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How To Listen To Your Life
Sep 1, 2015

All the inspirational material we find around us—poetry, fiery speeches, wise quotes—warns us never to feel down or disappointed. They claim that by keeping our morale constantly up, we can pursue whatever we want to and, one fine day, will reach our goal.

To this, we can respond with an emphatic, "yes!" Having been through the ups and downs of our own lives, and observing the same struggles in others', we've come to accept that things which might crush us can have valuable lessons. However, the advice Frederick Buechner shares in his famous memoir, Now and Then, is different. I think it's highly worthy of attention.

Buechner observes that, "Finding your vocation is less about grand moments of discovery and more about a habit of awareness." To be honest, at first I couldn't swallow this statement easily. I couldn't figure out how, and why, finding your calling, setting goals, pursuing them vigorously, and then landing where you wanted is not "about grand moments of discovery"? What else would we call discovery, if not grand? I devoted time and focus to rereading this thought-provoking statement, almost devotionally, until I found a clue to its meaning in an insightful article by Jeff Goins. He writes:

"We have been raised to believe that anything is possible, that our potential is unlimited, and that we are entitled to our dreams. But finding your calling is not so simple. Just because you can become an astronaut or a newspaper deliveryman does not mean you should."

Goins writes that a person's responsibility is not only to do what she is capable of or thinks she wants, but rather what she is meant to do. He quotes author-activist Parker Palmer: "Don't just tell your life what you want to do with it; listen to what it wants to do with you."

This quote made Goins wonder, as I did, how one could go about listening to one's own life. And honestly, I've never been guided before as Jeff Goins guided me in his next lines. Suddenly I began to visualize the process of listening to my own life:

"When you pay attention to your life and the lessons it can teach you, you won't feel so lost. Your story will seem less like a series of disjointed events and more like a beautifully complex narrative unfolding before you. You will understand each setback, inconvenience, and frustration as something more than what it appears to be. And perhaps, as you listen to it, your life will speak."

The process continues in simple steps. First, the person seeking to listen must consider the shape of their life, identifying major and significant events. It helps to write these down. This is not writing as a simple list, either, but writing in-depth. You should note each detail you can remember, whether it is clearly significant or seemingly irrelevant. Even the silly bits should be taken down. There's no need to decode the story's meaning right away. Everything that comes to mind will be part of this process.

Can you see how one event, without any intention or planning on your part, influenced another? How your comment on a situation led to someone's asking for your introduction at the end of the program you once attended somewhere? How a series of insignificant-looking incidents influenced your choice of a book at a bookshop? How it could be possible for you to finish that book, though you don't normally read books? How a series of useless internships influenced your career choice?

Once you have put down as much as you can remember, read over these events while looking for a common thread or recurring theme between them. Perhaps one event caused or influenced another, often without any planning on your part.

For Goins, one significant memory was of the time he won a spelling bee as a sixth grader, beating his eighth-grade opponent by correctly spelling "acquiescence." Then he remembered how his mother used to read the dictionary to him on family vacations. He also recalled how much he had always loved to write. Seeing these memories listed out during this exercise, he was able to identify core themes in his life, and it became obvious that he was "supposed" to become a writer. Such a process, I thought as I read Goins' article, could help us as well.

As such, I immediately tried to follow Goins' example, and I too was soon busy watching how my life played out on the paper before me. I saw many scenes, a lot of them nonsense, but a few stood out as meaningful:

1. On one weekend, I was busy finishing my third grade course book on Urdu, reading the text aloud to my mother, who was sitting beside me and listening. She was supervising my reading while she expertly knit a sweater, intervening whenever necessary to make corrections, and always encouraging me to keep going. I kept reading, happy to know that I was getting ahead of my fellow classmates. Soon, I'd reached the last page, and I went to bed feeling excited and accomplished.

2. When I was older, I discovered that I loved speeches. Every time I gave one, it grabbed everyone's attention. I even won contests and always received thunderous applause.

3. From the time I could read, I was forever enthralled by storybooks, and read hundreds of them while I grew up.

4. I discovered a love of pen-friendships, and kept up many, with individuals living all around the world.

5. After reading many stories, I began writing my own. At bedtime, I would read them to my younger brother and he always wanted to know what happened next.

6. I also loved reading poetry to my class, and sometimes I composed poems, too.

For me, it was clear that I was born to be a writer, and so I've begun to build my habits of awareness, just as Buechner suggests.

What about you? Are you ready to write out the random, disjointed events of your life in the hopes of finding a common thread? I guarantee you, no matter what kind of life you've led, that if you look diligently enough, it will be there; with earnest effort, you will not only discover your purpose, but will build the life you were meant to live.