarded for being willing to stifle my soul.
This pattern of self-evasion is powerful and persistent. But here is a real-world story about someone who found the courage to break out of it and embrace his own truth.
It happened at a retreat I facilitated for some 20 elected and appointed officials from Washington, D.C. All of them had gone into government animated by an ethic of public service, all were experiencing painful conflicts between their values and power politics,
and all sought support for the journey toward living “divided no more.”
One participant had worked for a decade in the U.S. Department of Agriculture, after farming for 25 years in northeastern Iowa. On his desk at that moment was a proposal related to the preservation of Midwestern topsoil, which is being depleted at a rapid rate by agribusiness practices that value short-term profits over the well-being of the earth. His “farmer's heart,” he kept saying, knew how the proposal should be handled. But his political instincts warned him that following his heart would result in serious trouble, not least with his immediate superior.
On the last morning of our gathering, the man from Agriculture, looking bleary-eyed, told us that it had become clear to him during a sleepless night that he needed to return to his office and follow his farmer's heart.
After a thoughtful silence, someone asked him, “How will you deal with your boss, given his opposition to what you intend to do?”
“It won't be easy,” replied this farmer-turned-bureaucrat. “But during this retreat, I've remembered something important: I don't report to my boss. I report to the land.”
Because this story is true, I cannot give it a fairy-tale ending. I do not know if this man returned to work and did exactly what he said he would do. But this I can claim: every time we get in touch with the truth source we carry within, there is net moral gain for all concerned. Even if we fail to follow its guidance fully, we are nudged a bit further in that direction. And the next time we are conflicted between inner truth and outer reality, it becomes harder to forget or deny that we have an inner teacher who wants to lay a claim on our lives.
Struck by the force of truth
As that awareness grows within us, we join in the potential for personal and social change that, in the words of Václav Havel—architect of the Velvet Revolution, former president of Czechoslovakia, and seeker of political integrity—is “hidden throughout the whole of society.” This potential, Havel writes, is found in “everyone who is living within the lie and who may be struck at any moment by the force of truth.”
The divided life is a wounded life, and the soul keeps calling us to heal the wound. Ignore that call, and we find ourselves trying to numb our pain with an anesthetic of choice, be it substance abuse, overwork, consumerism, or mindless media noise. Such anesthetics are easy to come by in a society that wants to keep us divided and unaware of our pain—for the divided life that is pathological for individuals can serve social systems well, especially when it comes to those functions that are morally dubious.
When the man from Agriculture distances himself from his soul, it is easier for his department to report to the agribusiness lobby instead of the land. But when he, or any of us, rejoins soul and role, the institutions in which we work find it just a little bit harder to ransack another ecosystem to satisfy corporate greed or to lay off another 10,000 working poor to maximize the profits of the rich or to pass another welfare “reform” that leaves single mothers and their children worse off than they were.
No one wants to suffer the penalties that come from choosing to live divided no more. But there can be no greater suffering than living a lifelong lie. As we move closer to the truth that lives within us—aware that in the end what will matter most is knowing that we stayed true to ourselves—institutions start losing their sway over our lives.
This does not mean we must abandon institutions. In fact, when we live by the soul's imperatives, we gain the courage to serve institutions more faithfully, to help them resist their tendency to default on their own missions. If the man from Agriculture acted on his “farmer's heart,” he did not renege on his institutional obligations but embraced them more fully, helping to call his department back to its higher purpose.
It is not easy work, rejoining soul and role. The poet Rilke—who wrote about childhood's “wingèd energy of delight”—writes about the demands of adulthood in the final stanza of the same poem:
Take your practiced powers and stretch them out
until they span the chasm between two
contradictions. . . For the god wants to know
himself in you.
Living integral lives is daunting. We must achieve a complex integration that spans the contradictions between inner and outer reality, that supports both personal integrity and the common good. No, it is not easy work. But as Rilke suggests, by doing it, we offer what is sacred within us to the life of the world.Parker J. Palmer is an independent writer, teacher, and activist who lives in Madison, Wisconsin. He serves as senior associate of the American Association of Higher Education, senior advisor to the Fetzer Institute, and founder of Fetzer's Teacher Formation Program. His prolific writing includes Let Your Life Speak, The Courage to Teach, and A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life (Jossey-Bass, 2004) from which this article is adapted. The book contains detailed information about the “circles of trust” Palmer and his colleagues have established around the country to help people in many walks of life rejoin soul and role. See www.teacherformation.org and click on the section for readers of A Hidden Wholeness.
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