Whose Life are You Living?

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. From the desperate city you go into the desperate country, and have to console yourself with the bravery of minks and muskrats.”

~ Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862),
American writer,
in Walden


Sometimes the lives we live – or don’t live – weigh heavily upon our souls. We feel alienated, bored, discontent, anxious, or depressed. It is then that we might be tempted to turn away from such pain by losing ourselves in mind-numbing distractions such as TV, the internet, or another glass of wine. On the other hand, we might instead turn off the distractions, turn towards our symptomatic pain, and listen to its potentially life-changing message.

“Whose life am I living?” “How much of the life that I am living is my own?” Questions such as these can befriend the pain. For the courtesy of listening, we might be surprised and set aright to learn that we are living lives which in whole or in part are not our own.

Yes, of course, it is I who awakens each morning, lives each day, as do you. But according to whose scripts do we live?

When we are young, we tend to live the scripts of our parents and childhood authorities. We enter adulthood tending to think as they think, believe as they believe. Were your parents progressive? If so, most likely you are progressive. Were they evangelical Christians? If so, then you most likely begin adulthood as an evangelical.

The issue of course is not how we think or believe, but rather that we come to our own thoughts and beliefs through the writing of our own scripts. Recently, for example, the gentle questions which I asked unnerved a 30-year-old man, lest he think differently from his evangelical Christian father. I would rather that he had met me with a firm conviction derived from his own soul’s searching for an answer to the Mystery in which we live. Whose life is he living?

Scripts are not the exclusive property of the young. As the young age into householders, they adopt social scripts appropriate to the duties of making a living and raising a family. Yet as the young leave the nest, the single mom’s depression may signal her child-raising script has been outlived, and her soul now urges her to consider, “How shall you now live a life of your own?”

As we continue well into middle-age, and the reality of mortality becomes more apparent than the seeming immortality of youth, the householder scripts wear thin. The existential boredom of the successful business man who so unnecessarily continues to wrap his life up in 80-hour weeks may signal the soul’s yearning to discover and live it’s own unique meaning.

The psyche (Greek for “soul”) does have an agenda: that we discover, articulate, and contribute to our community’s diversity the unique, authentic, individuality that we bring into existence. When we do not, the symptoms of soul-sickness arise which as the Persian poet, Rumi, notes are messengers (see “Turning Psychological Pain into Sweetness”)

Whether young or old, we may relieve our souls of the desperation of living a life which is not our own by also asking of ourselves a question suggested by Jungian analyst and writer, James Hollis. Hollis suggests that we ask of every situation, every role, every decision we face, “Does this way make me larger or smaller?” Living so, we need not comfort ourselves with the bravery of minks, muskrats, or role-playing computer games.

Whose life are you living? Are you living in a way that makes you larger or smaller?

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