Then I ran across the old Quaker saying "Let your life speak." I found the words encouraging, and I thought I understood what they meant: "Let the loftiest truths and values guide you. Live up to those demanding standards in everything you do." I believed I was being exhorted to live a life of high purpose, as did Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and Mahatma Gandhi.
Clinging fearfully to my academic job even though it was a bad fit, I tried to teach the way I imagined my heroes would. The results were rarely admirable, often laughable, and sometimes grotesque, as when I caught myself preaching to students instead of teaching them. I had simply found a "noble" way to live a false life, imitating my heroes instead of listening to my heart. Vocation the way I was seeking it, had become a grim act of will.
Today, some 30 years later, I've found deep joy in my vocation as a writer, traveling teacher, and activist. And "Let your life speak" means something different to me now. Vocation, I've learned, doesn't come from willfulness. It comes from listening. That insight is hidden in the word vocation itself, which is rooted in the Latin for "voice." Before I tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen for what my life wants to do with me.
I've come to understand vocation not as a goal to be achieved but as a gift to be received—the treasure of true self I already possess. Vocation doesn't come from a voice "out there" calling me to become something I'm not. It comes from a voice "in here" calling me to be the person I was born to be.
Accepting this birthright gift of self turns out to be even more demanding than attempting to become someone else. I've sometimes responded to that demand by ignoring the gift or hiding it or fleeing from it, and I don't think I'm alone. An old Hasidic tale reveals both the universal tendency to want to be someone else and the importance of becoming one's self: Rabbi Zusya, when he was an old man, said, "In the coming world, they will not ask me, 'Why were you not Moses?' They will ask me, 'Why were you not Zusya?'"
When we lose track of our true self, how can we pick up the trail? Our lives speak through our actions and reactions, our intuitions and instincts, our feelings and bodily states, perhaps more profoundly than through words. If we can learn to read our own responses, we'll receive the guidance we need to live more authentic lives. The soul speaks only under quiet, inviting, and safe conditions. If we take some time to sit silently listening, the soul will tell us the truth about ourselves—the full, messy truth. An often ignored dimension of the quest for wholeness is the need to embrace what we dislike about ourselves as well as what we're proud of, our liabilities as well as our strengths.