When the Journey Leads Within

On a gray day, tired and thinking about what to do next, my mind said, “why bother?” I didn’t feel like a nap, so I reviewed the usual advice for staying active and adventurous: take those trips, start a new project, get involved in your community, be social, eat blueberries, etc. None of that appealed to me. I wasn’t depressed and I had plenty of interesting things to do. So why was I treading water?

They (whoever that is) tell us we are each unique, that we make our own choices. I believe we do determine our own happiness even when we have hard times or circumstances that limit us. The answer to my “why bother” turned out to be take an inner journey, not an outer one. I thought “Wait a minute, I’ve already done that a few times.” But it was time to do it again.

Mythologist Joseph Campbell spoke about listening for “the call.” He asked us to accept a self that is separate from the experiences of our past and the limitations of our present. Campbell believed that each of us has a unique inner voice. We can usually hear it as children, but it may be drowned out over time by the voices of others, stress over hard times, or the speed of modern life.

This voice calls you to consider the value of your own life, and it grows louder when you experience personal trauma or believe your time here is running out. You may choose not to hear this voice. There is comfort in the known, the familiar, the obvious path. The common wisdom of senior advisers may be just right.

But if the voice persists, then things are not settled. Now that you have time to listen, ask yourself how you want to live. Start another inner dialogue about the one life that is yours because understanding and accepting your true adult self brings peace.

The assignment here is not about a spiritual awakening. It is about knowing who you are without waiting for a crisis to strip away the filters that may muffle your inner voice.

Can you describe yourself? (Start with the good things.)

How would most others describe you?

What have you learned, over time, about yourself?

Is there a theme in how you have lived?

Are you changing that theme now?

What would be unfinished if you died today?

For those of you who long ago were forced by circumstances to fight inner demons or pull down psychological barriers, the prospect of more introspection truly brings that thought, “why bother?” The answer is that aging, if you allow it, slows you down and lets your mind wander. Memories once deep in your brain will surface, good and bad.

Reviewing your life story enables you to rewrite the present and the ending. Whatever your current situation, you are in control of this part of your story. Full acceptance of the dark and recognition of the light in all your memories brings reconciliation.

I took this journey over the last year when I realized I was still dogged by a childhood marked by abandonment and violence. The painful feelings were always there, a too-familiar burden. When I listened to “the call,” it sent me on a different path. The rewrite of my life story gave me an authentic identity. I have finally become an elder freely experiencing a new depth of love and contentment. I am glad I bothered.

Jennifer James has a doctorate in cultural anthropology and master’s degrees in history and psychology. She was a professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Washington Medical School. Jennifer is the founding mother of the Committee for Children, an international organization devoted to the prevention of child abuse worldwide.


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