“Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you. Before you tell your life what truths and values you have decided to live up to, let your life tell you what truths you embody, what values you represent.”
–Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak
In the fourth quarter of last year, I set aside most of my writing work, and helped my husband run his business, which involves property management and real estate.
I had some experience in the area of property management, and especially as he was recovering from knee surgery in September, it became clear that he needed help, and that I could give it. I’m good at strategic thinking, and slightly stronger when it comes to organization than my hubby. (He’s way better at sales and knowing how to fix things than I am!)
As I got involved and started asking questions (I’m forever asking questions—my training as a journalist and my lifelong commitment to curiosity keep me doing so), I realized that he’d been overwhelmed by the work, unable to keep up with it, since long before he had to have surgery. The problem was, he hadn’t told me, or anyone. The most crucial tasks were getting done, but many others were left undone.
So I stepped in, trying to create systems, trying to bring order out of chaos. I got involved in the day-to-day operations of property management, and while I was fully capable of doing it, I felt myself infected with a growing resentment. I was giving up my own work to help him with his. Instead of doing writing and content creation full time, I fit my own work into the already narrow margins of my life. I wrestled with what felt like selfishness, my anger that I “had to” help him, frustration with what had been left undone, the writing I was not getting done because of having to get a dishwasher repair person out to bid on work at a property. He didn’t exactly love my “telling him how to run his business” but he needed my help, and I didn’t like having to help someone who seemed so conflicted about receiving my help. But what I might not have seen at the time was that my feelings of obligation, and my efforts to convince myself that it would be good if I became the operations manager for his business, were driven by fear.
I felt nervous, fearful that he was mishandling the business that our family depends on (meaning, not running it in the way I would do it). I was angry at the mess, and frustrated with having to fix it. The story I told myself is that I was the only one who could straighten things out. The other story I told myself was that I was selfish for not wanting to have to do it. I was a rescuer, but filled with resentment. In short, I developed a classic co-dependent relationship with the business in about a week!
But that resentment may have been, under the codependency, a “no” that was trying to reassert itself; my own calling whispering furtively to kick fear out of the driver’s seat and be brave enough to pay attention.
It was true that Scot needed help running the business. It was also true that I was capable to doing it. However, I wasn’t the right person for the job. I needed to say “no” in order to say yes to what God really had for me to do (and to preserve my marriage, as working together did not improve it).
We agreed that it would be best if he hired someone else, and that I pursue building my own business rather than assisting Scot. That “no” felt like a relief, but also scary. But I decided to let my courage drive the bus, instead of my fear. I decided to say yes to being brave and yes to what my life was telling me, which is—be a writer, not a property manager. Create content-driven projects, not leases and property spreadsheets. Help people tell their powerful stories, and in so doing, live the story you were meant to live.
I blogged recently about passion, asking what are you passionate about? Sometimes, our fear can be a strong emotion, one that feels like passion. But mistaking fear for passion will often lead us to say yes when we should say no. If you really want to find God in the story of your life, and discover your calling, you’ve got to be able to differentiate between fear and passion. The voice of love always tells us, “Do not fear.”
When it comes to vocation, to the work you’re doing in the world, who’s driving—fear or courage? Are you telling your life what it should be, or listening to your life? Courage, I think, begins with listening, with paying attention. To listen first, and let what you hear shape what you say yes to, and what you say no to. To embrace the adventure that begins with paying attention.
Palmer writes: “Vocation does not come from willfulness. It comes from listening. I must listen to my life and try to understand what it is truly about—quite apart from what I would like it to be about—or my life will never represent anything real in the world, no matter how earnest my intentions.”
Listening to your life means paying attention. What brings you joy? What situations or projects have brought out your best self, your strengths? Where does your deep gladness touch the world’s deep need? What would you be doing if you were brave enough? What drives your decisions about your work in the world (whether it’s running a company, managing a household, minding the store, or writing the stories)? What whispers from God do you need or want to say yes to?
Listening to your life means figuring out (with the help of divine guidance) what to say yes to, and what to say no to. You can’t say yes to everything. Nor can you say no to everything. I often write about simplicity. Simplicity comes not from saying no to everything, but saying no judiciously. I have a couple of things I’m saying no to this year, because I want to say yes to other things. Sometimes we have to defer our plans, to recognize our limits, to choose not just the good but the best, to choose margin, not codependency. To say no so that we can say the holy yes God has for us to say.
Are you motivated and controlled by fear? Or what you think your life is supposed to be about? (Or what other people think or say about you?) Or will you listen carefully to life and then allow your courage to take you on an adventure?
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Would you believe that I am timid about some things, especially those that might lead to people learning more about me? Not the part of me that I talk about on the blog. The part of me that is below that, the part that has that voice I hear when I’m writing about the part I do let people see. It’s a voice that murmurs, “Keep this part to yourself. No one wants to know that. And if they did know it, they won’t care.”
I don’t like thinking people might not care about the me that is under the surface. It’s part of why I need a Savior now that I think about it. Jesus knows me on the surface and below the surface and every other way possible to know me. None of that knowledge has made him stop caring about me.
Tim, thanks for your candor. It’s that part below the surface that often, surprisingly, resonates the most deeply with other people. But I love your reminder–Jesus knows us every which way and we are still his beloved children–and I have to remind myself of this: being beloved is the truest thing about each of us. Thanks for your comment!
Just leaving that comment took me way out of my comfort zone, Keri.
Tim, thank you. When we risk we often create a safe place for others. And a place where you can discover that you’re appreciated. So thanks!
I also think that it’s okay to not write certain things. The parts we hold and don’t disclose–especially when we bring them to Jesus to hold for us–can make us stronger as writers and as pastors (and yes, I think we “pastor” our readers and followers, meaning we have a responsibility to them). The unwritten things, explored in our relationship with God, can make the written things stronger, deeper, more honest.
Thanks. I’m hoping that’s how it comes out for me, Keri.