How do we hold ourselves together when we find we hear within ourselves competing voices some of which talk loudly and which appear to take us in opposing directions?
Okay, so I don’t mean ‘hearing voices’ in a bad way. I simply mean that all of us have different roles going on in our ‘one precious life’.
If you called all those roles around a table and chaired a meeting with yourself, how do you think it would go?
I think item 1 on the above agenda is big question for all of us – draw your own diagram of your own unique roles and you might also ask the same question.
A while ago I chaired a meeting of different church leaders. Eight of us gathered around a table, there was an agenda to follow and a task to be done.
However, I was very aware that every person present had a slightly different viewpoint. Some of the differences were nuanced and subtle but over some issues our views were miles apart. I knew it wasn’t going to be easy or comfortable for all of us at all times to work together at the task at hand. And yet everyone was important, I cared about all of them and all of their voices were valid.
BUT this blog post isn’t about those leaders or that meeting; it’s much more personal than that. This meeting was just my stepping off point.
The day after I chaired that meeting I had some time out with my spiritual director and was reflecting on all the different aspects of my own life (it’s what you do with a spiritual director).
I realised that there were parts of me, aspects of my own life who were all present and relevant to the conversation we were having.
Suddenly it was as if I was chairing a meeting again, only this time every person round the table was simply a version of myself.
(I’m aware that this analogy might make me sound as if I have some kind of multiple personality disorder….)
All of these different parts of me are often in conflict. Some of them have a very loud and persuasive voice and they dominate the conversation about what it is that “Sheila” should or shouldn’t do. Others of them moan, mutter or feel miserable in the background because they don’t feel they are having their view heard or understood.
All of them have a valid and valuable voice and all of them must be heard at some point BUT they are not in agreement and therein lies my problem (and maybe yours too if you’re still with me)
Each internal voice, (representing an aspect of or storyline in my life) lines up like a ‘wannabe star’ in a karaoke contest desperate for their five minutes of fame in front of the microphone.
Let me introduce them one by one. Although these are aspects of my life, it won’t be very hard for you to think of a similar set ‘voices’ all vying for airtime in your head.
Sheila – the daughter. She’s a nag, it’s not all true but here is her negative script: “You should spend more time with your mother/how would you feel if you were in a care home?/There isn’t much time left, she’s going to be gone soon, how will you feel then? Some people visit their mothers every day… ”
And my reply is: Well bully for them, I’m doing the best I can with the time I’ve got and a) mum is not complaining and b) if she were in full possession of her faculties she’d certainly be telling me to get on with my own life and would be mortified if her longevity and dementia were to take over my life. This reply never fully works, Sheila the daughter might shut up for a bit but she only slopes off into the corner of my mind and sniffs loudly and self-righteously from time to time.
Sheila – the mother and wife – she is also pretty condemning: “family time always gets squeezed in around your job: you don’t clean, you don’t shop, you rarely cook, what kind of wife and mother are you?” and my reply is? A lucky one! David cooks (mostly), love food shopping and we pay a cleaner. David also irons if there is sport on the telly, do I feel guilty? No. ‘happy days, stop beating yourself up‘. This reply generally works.
Sheila – the body. To start off with, I didn’t even notice that this aspect of myself had come along to join the conversation, she’s only recently found her voice. But it was really helpful to recognise that she does have a voice and an important viewpoint. Now that I am entering the second half of life, my body is no longer saying “yay, let’s do this”, more often it’s saying “you want to do WHAT? Lie down NOW!” To say I feel a bit let down by my body changing its tune is an understatement. But I have to recognise its voice and learn to listen to its limitations.
Sheila – the priest. This is my area of work so it dominates most of my time. As a result it has the loudest voice in my head but as the role is often confusing, so it’s also very conflicted voice. The priestly voice inside me is most often saying things like “you should be doing more X or Y” or “you shouldn’t be doing so much A or B”. By turns she says: “you’re failing: you should work harder” or “you’re failing: because you’re working too hard, you should slow down”. She always underlines the word ‘should’! “You’re failing” is one of her favourite lines so let’s just reality check her script, actually “I’m doing the best that I can in the circumstances and just about as well as anybody else”. But this voice is strident and she demands a lot of time at the microphone. It takes a lot energy and determination to challenge this internal voice with her all or nothing thinking, her tendency to catastrophise and her tyrannical use of the word ‘should’.
Sheila – the friend This voice says “you’re a rubbish friend, you don’t get to see your friends often enough”. The second half of that sentence is certainly true but I’d like to hope the first half isn’t even if spending time with friends is the one priority that really gets clobbered by having a six-day week job. The other week we spent some time with friends and as we drove home I thought to myself, ‘WOW, that felt good, why did that feel so good?’ The ‘friend voice came right back at me: ‘because you don’t do it very often…d’uh!’ Yes, being with people for whom you carry no responsibility is really important. Note to self: try to do more of this.
Sheila – the sister Hmm. Sometimes she tries to pipe up, but being the youngest, she mostly gets told to put up and shut up. She’s used to that!
Sheila – the writer and reflector this is the voice you are hearing right now. I have learnt that allowing this part of myself the space and capacity to function is like an engine for my soul, all sorts of good and positive energy will flow out into the other aspects of my life if and when I keep this engine ticking over.
So, why am I blogging about this? What have I learnt? What might you learn, not about me, but about YOU?
- Every aspect of ourselves matters – each voice deserves to be treated with respect, compassion and gentleness, all should be heard, even though a point of view might need challenging.
Also …. And here’s the light bulb, ‘bing’ moment of revelation for me:
2) They cannot all be happy all the time! This is the insight that came from the church leaders meeting with which I began. Some leaders were not ‘totally comfortable’ with the direction we were considering and I found myself saying to one person ‘your being totally comfortable is not the aim of this meeting, it’s also impossible because as soon as you are fully comfortable (ethically, theologically, traditionally) then someone else around the table is bound to be uncomfortable.
So we have a better thing to aim for because agreement is not possible. And the better thing to aim for is love: we all commit to loving, respecting and co-operating with one another in spite of the (relatively minor) levels of discomfort this causes all of us.
I have to say the church leaders do a pretty good job of this.
And as for me? The 7 Sheila’s around the table? Am I learning to listen to myself with compassion, with critical discernment but also deep respect and valuing even the hurt or hidden parts of myself? Am I willing to accept of state of constant slight discomfort as normal?
It’s a work in progress
How can I do this? by abandoning the idea of that total balance is possible, agreement is not the goal, love is the goal. Can I be loving to every part of myself, accepting and self-compassionate?
I can if I know I’m loved.
There is though space at the table for one more person, I’ll add him in:
Jesus once said to his disciples ‘who do you say that I am?’ What if I invited Jesus to my meeting and turned the question around,
‘Who do you say I am, Jesus?’ If Jesus were the convenor who would he side with, would he slap anyone down? Would he champion any one voice? He wouldn’t to any of those things.
“See how very much our Father loves us, for he calls us children, and that is what we are”
1 John 3:1
Jesus would say ‘you are a beloved child of God, you are loved fiercely, relentlessly and protectively. Believe it and own it and be a little kinder to yourself, if only because God is infinitely kind to you.’