Last week, we spoke of our unique identity, using the image of the unique song that is each of us. We said too that this song, that who we are, is the fundamental gift that we have to offer one another. Using the same image we might add that it can often be a long and slow struggle to discover our song, to discover our real voice, and not simply be an echo of our culture, of our background, of how others have named us, however well-intentioned.
These thoughts call to mind the story of Echo from Greek mythology. On the surface, the story reflects the phenomenon of an echo, a sound that comes back to us from a mountain or hill, repeats itself over and over, and gradually fades away. More profoundly, it suggests that if we only repeat what we have heard from outside, and never find our true original voice from within,we will gradually fade away and die inside.
One further striking element in the story is that the young woman Echo is condemned to this condition by the goddess, Hera, whom she has inadvertently offended. In other words, often we may not simply fail to find our own voice from within, but we may be deprived of that voice. We may have an alien voice inflicted upon us, by others or society, from their need for power, control, unrealized ambitions, conformity, or jealousy, all of which may mask a lack of awareness or an unfaced fear.
A similar theme is expressed in the story of Rumpelstiltskin, in which the task is to spin straw into gold, to take the raw material of our life and fashion it into a lasting work of art. Yet this challenge is occasioned by the arrogant boastfulness of the young woman’s father, the miller, and the greed of the king. To succeed in this wounded context, she has to rely upon the dwarf, that is to say, on all her own inner resources. The successive cost is imaged as the string of pearls, the ring, and the future child. Without spelling out details, the challenge is to develop all our different qualities (pearls), to integrate or unify them (ring) , and to struggle with our destructive tendencies (loss of child or future).
It is striking that the word for voice comes from the Latin word vocare, meaning to call. The challenge of creating of our lives as a lasting work of art is to pass from what we are called by others to the call we hear from our own deepest centre. It is to discover not just our job or our profession, but our vocation. It is what we are called from within to make of our lives, in light of our own deepest inner voice.
At the same time, there is an unfortunate cultural assumption that our own voice is in opposition to others, that others are an obstacle to our freedom. A common (mis)understanding for freedom seems to see it merely as the ability to make money at the expense of others. I think it is better understood as the capacity and responsibility to grow and develop as persons, to fashion ourselves into a lasting work of art. And it would occur, with the help of others, and also on behalf of others.
I have found–though much easier to express in words than in real life–that the degree of freedom that we have as young adults depends somewhat on the degree of intelligent love we have received as children. To the extent that this is lacking and is incomplete, as it always is, there is a struggle to become free, to grow beyond the fear and hostility that weigh us down. At the same time, our freedom is fulfilled, not in endlessly remaking arbitrary choices, but in giving ourselves fully and completely. Freedom is fulfilled not in avoidance but in commitment. The question, it seems to me, is not how to avoid decision and commitment, but how to find to what or to whom we can give ourselves completely. The question is what is worth the gift of our whole self. In effect, it is a question of learning how to love.
An insightful understanding is offered by philosopher, Robert Johann, who comments that human rights, which imply freedom, are bound up with the reciprocity of persons. I cannot assert rights in front of an impersonal tornado or hurricane. My rights, he says, depends upon your responsibility to recognize and treat me as a person; and your rights depend on my responsibility to recognize and treat you as a person..
The poem by Robert Frost, The Death of a Hired Man, portrays a the person who lacks a real home, except for the couple who afford him a safe place to die. He is characterized as having “nothing to look backward to with pride and nothing to look forward to with hope.” Aside from a more insightful interpretation of this story told as a poem, it offers an image of being empty-handed, of lacking the capacity to gather ourselves into our hands as something of sacred worth, and lacking something to give to and entrust with that self.
Put in slightly different words, I have the challenge not only to discover and express my own unique voice and song, but to do so in a context of respect for you and your voice and song. And we find our voice only within the framework of helping one another to discover and express that voice and sing that song.
May we learn more and more to discover and help one another to discover our own unique voices, and to contribute at least in some small way to the harmony of our own lives, of our relationships and of our world.
Norman King, December 12, 2021