by Rev. Eric Elnes, Ph.D.
In his Letter to the Romans, the apostle Paul advised his readers, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds” (Rom 12:2). Recently I was listening to a song called “Everyone’s Waiting” by Australian pop singer, Missy Higgins (great video here), that reflects a similar sentiment. Higgins describes well the pressures all of us feel at times to conform to the expectations of others, and the havoc that wreaks on one’s sense of self:
I know all the lines to say
The part I’m expected to play
But in the reflection I am worlds away …
As I put my costume on
Eyelashes one by one
Been doing this so long I can tie the knot
Behind my back
And everyone’s waiting
But it’s getting harder to hear what my heart is saying
‘Cause everyone’s waiting
What I find helpful about “Everyone’s Waiting” is not the reminder that there’s a difference between people’s expectations and who we are. (That should be obvious to anyone with even a minute self-awareness. and lots of pop songs lament the difference.) No, where Higgins distinguishes herself is in the more subtle awareness that the more attention you pay to meeting people’s expectations, the harder it is to tell who we actually are to begin with. We confuse other people’s voices with our own. Higgins continues ..
“Just swallow and breathe,” she says,
“Remember this ain’t for you it’s for them
And all of those painful lessons you’ve had to learn
You gotta use them now or never”
‘Cause everyone’s waiting
But it’s getting harder to hear
What my heart keeps saying
Turn it off, I wanna turn it all off
Do you ever feel like Missy Higgins, wanting to turn off all the expectations so that you can listen more carefully to your inner voice? We may not have millions of fans like Missy Higgins, but many of us have employers, in-laws, family or peers whose voices overwhelm us. What if you could simply push a button and make all their expectations go away so you could simply be yourself?
I don’t know about you, but when I stop listening to these voices and refuse to “be conformed by the world” to use the apostle Paul’s language, life doesn’t necessarily get a lot easier. What I find instead is that all those competing voices were never “out there” like I thought. They’re in here – inside me. What most often keeps me from being me is, well, me!
In his book, The Happiness Hypothesis, New York University business professor and psychologist Jonathan Haidt says that when it comes to being ourselves, we are like riders on the back of an elephant. The logical part of ourselves holds the reins and gives us the impression that we have the power to make the elephant stop or go, turn right or left. This arrangement works fine so long as the elephant – our emotional selves – doesn’t have desires of its own. If the elephant wants to turn to the right when logic tells us to go left, guess who wins?
Baylor University neuroscientist, David Eagleman, observes that our brains are wired to be what he calls a “team of rivals.” Says Eagleman in an interview with Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air, “Intuitively, it feels like there’s a ‘you.’ So when somebody meets Terry Gross they feel like:”Oh, yeah, that’s one person.” But in fact, it turns out what we have under the hood are lots of neural populations, lots of neural networks that are all battling it out to control your behavior.”
Eagleman continues, “it’s exactly a parliament, in the sense that these different political parties might disagree with one another. They’re like a team of rivals in that they all feel they know the best way to steer the nation, and yet they have different ways of going about it, just like different political parties do.”
So when Missy Higgins so eloquently reminds me that it gets harder to hear what my heart is saying when “everyone’s waiting,” Jonathan Haidt and David Eagleman remind me that my problem isn’t solved by simply listening to my heart. Even in my heart “everyone’s waiting” There are all kinds of voices waiting for me, each with its own expectations and advice. No, if we are to follow the direction of our truest self, we can’t just listen to our hearts. We’ll need to go deeper, listening to the heart within our heart .
Now, how do we do that?