“Developing Habits of the Heart, Part III,” by Liana Thompson Knight

Message given at Durham Friends Meeting, March 24, 2019

I’d like to begin with a story that may be familiar to some of you. In fact I think I have even heard this story in this Meeting room before. This is a story out of the Jewish tradition, that comes from the Hassidic masters:

Once, the Hassidic rabbi Zusya came to his followers with tears in his eyes. They asked him: “Zusya, what’s the matter?” And he told them about his vision, “I learned the question that the angels will one day ask me about my life.”

The followers were puzzled. “Zusya, you are pious. You are scholarly and humble. You have helped so many of us. What question about your life could be so terrifying that you would be frightened to answer it?”

Zusya replied, “I have learned that the angels will not ask me, ‘Why weren’t you a Moses, leading your people out of slavery?’ and that the angels will not ask me, ‘Why weren’t you a Joshua, leading your people into the promised land?’” Zusya sighed, “They will say to me, ‘Zusya, why weren’t you Zusya?’”

This story resonates deeply for me. I find it really easy to look around me at things that other people are doing—really good, deeply important things—and feel like, ‘well, that’s important, so I should be doing that, too.’ It takes constant work to remember that just because work is valuable and necessary, does not mean that it is my job to take it on. Perhaps I can support the people I see doing this work in some way, but I, myself, cannot do it all.

So what am I supposed to do? This is a question that has been following me around for many years now, and it resonates because I don’t have a full answer for it. And yet sometimes there are ways in which I am pulled. As Quakers, we believe that we can be guided by the inner light, if only we sit and wait for guidance. I have to admit that a lot of times, I feel like I am stumbling about in the darkness. However, sometimes, that inner light gives me a small glimmer, and occasionally that inner light shines a beacon in some direction.

One of the strongest leadings I have had recently is to pursue the Courage and Renewal work—Parker Palmer’s work—that I have spoken about with all of you before. It was out of that leading that I pursued Facilitator Training, and it is that leading that compels me to stand before you here today. And I think that the idea of leadings is useful today as we continue to consider Parker’s Habits of the Heart, from his book Healing the Heart of Democracy.

As a reminder, or super brief primer for those who have missed my previous messages, the five interlocking Habits of the Heart that Parker outlines in that book are habits that he identifies as being necessary to the healthy functioning of democracy. I believe that they are also necessary to the healthy functioning of society. The five habits are:

  1. We must understand that we are all in this together.
  2. We must develop an appreciation of the value of “otherness”
  3. We must cultivate the ability to hold tension in life-giving ways
  4. We must generate a sense of personal voice and agency
  5. We must strengthen our capacity to create community

In past messages, I have spoken about the first three Habits (that we’re all in this together, the appreciation of the value of otherness, and cultivating the ability to hold tension in life-giving ways); these habits Parker connects with the idea of humility. Today I would like to speak about the fourth Habit—the sense of personal voice and agency—which is one of the two Habits that Parker connects with the idea of chutzpah.

The first three Habits ask us to be open to the wisdom of others and to be respectful of others’ positions. The fourth Habit, along with Parker’s idea of chutzpah, acknowledges that I, too, have a voice and a perspective, and lifts up my need to be heard in counterpoint with other voices and perspectives, as part of the fabric of a functional democracy/society.

In his description of this Habit, the need to generate “a sense of personal voice and agency,” Parker writes, “Insight and energy [from holding tensions in life-giving ways, part of Habit 3] give rise to new life as we speak out and act out our own version of truth, while checking and correcting it against the truths of others. But many of us lack confidence in our own voices and in our power to make a difference. We grow up in educational and religious institutions that treat us as members of an audience instead of actors in a drama, and as a result we become adults who treat politics as a spectator sport. And yet it remains possible for us, young and old alike, to find our voices, learn how to speak them, and know the satisfaction that comes from contributing to positive change…”

Having grown up Quaker, I am grateful that I came of age in a religious tradition that honored personal agency. However, I have still struggled mightily to find my own voice. Part of this struggle comes out of being finely attuned to what I perceive others want from me and many years spent privileging those wants—other peoples’ wants—ahead of my own voice. Another part of it comes out of feeling small in a big world: In this world of so many people, why should anyone listen to me? In a society with experts who have numbers and statistics about any topic I can come up with, why should my opinion matter?

Our society by and large functions on the level of the intellect. Facts and figures are used to make decisions, and there is utility in those facts and figures. However, to find our sense of personal voice and agency, I think we are asked to speak from a different place than the place of intellect, though we may draw on our intellectual knowledge as we speak our truth. I also think we are asked to speak from a different place than the place of emotion, though we may feel or describe emotions when we speak our truth. I think the place from which the sense of personal voice and agency can arise most naturally is from the level of the soul, the inner teacher, the inner light.

Parker loves to lift up individuals who have found a way to align their individual wholeness with their role within society. He talks about these individuals living “divided no more” – no longer having a breach between their individual integrity, the stirrings of their soul, and the way they live and/or work. He talks about well-known individuals like Rosa Parks, and also about anonymous individuals, like a doctor who realized how torn he felt between his personal integrity as a doctor on the one hand and the quotidian sacrifices he was asked to make in his professional environment on the other. Rosa Parks, as we all know, sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott; the doctor went on to change procedures within his medical practice—procedures that directly impacted the quality of care he was able to deliver and helped him to better uphold his Hippocratic oath. For all of the individuals Parker references, he talks about how they find their voice through listening to where their inner teacher called them.

Given that a sense of voice and personal agency arises from the inner teacher, and that leadings also arise from the inner teacher, there is a strong connection between having a leading and developing a sense of personal voice and agency. Having a leading certainly lends itself to developing voice and agency. When I am pursuing a leading, I have clear ideas about why this leading is important. It is easier to speak up or speak out when I feel like I have clarity on why something matters to me.

But what about all those times when my inner teacher tells me that something is right or wrong, true or not true, moral or immoral without also having a clear leading to take action or live into this belief in some new way? Do I have to have a leading in some area to be able to cultivate this sense of personal voice and agency? I do not think that is the case. While having a leading can lend strength to my sense of personal voice and agency, having a sense of personal voice and agency does not require me to be pursuing a leading in the arena about which I have a truth to share. I do not have to be actively pursuing policies that will help make life better for women with small children to be able to share the truths I have experienced about what it is like to try to navigate career and family under the current policies held in our society. I do not have to be an expert on climate change, or a leader in what to do about it, to be able to express my truth that it is a topic of great concern to me.

“Zusya, why weren’t you Zusya?” Each one of us has within us a unique combination of truths that we could speak that come from the context of our individual lived experiences and the voices of our inner teachers. I do not have to try to be everything to everyone, I cannot solve all the problems, I can’t accomplish it all single-handedly. But I do have to listen for where I am called, look for where I can be of use, and lend my voice to those things that are within my realm. If I can do that, I will live into being Liana, I will speak with the voice that only Liana can speak with, I will act with the agency that only Liana can bring.

In closing I offer you three questions:

What truths has your life made evident that you give voice to?

What truths has your life made evident that you wish to give voice to?

What leading(s) are you living into?

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