"I have spent my days stringing and unstringing my instrument while the song I came to sing remains unsung."
I just finished a book that blew me away both for its insights and for the author’s crazy-beautiful way with the English language. The title of Gregg Levoy’s book alone was enough to make it jump off the bookshelf into my book bag: Callings: Finding and Following an Authentic Life.
Levoy uses the term “callings” to refer not only to the more obvious concepts of our right work or the job we are meant to do, but also to anything that we are guided to, whether it be to become a more compassionate person, to let go of an old grievance, to live a life of service, to mend a relationship with a family member, to change our life in some way that puts it in alignment with our true selves.
Finding our way to that authentic life is not typically a trip down a linear path but most often a windy road. First of all, says the author, “If we only want to feast on the big ideas and the grand schemes and are unwilling to give our time and energies to seemingly small and limited tasks, to the thousands of baby steps needed to carry off our high concepts, then we will make little headway.” Second, this transformation takes its own sweet time, and while we can help by being open, we can’t force it. “We do much damage by not being patient with our own evolution, which by design and necessity luxuriates in an abundance of time and plot twists…We try to make things happen, hoping that in doing so we don’t inadvertently open the darkroom door while fate is developing our pictures,” says Levoy. Speaking of our eagerness to get to the destination, the solution, the end point of our quest, while rushing to get through the searching and preparation and uncertainty, he says, “We love the answers and suffer the questions. We worship the flower and ignore the soil.”
On the other hand, he cautions that taking small risks can go too far, though, that “At some point, we have to leap.” As he quotes British statesman David Lloyd George, “You cannot cross a chasm in two small jumps.”
“If responsibility is the ability to respond, when we do not respond to our calls, we put them in the position of having to come after us…” The author gently reminds us that life will, not so gently, remind us if we ignore our inner voice, or the voice of Spirit, or whatever you want to call it. Our bodies will act out, for example, as “The calls we will not name or follow coalesce into entities that will attempt to tunnel their way into consciousness using any rough tool at hand to remind us of their imperatives, and they will do so through the impeccable logic of pain.”
But we humans have all kinds of ways to avoid change and to avoid pain, so we’ll keep trying those, too, as long as we can. “Procrastination and resistance can be part of the path, part of what helps plunge us into a predicament that can serve to awaken us. In other words, there may be a certain rightness to our chariots swinging so low.”
One of the things I love about Callings is that, like me, Levoy has a fine appreciation for gray areas, for the dance of yin and yang, for the necessity of living with paradox. The pursuit of or answering of callings is fraught with steps forward and steps back, with desires to move forward quickly with the need to move more slowly, with simultaneous faith and uncertainty. If the time is not right for the big change, he ventures, “Sometimes hanging in there or exercising creativity within the status quo, is the better part of valor…Motion is not necessarily progress any more than noise is necessarily music.”
Along the way to following our authentic lives, we will be visited by synchronicities that we would be wise to examine, and almost inevitably by adversity as well. “Be willing to approach obstacles as if they might be allies, and make your leaps of faith accordingly,” Levoy urges. “They are setbacks that set us up for ultimately life-enhancing lessons: course corrections, insights, a better grip on our strengths and weaknesses, even valuable delays.” Mistakes and pratfalls are not to be mourned in our journey but to be learned from, and crises and uncertainty bring their own gifts. “We must therefore be willing to get shaken up, to submit ourselves to the dark blossoming of chaos, in order to reap the blessings of growth.” I love the quote Levoy shares on this subject, from Charles C. West: “We turn to God for help when our foundations are shaking, only to learn that it is God who is shaking them.”
Dreams are one way life directs us, though not everyone welcomes their messages. “For people cemented to the rational and scientific, the linear and observable, the ego and the five senses, opening to dreams can be like suddenly realizing that your bathroom mirror is actually two-way.” But he holds fast to his claim that dreams are very real, and warns that the peril of not believing so is real, too: “If we don’t obey our dreams, we’ll dream them until we do, or the unconscious mind will ‘dream up’ other channels for their messages to come through, such as symptoms, neuroses, and compulsions.” I think this is true of our waking dreams as well, actually, having experienced and observed in others close to me the terrors our body and mind can exact upon us if we are not living our lives in alignment with our higher selves.
Wake-up calls will occur in many guises, from catastrophic events in the world to our own smaller orbits. “We’re drop-kicked into consciousness, even if only temporarily, and we either use the experience to reorient us and recognize the call in the calamity, or we attempt to drive ourselves deeper into the status quo, the old equilibrium, and thereby miss the point entirely,” says Levoy. ”Thank goodness for such a mechanism, although gratitude is not generally our first response.”
Since we will be moved if we are to be free, why not open ourselves to the inexorable movement to the inevitable change? Otherwise, as Levoy puts it so compellingly, “Eventually, our feelings of inauthenticity and restlessness, our envy of others’ successes, our panic at the passage of time and our own reflections in the mirror, all become like tombstones—they remind us of where someone is buried—and we will measure our fear of death by the distance between our desires and our actions, between the life we want and the life we have.”
At the core of it all, isn’t it best to act and think from the words he quotes from actress Naomi Newman: “[S]ince there’s fear and suffering in life whether or not we take on adventures, whether or not we follow our callings, we might as well suffer in the service of our dreams.”
For me the most beautiful conclusion is Levoy’s, that “I am no closer to feeling secure in the world for having lots of answers. Making peace with the questions seems a better bet.”