“Turn your wounds into wisdom,” says Oprah Winfrey. She’s on the same page as countless others. “Do you not see,” said the poet John Keats, writing hundreds of years earlier,” how necessary a world of pains and troubles is to school an intelligence and make it a soul?”
Norse mythology underscores this exact point. The God Odin wants to be wise and so what does he do? He plucks out an eye and offers it to Mimir, the god of the well of wisdom, in return for a drink. Or he hangs himself from the world tree Yggdrasil for nine nights and wounds himself in the side with a spear so as to win the wisdom of the Runes.
Wounds become wisdom.
Our fourth Unitarian Universalist principle that affirms a free and responsible search for truth and meaning—it’s often a wounding way.
The wound is where the light comes in.
That’s what I want to talk about today, as refracted through the fascinating thought of Thomas Moore and his book, Care of the Soul, originally published in 1992 and still going strong.
Here’s how he echoes the ancient “wounds into wisdom” idea. “A person doesn’t wake up until he or she is forced to deal with something—a major problem, issue, trauma, or life change that causes them to reflect. If everything’s going well the tendency is to just go along unconsciously. But once something happens that is disturbing, then you have to take a look.”
Here are some disturbances:
You’ve been planning to escape your job for years, you are depressed and completely dissatisfied, but you’re still in it.
You feel like your relationships aren’t working because you’re just too dependent. This is how you see it.
You’re in your fifties and you’ve fallen madly in love, like a teenager—and it’s the full stereotype, you know it completely, and you are deeply embarrassed.
You have all this energy to change the world—when someone says PROTEST you jump up and you’re right there!—but your home life is in constant crisis and you just can’t relax and enjoy.
You feel empty, disillusioned, spiritually unfulfilled. You’re dry.
Compulsions and symptoms of all kinds.
Something disturbing is happening—so we have to take a look.
Did you know that the success of Care of the Soul shocked pretty much everyone, most of all its author? Millions and millions of copies have been sold; it’s been translated into more than 30 languages. Clearly, a nerve has been struck.
The reason is: because it’s fascinating, what Thomas Moore sees when he takes a look at our wounds. What he sees is something he calls “soul.”
Now we all know that “soul” is a word charged with theological static electricity. Plenty of meanings already stick to it, like lint. We want to try and pick off all that lint so we can engage it as if for the first time…
We are reclaiming the word, and let’s begin with the following quotes that all revolve around a central theme:
“The soul finds its fertility in its irrationalities. Maybe this is a hint as to why great artists appear mad, or at least eccentric.”
“The soul generally does not conform to the familiar patterns of life. Whenever the soul appears strongly—in love, passions, symptoms—its moods and behaviors seem odd and are difficult to fit into life.”
“When soulfulness appears in any human institution, its asks of us unusual tolerance and broad imagination.”
From these quotes we can infer that whatever else the soul is, it is a force that disrupts the status quo. The little town of your life has been peaceful for years but suddenly it’s overwhelmed by an earthquake. Feelings and behaviors come upon you threatening the status quo, and you try to reason them away but they can’t be reasoned away. They are impervious to all your pep talks and all the pep talks of others. Because the earthquake is you, too—an expression of you that may, in fact, be far more authentically you than the current status quo ever was….
That’s why Thomas Moore uses the word “soul” and not something else. “Soul” connotes something that is fundamentally who we are, larger than ego consciousness, and we can feel like marionettes in its hands. “Soul,” he says, “is the font of who we are, and yet it is far beyond our capacity to devise and control it.”
An old saying comes to mind: “Life is what happens when you are busy making other plans.” Our egos are busy making others plans—our egos imagine themselves completely in control—but then they learn the hard way that they are not in control.
Soul is the “font”—the abundant source, the living stream, the wild nature of our being….
But it is understandable how, when our status quo lives are disrupted, the go-to strategy is to want to surgically remove whatever the disrupting thing is instantly. Find what is to blame, cut it out, bludgeon it, remove it immediately.
You’ve been planning to escape your job for years, you’re depressed and completely dissatisfied, but you’re still in it. Stop complaining and just get out of there! (This is from the shouting school of psychotherapy.)
You feel like your relationships aren’t working because you’re just too dependent. Get a grip and stand up on your own two feet!
You’re in your fifties and you’ve fallen madly in love, like a teenager. Snap out of it already, for God’s sake!
You have all this energy to change the world—when someone says protest you jump up and you are there!—but your home life is in constant crisis and you just can’t relax and enjoy. But the world’s going to hell in a handbasket! Some sacrifices you just have to make….
You feel empty, disillusioned, spiritually unfulfilled. Wow, talk about a first-world problem. You should feel ashamed!
They say that knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit, but wisdom is choosing to keep it out of a fruit salad. When we bludgeon ourselves or others, it’s like piling tomatoes on the fruit salad. We are not wise where the human heart is concerned.
Wounds can be turned to wisdom.
But the way there is through caring. Care for the Soul.
One aspect of this is a sheer capacity to bring compassionate and nonjudgmental attention to what is happening. We receive this message from so many sources. Speaking from a Buddhist perspective, Pema Chodron says “The peace that we’re looking for is not peace that crumbles as soon as there is difficulty or chaos. Whether we’re seeking inner peace or global peace or a combination of the two, the way to experience it is to build on the foundation of unconditional openness to all that arises. Peace isn’t an experience free of challenges, free of rough and smooth; it’s an experience that’s expansive enough to include all that arises without feeling threatened.”
Similarly, and perhaps more picturesquely, Thomas Moore says, “Care of the soul begins with observance of how the soul manifests itself and how it operates. We can’t care for the soul unless we are familiar with its ways. Observance is a word from ritual and religion. It means to watch out for, but also to honor and keep, as in the observance of a holiday. The serv in observance originally referred to tending sheep. Observing the soul, we keep an eye on its sheep, on whatever is wandering and grazing—the latest addiction, a striking dream, or a troubling mood.”
So we keep an eye on the soul’s sheep. The latest addiction, a striking dream, or a troubling mood—we pay attention to them as they roam through our lives. And then we do something else: we trust that there is more than meets the eye. We shake the habit of literalism. As Unitarian Universalists, we say that we ought to read the Bible seriously and not literally. So why should we not extend this principle to the kind of scripture that is even more sacred: the Bible of our hearts?
So we don’t automatically interpret the discomfort we’re feeling as something that is fundamentally bad. We don’t react, cut away what’s offensive. We take a deep breath—we have to, because the whole thing is deeply unsettling!—and we try looking beneath the surface of the disturbance for the healing message that’s there.
You’ve been planning to escape your job for years, you’re depressed and completely dissatisfied, but you’re still in it. But have you truly given yourself to that job? What would it be like to stop trying to escape it and, by extension, the life you’ve been given? What would happen if you chose to enter into your job even more fully—to give yourself to it? The only way out is through…
You feel like your relationships aren’t working because you’re just too dependent. Maybe your sense of dependency is asserting itself because it needs more attention from you. You think you need more independence but, in fact, you’ve been avoiding deep involvement with other people and the world all your life…
You’re in your fifties and you’ve fallen madly in love, like a teenager. The Romantic Youth that has suddenly appeared in your life—has it not returned a world of energy and beauty to you, which is a good thing? So: can you find enough space for both the Old Man and the Romantic Youth inside yourself, to give each a proper place?
You have all this energy to change the world—when someone says protest you jump up and you are there!—but your home life is in constant crisis and you just can’t relax and enjoy. Can you give proper place to your needs to savor the world, as opposed to just saving it? Can you trust that, were you to relax and enjoy more, that your passion for justice would not evaporate but, in fact, be more focused?
You feel empty, disillusioned, spiritually unfulfilled. Your tears will bring you healing. Your tears will open the door. (This was what my therapist once told me, when my soul was disturbing my life by bringing me symptoms of disillusionment and dryness and I was simply flummoxed. In the end, she was exactly right.)
Ultimately, looking underneath our symptoms and disturbances for some kind of message with helpful intent means trusting what’s going on, trusting our process, even if in the moment things feel confusing and chaotic. “In care of the soul,” Thomas Moore says, “there is trust that nature heals, that much can be accomplished by not-doing.”
Don’t do. Just look. Just see.
We are so surrounded by the artificial, and we are so studied in the artificial, that we treat ourselves as if we were artificial too. We don’t know who we are! We must reacquaint ourselves with the nature that is within us, nature that is as wild and strange and surprising as stars and sky and trees and animals.
This nature within us, which is the soul: pay attention to it long enough—love its sheep long enough—and what you will realize is that it is always uniquely itself and never about adjustment to accepted norms. Imagine Henry David Thoreau, a man who always had mud on his shoes. That is the soul.
The wild nature within us: it seems to delight in paradox and complexity. It just does. So why are we always surprised when life takes us into paradox and complexity? Ego consciousness wants the world to be flat and black and white. But the soul is multidimensional and shades of grey….
Nature within us: its preferred process is slow and not fast. It tends to go over the same territory of memory again and again, like a cow chewing its cud. The soulful path through life is a spiral path. We are always going back to old things but with minds and hearts that are new.
The wild within: when we lose touch with it, when our status quo lives become soulless, earthquakes come—the soul sends them our way, as the gods in Greek tragedy might—so as to bring us back to sanity.
Nature within: it is the font of our deepest life, it is the absolute richness of our being, and when we are in sync with it, we are filled with purpose and meaning. Not necessarily happiness, though….
“I spent three weeks with a man,” Thomas Moore says, “a psychiatrist, who had just turned 90 years old. His family was killed in the Holocaust in Lithuania. And he is still in grief over this, from when he was 17. He is still deep in it and wanted talk it through. He is still dreaming, still having nightmares. From 17 to 90—and he hasn’t worked through his grief. Does this mean that he’s missed the boat? That he’s not done something he should have done? Not at all. He’s lived an absolutely beautiful creative life, more so than most people. But the grief is there with him and you might even say that his capacity for that grief has allowed him to be a psychiatrist and help many people.”
It’s like that ancient story of Odin. An eye is the cost of being wise. The soul wants us to be wise, but ego consciousness doesn’t want to give up an eye, but there is no stopping the soul.
Or at least, we may try. We may bitterly protest our fate. We refuse to let go of the ego-oriented hopes we have for our lives. And so we are dragged.
As I say that, imagine a waterskier who’s fallen down. Don’t be the fallen waterskier who refuses to let go.
Joseph Campbell once said, “We must be willing to let go of the life we planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us.”
That is the essence of Thomas Moore’s care for the soul.