After last week’s reflection on solitude, I came across words of poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, and educator Howard Thurman that really resonated with me.
These are the words of Rilke
“Love your solitude and bear the pain of it without self-pity. … Be glad that you are growing, and realize that you cannot take anyone with you; be gentle with those who stay behind. … Love life in a form that is not your own, and be kind to all the people who are afraid of their aloneness.”
He seems to be saying that we must learn to follow our own path, a path that is largely discerned in the silence and solitude. At the same time, respect and kindness to others is also an inseparable responsibility. It recalls undercurrents in the Greek myths of Echo and Medusa, which stress that is essential to find our own vision and voice, and not simply parrot the voice of others or have our own inner voice denied. The story of Narcissus reminds us that a necessary dimension of this challenge is to discover an image of ourselves as lovable and able to love.
Howard Thurman was also an author and civil rights leader who played a leading role in many social justice movements. He held that inner transformation is the basis of positive social change. Here is the quotation I came across.
“There is something in every one of you that waits, listens, for the sound of the genuine in yourself. It is the only true guide you will ever have. And if you cannot hear it, you will never find whatever it is for which you are searching. … The sound of the genuine is flowing through you, … Cultivate the discipline of listening to sound of the genuine within yourself. … Sometimes there is so much traffic going on in your mind … and you are buffeted by these, and in the midst of all of this you have got to finds out what your name is.”
The sound of the genuine appears to be the voice of our inmost deepest and sacred self, a self that remains and echoes within us throughout our lives, even if it can sometimes be muffled and drowned out by many noises from the society around us, that can hook into our tendency to superficiality, fear, hostility, or indifference.
Author Kathleen Norris tells of her experiment with children in an elementary school inviting them first to make noise and then to make silence, and afterwards to write down their response. While their comments on noise were largely cliches, their descriptions of silence were much more imaginative and profound. In one instance a young girl wrote: “Silence reminds me to take my soul with me wherever I go.” Without the self-awareness that comes from solitude, we may easily forget to take our soul, our genuine and true self, with us, and leave it behind in our work, our relationships, or our social involvements.
Spiritual writer Thomas Merton speaks extensively of what he calls the true self and the challenge of going beyond the false self, which seems to be the self that leaves its soul behind. For Merton, this is a passage from the surface of life, fed by illusions, fear, and hostility, to its inner depth and meaning, nourished by truth and love. The false self is the part of us that keeps forever busy on the surface of life, views its self as an isolated unit in competition with everyone else, and identifies blindly with the slogans of its nation or culture. This is reminiscent of J. Afred Prufock in the poem by T. S. Eliot. Out of fear and inability to communicate, he measures out his life in coffee spoons.
Merton insists that we are more than our possessions, our rivalries, and our social role; we are more than our surface wants, our fears, or our hostilities. Rather there is in everyone a secret beauty in the depths of their hearts, in the core of their reality. At the centre of our being, he says, there is a point of pure truth, like a pure diamond. He is speaking here of what we have called the sacred worth of each human being, as a unique person, who yet shares a common humanity that may be expressed in an enriching diversity. For Merton, that sacred core remains as at once and always as a gift and a call, even if we fail to discern, acknowledge, or honour that worth in self or others.
To tune in to the voice of our true self and our sacred worth is, I believe, what Howard Thurman means by listening for the sound of the genuine in ourselves, and what the child means by taking our soul with us wherever we go. It is reminiscent of a comment of Jane Ripley who has said that what is important is not so much what we say or sing as where we speak or sing from.
What initially might seem as coming from the opposite direction, but amounts to the same reality, is expressed in the famous line from Leonard Cohen’s song Anthem: There is a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” Oscar Wilde’s story, The Selfish Giant, tells of the giant who builds a wall around his house and garden to keep everyone out, and finds that it is always winter Then a crack appears in the wall and the children creep in, and it is once again springtime. The walls we build around our self are like the walls of what Merton calls our false self. They prevent new life from entering in. But if we live behind these walls and live from them, we also fail to be in touch with and live from our own true self. We become homeless, away from the true home of our inner sacred core. They prevent our light from getting out.
Once again, we see the importance of a sense of worth, uncovered and affirmed in solitude and friendship, which frees us to be attuned to that sacredness, and more and more to learn to live from our genuineness.
May you come more and more to listen to the sound of the genuine in yourself–and in others. And may you take your soul with you wherever you go.
Norman King, October 04, 2021