The deepest vocational question is not “What ought I to do with my life?” It is the more elemental and demanding “Who am I? What is my nature?”
Parker J. Palmer
This past Saturday I spectated one day of a weekend horse training clinic. A friend was attending with her horse and I was interested in learning more. Over the past year, time with my horse has dwindled. I struggle to get out to the farm more than once or twice a week and when I do, I battle to find the energy to ride or work with him. I have not been able to maintain any kind of proper training, go to clinics or have lessons. There are many reasons for this, and they are valid, but that doesn’t make it any easier.
I’ve spent the past year working at my writing, and over the past few months I’ve taken on some tutoring work. I’ve run workshops. All of this has been good, but it has meant that I have less time and energy for other things, especially for my horse. I feel torn about this, and have tried to shut down the piece of my heart that feels so strongly about this horsey journey. Opening myself up to the reality of how much it matters is too hard.
On Saturday that door was opened again. I let myself delight in the opportunity to learn and be part of a community of people who love horses as much as I do.
All of this was a powerful reminder to me of how deeply rooted this desire to be with horses is in me. But I realised something else during the course of the day. I felt at home, and not only with the people themselves. I felt at home in myself. I was quiet inwardly, and had a rare sense of calm and groundedness. I spoke when I wanted to and was quiet when I wanted to be quiet. The restlessness I usually feel in social settings was gone.
It didn’t take long for this zen like state to dissipate, once I arrived home and headed into the rest of the weekend. But those few hours of presence have left their mark. They’ve reminded me that there is a core, an essential ‘me-ness’, and that I can access it, if I create the opportunities for it to emerge.
I have been reading Parker Palmer’s book, Let Your Life Speak. I was intrigued after listening to a podcast in which he spoke of his journey into and out of depression. It’s an easy book to read, in one sense, because its language and easy style is very accessible. But I am finding myself challenged. Asking questions like those in the quote above is proving to be more demanding than I’d have thought.
I’ve spent my life asking what I should do, what the ‘right thing’ is. I still think those are important and helpful questions. I have a family and a home; there are responsibilities to honour and they are a privilege. But I often find myself feeling drained and stretched beyond my ability to sustain those responsibilities with joy. I have given my life to good things, but have sometimes closed the door on what I love, what I want to do. I’ve told myself that doing what I want is selfish. I know it can be, but doing what I love, what feeds me, can also be life giving, not only for me but for the people who share my life.
There’s a lot of talk today about self-care, and about what it means. People argue back and forth about the need for self-care, versus living lives given over to love and care for others. In my faith we are often ambivalent about talk of caring for ourselves. It seems to fly in the face of all the teaching about putting others ahead of yourself; it seems to contradict the example of Jesus, who gave his very life.
I don’t know how to put it all together, to tie the arguments into a neat formula for living. I have tried. My mind has worked overtime, battling to pull all the threads into a coherent whole that I can follow like blueprint. But I’ve never managed to find the clarity I seek. What I do know is that I’m tired. I know that when I take time to drink from the wells that replenish me, when I live in harmony with my essential nature (and that includes time spent with my horse) I am better at everything else, especially at reaching generously into the lives of those I love and want to honour.
(At WordPlay this week, I share some thoughts from Rilke. Although they are about writing, I find them helpful for thinking about this question of vocation, and how that shapes our life. I also share another question from Let Your Life Speak.)