Your Soul Is Like A Wild Animal

         When I reflect on the idea of having a “soul,” my mind first goes back to cartoons I watched as a kid.  Some character would get bonked on the head and fall over, and then a wispy image of that character would start floating up from the body with little wings and ascend into the sky.

         In college, I began to get the idea that a modern, scientific person should be skeptical of believing in anything that could not be measured, observed, and analyzed; the idea of human beings having souls was a superstition best left behind.

         Then I had my spiritually transforming experience when I was 22.  I suddenly sensed that there is something in us connected to a living reality beyond what we can see.  In the years that followed, I began to explore the many ways we can conceive of having this spiritual essence that we sometimes call “soul.”

         In 2009 I read A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life by the academic-turned-spiritual-mentor Parker Palmer.  Early on, he says he will be using the word “soul.” He knows his academic friends will be dismissive about both the word and the concept.  But, he believes there is something within us that is best described with this word — a point of connection and wholeness that all spiritual traditions understand.  And, he says, he found a useful metaphor for it:

         “The soul is like a wild animal – tough, resilient, and shy. When we go crashing through the woods shouting for it to come out so we can help it, the soul will stay in hiding. But if we are willing to sit quietly and wait for a while, the soul may show itself.”[i]  He goes on to say that much of our culture keeps us distracted and so our soul withdraws. But in moments of quiet and inner attentiveness, our souls cautiously appear. In those moments, we realize who we really are and how miraculous the world is; in those moments, we often find guidance, assurance, and hope.

         I loved this idea.  If we are thrashing through the woods, wildlife flees from us and hides. But if we come to a cabin in the woods, sit on the porch and become still, the wildlife emerges, and we can observe it with reverence and wonder.

         Palmer says there is another quality of soul that is like a wild animal:

         Like a wild animal, the soul is tough, resilient, resourceful, savvy, and self-sufficient: it knows how to survive in hard places. I learned about these qualities during my bouts with depression. In that deadly darkness, the faculties I had always depended on collapsed. My intellect was useless; my emotions were dead; my will was impotent; my ego was shattered. But from time to time, deep in the thickets of my inner wilderness, I could sense the presence of something that knew how to stay alive even when the rest of me wanted to die. That something was my tough and tenacious soul.[ii]

         The soul is like a wild animal. It is shy.  But it also can endure great hardship.

         This certainly described what I have witnessed many times in my life. 

         When I worked at Hospice of Santa Barbara, many people came to deal with a personal loss – maybe it had occurred just a few weeks before, maybe years ago. The loss had fractured their sense of meaning and trust.  Their soul had gone into hiding. But they hoped they could somehow make sense of life.  They would be given an appointment with one of our counselors.  The philosophy of our staff was based on a simple assumption: “We can’t fix you, but we can come alongside and journey with you as you find your way.”  The client would begin to experience this caring, skilled, and non-invasive companionship.  It could take weeks or months, but, in time, it was as if the person’s soul could finally come out of hiding and begin to find a way to accept what had happened while forming a new understanding of life.  As they found their way, you could see it in their eyes: there was light where there had been shadows. The soul had reemerged and brought with it a quiet wisdom about hard truths and an awareness of simple blessings.

         In my time at the La Casa de Maria Retreat Center, I would often use this metaphor when giving tours. There were no televisions or newspapers, and, fortunately, very limited Wi-Fi.  As we’d walk the 26 acres of oak groves and gardens, I would point out various places for contemplation they might want to visit during their stay.  As a guest, they would be free to wander the property, enjoy the delicious food, and rest as much as they needed.  “Our souls are like wild animals,” I would say.  “They are shy, like deer in the forest.  But when we are quiet, the deer come out.  Your soul will begin to sense this is a safe place to be.  Give it time, and your soul will come to you.”

         When people arrived, they would often be stressed, tired, and distracted.  At first, many would keep reaching for their cell phones, trying to find a spot with adequate reception, like a dowser looking for water. They were desperate to stay in touch with the busy world that had ensnared them.  But in time, that compulsion would fade. They’d rest, and wander, and explore, and discover whatever it was they needed.  As they were leaving a few days later, you could see the change in their eyes. They’d found their inner light, and with it came peace, clarity, and a renewed sense of purpose.

         Your soul is like a wild animal – shy, but capable of enduring times of great stress.  It is always choosing life instead of darkness. Honor it, care for it, listen to it.

[i] A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life, pg 58

[ii] Ibid, pg. 58

Photo Credit: Department of the Interior

The Art of “Living in the Tragic Gap”

         There are two stages of life: the first is when we are aspiring to perfection, the second is when that is no longer viable, and we begin to look within.  — David Brooks

         Commencement speakers often encourage young people to dream big.  I don’t remember who spoke when I graduated from UCSB years ago, but I had big dreams.  My plan was to work six months and save enough money to travel in Europe, where I had a connection for a job.  After a year I’d come back and begin law school.  By age 40 I was going to be a millionaire — then retire and travel more.

         I knew it was possible.  I’d heard stories about people who had done things like that.  If it happens for some people, why not me?

         It didn’t work out that way.

         It took me a year to earn the money I needed. My time in Europe was cut short when I was denied a work permit.  I completed one year of law school and then withdrew, got married and became a father.

         I thought marriage and parenting would be easy.

         It didn’t work out that way.

         Marriage, it turns out, is a lot of work.  Parenting as well.  “Perfection” turned out to be elusive.

         By my late 30s I was depressed. My net worth was zero and my professional path seemed empty. I had friends who seemed to be thriving, which made it worse. I’d been living with unrealistic expectations and was now painfully coming to terms with the harsh facts of life.        

This polarity is something the writer Parker Palmer knows well.  Having gone through his own journey, he learned how to live with the tension between high hopes and hard realities.  It’s a life skill he calls, “Living in the Tragic Gap.” Here’s how it works.

       Many of us start out with lofty hopes and naïve expectations, but eventually encounter disappointments and dead ends. 

         When this happens, we can be faced with two temptations.

         One temptation is to keep chasing those hopes at all costs.

         “Look at that guy making a lot of money – he seems happy. I am going to keep pushing to succeed, no matter the cost.”

         “I deserve to be happy and satisfied every day.  If I’m not, it’s clearly somebody else’s fault, not mine.”

         “As a parent, I’m going to read all the books and do the right things. If I do that, my kids – and I – will live a worry-free life.”

         “Aging will never happen to me. I’ll find a program, a surgery, a diet or a guru that will keep me looking and feeling young.”

         We can become completely absorbed by unrealistic ideals of how life “should” be. Parker Palmer calls this, “irrelevant idealism.”

         The second temptation goes to the other extreme. 

         When the realities of work, marriage, and family life fall short of what we thought we deserved, we can become bitter. We lash out at other people, society, God or ourselves.  Or we feel broken and ashamed and withdraw into depression and resentment.  This is the temptation Palmer calls “corrosive cynicism.”

         But there is a third path, one that avoids the two temptations: “Living in the Tragic Gap.” The “gap” can feel “tragic,” as we must accept the fact our ideals may be impossible to fully realize.  But accepting the gap and negotiating life within it is the beginning of wisdom.  We don’t give up hopes and ideals but begin to balance them in the context of life’s realities.  As David Brooks said, once we are done “aspiring for perfection,” we “begin to look within.”

         Little is really known of Jesus’ life before he was 30.  But it was probably after a long period of looking within that he emerged with his compelling vision of the kingdom of God.  He encountered ordinary people struggling with life. Through him they experienced a new, grace-based way of seeing themselves and the world. This was not an escape from the realities of life but instead gave clarity and meaning to life as it is.

         The classic story of Buddha’s life is similar.  He was rich and healthy. He was carefully protected from suffering, living the first part of his life in the equivalent of a privileged, gated community. But he sensed something was missing.  He went out to see the real world and found the harsh realities of sickness, aging, and death.  But he kept pressing for a realistic way to make sense of it all.  In time, he experienced enlightenment and passed his insights on to countless others; “problems” will never stop arising in life, but we can develop an awareness that keeps us from being absorbed by them and instead find a boundless source of compassion within.

         In my work, I’ve met many people who became aware that perfection was no longer an option and were hungry for an alternative. I met them in my role as a pastor over the years. I met many when I was Director at La Casa de Maria Retreat Center. People were looking for something more, some way to stand between high hopes and hard realities. And when they’d find their footing, it was as if real life began.  They became humble, but also caring.  They took responsibility for their life choices and learned from their losses.  They found a certain kind of quiet courage to go on.

         Hospice of Santa Barbara has a long history of supporting people of all ages in the grief process.  When I was serving there, I was particularly struck by the work with children and teenagers who’d lost a parent.  One group support session ended with a time for the participants to create a work of art that expressed how they felt and what they’d learned.  A 15-year-old boy painted a picture of a heart broken open with blotches of red coming out of the broken space, growing larger as they emerged.  He wrote: “Death is like a broken heart.  It hurts and is sad, but you get through it.  Your heart is twice as strong.”

The Gift of Disillusionment

            It’s a hard word to hear…disillusionment.

            In our relationships: Someone we’ve trusted does something that hurts or disappoints us.  We feel deflated, confused, betrayed.  

            At work: The organization we are working for makes a decision that shocks or upsets us. We realize we’ve been trusting the organization to act a certain way, but it makes a decision that betrays its stated values.  

            In politics and public life:   A leader or group performs in a way that seems to be counter to basic principles we thought everyone shared.

            In our spiritual journeys: Something happens in our life we thought would not happen if we are being faithful, responsible and caring. 

            “I’ve become so disillusioned…” someone says and describes what’s happened.  And we hear tones of sadness, detachment or even depression.

            But there’s another way to hear it.

            Parker Palmer, a writer who has been a mentor for me and many others over the years, has a surprising perspective on this word.  As he said in an interview with Krista Tippet:

            When a friend says, “I’m so disillusioned!” about this or that, why do we say, “I’m so sorry! How can I help?” We ought to say, “Congratulations! You’ve just lost an illusion! That means you’ve moved that much closer to reality, the only place where it’s safe to stand!”[i]

            This insight has been very useful for me. 

            Let’s start with personal relationships.

            I remember hearing a radio program with a noted marriage and family therapist.  He was talking about the need for all couples to use marital counseling to truly get to know each other.

            “But we got to know each other when we were dating,” people had told him.

            “No, dating is about deception,” he said. “It’s about you wanting to see the best in the other person, just as you are working hard to show them your best side. But after a while, you might start to see each other as you really are.  That’s a good time to begin to really get to know each other.”

            Instead of dis-illusionment leading to despair, it can lead to increased clarity.

            In the workplace, I’ve been on both sides of disillusionment.

            As a nonprofit executive director, from time to time I had to terminate employees. I was restricted by labor law and HR policies from giving a satisfying explanation to the other employees.  We’d talked often about “being a family” together, and abrupt terminations led people to say, “What’s going on? I thought we were a family. Are we just a heartless business?” 

            When that happened at Hospice of Santa Barbara, I thought about it for several weeks, trying to figure out how to describe what kind of entity we were.  I had an idea and made a presentation at a staff meeting. First, I listed the ways in which we were a business – our financial practices, our legal limitations, etc.  Then I listed ways in which we could be caring and supportive of each other within those boundaries.

            “Without meeting the requirements of a good business,” I said, “We would not exist.  But within those restrictions, we will try to be like a family when we can. So, let’s think of ourselves as a “Biz-imly” – a business first, and like a family when possible.”  That seemed to reframe it in a way that people found useful, and employees would quote that back to me as time went on.

            I’ve also been on the employee side – seeing “upper management” make decisions that to me were clearly contrary to their espoused values.  It helped for me to say to myself, “The idea that they would live up to their values has been an illusion.  It’s been “dissed. I won’t make that mistake again.”

            Disillusionment is something we can easily experience in political life. That what George Washington felt when he left office. He had hoped the leaders of the new country would be dedicated to personal humility and public virtue, which he had modeled so well. He was disheartened to see them falling into factions and cynical politics.  But James Madison was more realistic about human nature. He helped shape the constitution in a way that would accommodate selfish partisanship by a series of checks and balances.  Washington’s (hopeful) illusion led to his despair; Madison’s clarity led to a constitution that has, for the most part, endured.  I see leaders like Barack Obama and John Lewis as people who have always held on to the highest hopes and ideals, but also had a realistic understanding of human behavior and political realities.

            Disillusionment in our spiritual journeys can take many forms and are almost always a result of assumptions we have made.

            In Buddhism, it’s a given that our human nature is prone to see permanence where there is no permanence.  The path, then, is to be always vigilant about our illusions with the goal of seeing how things “really are.”  A well-known quote from the Japanese poet Mizuta Masahide captures how truth can follow loss: “Barn’s burnt down / Now I can see the moon.”

            In the Biblical traditions, it can be complicated.  There are passages that suggest people of faith will be protected from harm and disappointment.  Other verses are more realistic. Jesus staked his life on the belief that the one enduring reality is the love and justice of God.  “Blessed are the poor in spirit” – meaning those who have been emptied of false hopes and illusions — “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” 

            One qualification: I don’t offer this perspective on disillusionment as some glib, “tea-bag wisdom” that assumes dealing with disappointments is easy. There are losses in life that cut very deep into our souls and won’t vanish with a clever word play.

            But I invite you to give it a try. Next time you feel “disillusioned,” ask yourself if you’ve come closer to reality.  And don’t give up.

[i] (

“Barns Burnt Down,” fiber art by Rebecca Mezoff