The Elusive Art of Inner Wholeness and How to Stop Hiding Our Souls
“Wholeness does not mean perfection: it means embracing brokenness as an integral part of life.”
By Maria Popova
“Do not despise your inner world,” philosopher Martha Nussbaum admonished in her reflection on what it takes to live a full life. “Real self-esteem is an integration of an inner value with things in the world around you,” Anna Deavere Smith wrote in her spectacular letters of advice to young artists. And yet in a culture where we’re devouring one another’s outward selves with accelerating “aesthetic consumerism” as we scroll through social media feeds, we’re increasingly bedeviled by the rift between private person and public persona, inner world and outward projection. The soul-salving art of bridging that gap is what Parker Palmer explores in A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life (public library) — an ennobling field guide to living with the grace and integrity of being your whole self, titled after the famous Thomas Merton line, “there is in all things … a hidden wholeness.”
Palmer — founder of the Center for Courage & Renewal, a contemporary Thoreau of the psyche, and one of the wisest human beings I’ve had the fortune of meeting — begins with the root of our dividedness:
Afraid that our inner light will be extinguished or our inner darkness exposed, we hide our true identities from each other. In the process, we become separated from our own souls. We end up living divided lives, so far removed from the truth we hold within that we cannot know the “integrity that comes from being what you are.”
That separation, he notes, can take many forms, from the misalignment of work and purpose, with which young William James tussled, to denying or hiding some fundamental part of our identity in fear of being judged or rejected, the “play-acting” Kierkegaard lamented, to the all too familiar and endemic impostor syndrome. And yet Palmer makes an important distinction between perfectionism, which only ever oppresses the soul, and wholeness, which liberates it:
Wholeness does not mean perfection: it means embracing brokenness as an integral part of life. Knowing this gives me hope that human wholeness — mine, yours, ours — need not be a utopian dream, if we can use devastation as a seedbed for new life.
Palmer argues that the pathology of the divided life isn’t something to be solved by ethics — a discipline typically taught through the lens of abstraction and reason rather than embodied empathy for the human experience, ours and that of others; a kind of costume we put on to stage our own good-personhood production. Palmer writes:
As teenagers and young adults, we learned that self-knowledge counts for little on the road to workplace success. What counts is the “objective” knowledge that empowers us to manipulate the world. Ethics, taught in this context, becomes one more arm’s-length study of great thinkers and their thoughts, one more exercise in data collection that fails to inform our hearts.
I value ethical standards, of course. But in a culture like ours — which devalues or dismisses the reality and power of the inner life — ethics too often becomes an external code of conduct, an objective set of rules we are told to follow, a moral exoskeleton we put on hoping to prop ourselves up. The problem with exoskeletons is simple: we can slip them off as easily as we can don them.
When we understand integrity for what it is, we stop obsessing over codes of conduct and embark on the more demanding journey toward being whole.
Dividedness, Palmer notes, is a kind of survival instinct that helps mitigate our excruciating discomfort with uncertainty, shielding our inner lives with those protective but ultimately pernicious outer shells:
Not knowing who or what we are dealing with and feeling unsafe, we hunker down in a psychological foxhole and withhold the investment of our energy, commitment, and gifts… The perceived incongruity of inner and outer-the inauthenticity that we sense in others, or they in us-constantly undermines our morale, our relationships, and our capacity for good work.
Echoing Anaïs Nin’s reflection on personal responsibility, Palmer considers the conduit to wholeness:
We are cursed with the blessing of consciousness and choice, a two-edged sword that both divides us and can help us become whole.
The divided life may be endemic, but wholeness is always a choice.
Making that choice, he argues, requires that we “create spaces between us where the soul feels safe enough to show up and make its claim on our lives.” In fact, the soul is something Parker treats with a great deal of gentle attentiveness as he contemplates the crux of wholeness.
The concept of the soul seems to have fallen out of fashion over the past century, but its trials and triumphs are the perennial substance of the human journey. In Buddhism, it is known as “original nature.” Quakers call it “inner teacher” or “inner light.” Hasidic Jews call it a “spark of the divine.” The Catholic mystic and writer Thomas Merton called it “true self.” Humanists see it as an “indestructible and eternal” part of the universe. Palmer writes:
What we name it matters little to me, since the origins, nature, and destiny of call-it-what-you-will are forever hidden from us, and no one can credibly claim to know its true name. But that we name it matters a great deal. For “it” is the objective, ontological reality of selfhood that keeps us from reducing ourselves, or each other, to biological mechanisms, psychological projections, sociological constructs, or raw material to be manufactured into whatever society needs — diminishments of our humanity that constantly threaten the quality of our lives.
He illustrates this with a personal example to which most mindful parents and grandparents can relate:
When my first grandchild was born, I saw something in her that I had missed in my own children some twenty-five years earlier, when I was too young and self-absorbed to see anyone, including myself, very well. What I saw was clear and simple: my granddaughter arrived on earth as this kind of person, rather than that, or that, or that.
In my granddaughter I actually observed something I could once take only on faith: we are born with a seed of selfhood that contains the spiritual DNA of our uniqueness-an encoded birthright knowledge of who we are, why we are here, and how we are related to others. We may abandon that knowledge as the years go by, but it never abandons us.
Let me pause here to note that while I side with Sam Harris on matters of spirituality and find the notion of the eternal “soul” somewhat problematic as a delusory salve for our chronic dread of our own impermanence, I side most of all with Carl Sagan, who wrote in history’s most lucid treatise on science and spirituality: “If we ever reach the point where we think we thoroughly understand who we are and where we came from, we will have failed.”
The point, of course, is that the mystery of what we call the “soul” — the stuff of Hannah Arendt’s elegant case for “unanswerable questions” — need not be resolved in order for the concept itself to be a useful one in advancing our understanding of and compassion for ourselves, right here and right now, in this blink of cosmic time that is our existence.
Crucially, Palmer points out, inner wholeness will continue to evade us for as long as we shackle the soul to the artificial exoskeleton that protects it — a perilous tendency that will eventually lead us to confuse the latter for the former:
Here is the ultimate irony of the divided life: live behind a wall long enough, and the true self you tried to hide from the world disappears from your own view! The wall itself and the world outside it become all that you know. Eventually, you even forget that the wall is there — and that hidden behind it is someone called “you.”
Palmer calls this rift “the gap between our onstage performance and backstage reality” and writes:
If we want to create spaces that are safe for the soul, we need to understand why the soul so rarely shows up in everyday life.
One particularly poignant aspect of this soul-shyness has to do with our fraught relationship with solitude. Palmer paints a wonderfully nuanced yin-yang:
Solitude does not necessarily mean living apart from others; rather, it means never living apart from one’s self. It is not about the absence of other people-it is about being fully present to ourselves, whether or not we are with others. Community does not necessarily mean living face-to-face with others; rather, it means never losing the awareness that we are connected to each other. It is not about the presence of other people-it is about being fully open to the reality of relationship, whether or not we are alone.
How we can build “a space between us that is hospitable to the soul” and “a community of solitudes where we can be alone together” is among the wealth of soul-stretching questions at the intersection of the practical and the philosophical that Palmer goes on to explore in A Hidden Wholeness. Complement it with Anne Lamott on how we keep ourselves small with people-pleasing and Victoria Safford on what it really means to “live our mission.”
Published November 3, 2014