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Listen to Your Life

An excerpt from "Aggressively Happy" by Joy Marie Clarkson.

Published on:
March 28, 2022
Read time:
5 min.
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Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost. . . .
But of the good . . . which there I found,
Speak will I. . . .

Listen to Your Life

I once heard a Navy SEAL say that people tend to drown because they waste all their energy trying not to drown. A person drowning is more likely to survive if they simply relax, take deep intentional breaths, and float. This is the opposite of what our bodies tell us to do. As soon as we perceive ourselves to be in danger, a rush of adrenaline hits, we panic, and our bodies scream “FIGHT! FLY! FLOUNDER!” We waste precious energy grasping for something only relaxation, lack of movement, and trust can achieve. The great irony is that our survival instincts can actually be quite perilous, tricking us into untimely death.

I’ve found the same to be true in life. 

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When we feel lost in the dark wood, our first impulse is to panic, to swim, to move, afraid we’ll get stuck in the forest at night (or stuck at a bad job! or never get married! or fade into the amorphous meaninglessness of early parenthood! forever!). We flounder, thrashing about wildly because we’re afraid we’ll get stuck or sink, ironically making ourselves all the more likely to succumb to the waves of life out of pure exhaustion. Movement is a senseless waste of energy if you don’t know where you’re going, and if something is tied to your ankle, no matter how fast you run, it will chase you.

The first key to floundering well is to stop moving, accept your life, and listen.

It all boils down to comedic improv.

I was a theater kid in high school, and while I now squirm at the thought of performing improv for an audience, when I was young, I really enjoyed it. There are many different improv games, usually involving some element of impromptu and humorous storytelling, but there is one rule that is the foundation of all of them: “yes, and.”

YES. You cannot reject any part of the reality that your fellow actor presents to you in the scene you act out. If they say, “The purple elephant has gotten out of the grocery store,” you must proceed with appropriate urgency to consider how one might contain and subdue a rampaging purple elephant. You must accept, fully and creatively, the reality you are presented.

Trying to “and” your life before you have said “yes” to it is the recipe for ineffectual floundering.

AND. As long as you have accepted the reality of your scene partner, you may add anything to the story you like. With your “and” you can add an elephant hypnotist, a snowstorm, or Gandalf the Grey. Your partner must also listen. They too must “yes, and.” The scene comes to life as a result of your mutual and generative acceptance of whatever imagination throws your way.

It is easy to think that success at improv comes from being a wild storyteller, or a shameless ham, but the best improvisers are good listeners. People who are unable to listen, unable to say “yes,” are often a bit awkward, overpowering. They may say some funny things, but they preclude the real joy of improv: the reciprocity between the actors, the give-and-take of co-creating a funny scene. It’s hard work, but nothing is as gratifying as the soaring satisfaction of making a whole room of people howl with uncontrollable laughter.

Life is like improv, and those who seek to flounder well should take note of its rules.

YES. We may not like the scene (or life) in which we find ourselves, but we have to accept it for what it is. That’s just the game! We all find ourselves in stories that are not entirely of our own making. If we ruled the world, there are aspects of our stories we would not have included: personal flaws, setbacks, difficult family members, emotional wounds, financial problems, romantic disappointments. But there they are, rampaging through our lives like feral purple elephants. Watching people who are not good at accepting the reality of their scene partners is a painful experience; so is watching someone who does not acknowledge the reality of their life. Accepting life, with all its warts and wounds included, does not mean surrender, or even approval of its brokenness; it simply means grappling with life as it is, with no illusions.

AND. Once we have accepted our lives as they are, regrets and radiances alike, we can begin to shape our stories. Only when we see life with clear eyes and stubborn acceptance can we add our “and” to life. We can make something of this story, this life, with all its limitations and setbacks, weird characters, and unspectacular settings. A good improviser can make any scene exciting.

Trying to “and” your life before you have said “yes” to it is the recipe for ineffectual floundering. But it’s more difficult to say yes to life than you might think.

We humans are masters of self-deception, always convincing ourselves that we’re in a different story than we actually are, trying to make people into villains or heroes when they’re only humans, convincing ourselves that we’re beyond repair or reproach.

We humans are masters of self-deception, always convincing ourselves that we’re in a different story than we actually are, trying to make people into villains or heroes when they’re only humans, convincing ourselves that we’re beyond repair or reproach. Sometimes we avoid saying yes to life because we are afraid of looking life square in the eye, afraid we’ll find unspent griefs, unmet desires, regret, and shame. We would rather wrestle with an illusion than be disappointed by reality. So we thrash about, proceeding clumsily and ineffectually. We waste energy, wishing or pretending our life is other than it is.

And as we thrash, we lose energy. We begin to sink, sink, sink.

There is a poem I recite to myself when I’m struggling to say yes to my life. It is by the English poet and priest Malcolm Guite. Each line is like a precious trinket I keep in a little box and pull out from time to time when I need it. It goes like this:

Begin the song exactly where you are.
Remain within the world of which you’re made.
Call nothing common in the earth or air.
Accept it all and let it be for good.
Start with the very breath you breathe in now,
This moment’s pulse, this rhythm in your blood
And listen to it, ringing soft and low.
Stay with the music, words will come in time.
Slow down your breathing. Keep it deep and slow.
Become an open singing bowl, whose chime
Is richness rising out of emptiness,
And timelessness resounding into time.
And when the heart is full of quietness
Begin the song exactly where you are.[1]

This poem is about a singing bowl, an instrument that seems to have been developed in the eleventh century BCE in China and used as a tool for meditation, music making, and relaxation. It’s a small metal bowl around which you run a wooden dowel. At first, nothing seems to be happening, and then, as the wooden mallet creates almost indiscernible vibrations, the bowl begins to sing. The person playing the singing bowl must be patient, because if their movement is not slow and smooth, the dowel will bounce and disturb the development of the slow vibrations that create the song of the bowl. Some bowls have a low resonant bass tone like the sustained belching of a bullfrog; some have a crystal-high voice like a stream tumbling over pebbles. Each song is beautifully different, just like our own lives and stories. Guite uses the singing bowl as a metaphor for prayer. We go to God, wanting answers, direction, a sense of inner resonance. But so often, our very disposition stands in the way of the outcome we desire. We rush the dowel around the bowl, demanding it sing when our racket and movement are preventing the very song we desire. We blame God for His silence when all we’ve been doing is shouting. We must stop floundering. “Be still, and know that I am God,” writes the psalmist (46:10). We must be patient, slow, steady. We must accept this moment, not try to rush to the next one.

We must learn to sing.

When you are floundering, begin the song exactly where you are. Try not to predict the future or litigate the past. Do not wish you were someone else. Accept the fullness and emptiness of your life. God’s voice is quiet. Listen to the soft, low hum of your life. There is a song there, and only in quietness will you learn to sing it. 

Say yes to your life. 

The song will come in time.

Joy Marie Clarkson
Joy Marie Clarkson is a doctoral candidate in theology at St Andrews University, where she researches the ways we can use art to prepare ourselves for a good death. She hosts a weekly podcast that aims to give people an arsenal of good stories, music, and images with which they can courageously, wisely, and beautifully navigate life. She is the Books and Culture editor at Plough. You can find her work in Christianity Today, Mere Orthodoxy,and Transpositions. Joy lives in Oxford England.
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[1] Malcolm Guite, “Singing Bowl,” The Singing Bowl (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2013).

Excerpt from Aggressively Happy by Joy Marie Clarkson provided by Bethany House, a division of Baker Publishing Group. Copyright 2021. Used by permission.

Cover image by Content Pixie.

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