I’ve been thinking a lot about listening recently. There are plenty of examples in popular songs, Disney movies, and motivational speeches that tell us, “listen to your heart.” I’ve particularly struggled with this, in part because the verse Jeremiah 17:9, “The heart is deceitful above all things” seems to imply that the heart is something to be ignored because it tells lies. And I’m sure that sometimes it does. But…
Temptation toward things that seem attractive, sexy, exciting, that appear to be an answer to an unmet yearning, a path to fame, all of those can get me distracted or even obsessed with an object that is ultimately going to be destructive to me, my mind, or my family. I already know that I can’t safely follow blindly after everything I think I want. So, okay. The heart is sometimes deceptive.
However, the opposite — opposing, ignoring, and deafening myself to every inkling that comes from my heart — is equally devastating, but on a less visible scale. It’s devastating on the level of the soul. From what I’ve learned about self-care and mental health, the first step toward healing and a better life is becoming aware of the problem itself – often it’s a fear or trauma or bad habit that I’ve internalized. But I can’t even start to become aware of myself if I never listen to myself.
Listening doesn’t mean I have to immediately act on that I hear. If my heart is, for example, telling me to drop my kids at my parents’ house and drive nonstop until I’m across the Canadian border (True story: I really struggled with depression when my kids were young, and I’m not free-and-clear now, though it’s improved) my awareness of those panicked, overwhelmed thoughts was a healthy thing. And for the record, I didn’t update my passport and abandon my family. I did talk to my husband about it. I’ve since then found real goodness in a half-day spent at an all-women spa and taking time to travel by myself for visits to dear friends.
Listening to my heart threaten me with its desperate desire to get away was a wake-up call. Kind of like someone shouting until I finally paid attention to them.
Speaking of shouting, several years ago when I was studying The Artist’s Way with some friends, one exercise encouraged us to listen to our inner voice. For many of you, the style of this course may be more “woo-woo” then your preferences permit, but please bear with me. The inner voice, as I recall, is described as your younger self, how you spoke and thought and dreamed as a child before your first traumas and fears told you were wrong or even that you were bad to cherish them. So, I quieted myself to listen to… myself. I was startled to hear a voice screaming at me from inside my head. I wrote down what she said. Once she knew she was being listened to, the screaming quieted to a frustrated, or maybe pleading urgency. Again, I realize this falls into the category of mystical/surreal experiences. Take it as you will. It really impacted me.
As a teenager who struggled mightily with guilt and worry, during that time of my life, it seemed far easier to stop listening to my whirling thoughts and simply find someone I trusted, some benevolent authority to tell me what was okay, to tell me that I was okay, and to take my mind off the endless spiral of mental torment. (I really don’t want to be fourteen again.)
I can empathize with anyone in a situation like that—needing to rely on someone else’s judgment. I just really hope that, if that’s you, you don’t decide to stay there indefinitely, letting all decisions and priorities be chosen on their behalf and never once asking yourself how you fit into the world, as a whole, and what unique hopes dreams, desires or talents you have to offer it. Or, to step back further, to listen for what personal healing you need before you can be that force of good to the world.
I really believe a person can spend several lifetimes following the laid-out directives of what other people want them to do with their time.
But if you’ve never listened within the quiet sanctum of your own mind, learned to be still, faced the whisperings or shouts of your heart, my fear is that there will come a deep, frightening rift which costs you your peace.
Of course, now I feel like I’m standing on a soapbox. I don’t know who needs to hear this. What I’m trying to say is, the practice of quietly examining your heart is not imperative. It does not mean you have to suddenly obey every whim it sends you. But it does mean you are granting it the respect it deserves. How can we love and help heal the world when we don’t care to do that first for ourselves?
In the last few years have I understood the practice of stillness in cultivating a sense of inner peace. That practice felt completely impossible when I had any children under the age of two in my house – so for you new mamas out there, I’m not saying “Just take some time for yourself! It’s not that hard!” I get it. It’s so hard.
But even if time alone isn’t at all attainable, I think listening to our own hearts still might be. Did you just feel a sudden flash of anger at a seemingly harmless comment? Try to dig for the why. Did you just get gut-punched with the unbearable yearning for a buried artistic dream? Try to discern what started it. It may be a frightening path of inquiry, but it’s worth it to listen.
And of course, that verse I mentioned that I’ve always struggled with isn’t the only one about the heart. “May he grant you your heart’s desire and fulfill all your plans!” This is a song, a blessing from Psalm 20:4. I know then, that I don’t have to do away with or distrust every single thing I’ve ever wanted.
Listening to yourself is exactly what it sounds like. It’s listening the way a good friend hears you out, but doesn’t jump to challenge you or shame you or tell you what you should do next. A friend listens and cradles your story with compassion. That’s how I want to listen to myself. That’s what I want for all of us.
In my case, I listen, I journal, I talk to God about what I hear. I talk about it with James. I wait. I might even have conversations with a few trusted friends about it. Sometimes these things I’ve heard will appear in my fiction.
Whatever happens, what I hear is treated with respect, even if it is something as horrifying as the thought of abandoning my kids. Because just as I believe every person has a right to their feelings, I must also believe that this applies to myself. Once I know myself, I can gather wisdom to decide how I will act and react to my new knowledge.
I realize this sort of thing is a very personal journey but, as always, if you are reading this and have something you’d like to share, I’m always interested in hearing from you! Either in the comments or by sending me a message.