We are drowning in a sea of voices. Superficially we see this in advertising. Everywhere around us, billboards, radio, television, newspapers, magazines, the Internet and the fashion industry hold out the promise of something better for us: a new soap, a new lover, a new philosophy of life.
More deeply however, we experience this sea of voices as a great tension. The different voices we hear pull us in many directions; after a while, we're no longer sure who we are, what we believe, or what will bring us life. These different voices tell us different things, and each voice seems to carry its own truth.
On the one hand, there's a powerful voice beckoning us toward self-sacrifice, self-renunciation, altruism, heroism, telling us that happiness lies in giving life away, that selfishness will make us happy, and that we will be ourselves only when we are big-hearted, generous and place the needs of others before our own. Deep down we all know the truth here: it's Jesus' voice telling us that there is no greater love or purpose than to lay down ones life for others. Francis of Assisi was right: it is in giving that we receive, and it is in pardoning that we are pardoned. So we admire people who radiate that and we feed our own and our children's souls with stories of heroism, selflessness and bigness of heart.
Yet that's not the only voice we hear. We also hear a powerful and persistent voice seemingly calling us in the opposite direction.. Superficially, this is the voice calling us to pleasure, comfort and security, the voice that tells us to take care of ourselves, to drink in life's pleasures to the full, to seize the day while it's still ours to seize.
More deeply, this is the voice that challenges us not to be too timid or fearful, to be a fully alive human being. This voice invites us to participate in, contribute to and enjoy the wonderful energy, color, wit, intelligence and creativity that make the world go 'round and make life worth living. This is the voice beckoning us toward romance, creativity, art, sex, playfulness, achievement, physical well-being : the voice reminding us of Jesus' parable of the talents not to be buried and holding before us a truth too often neglected in religious circles : namely, that God is the author of sexual energy, color, health, the natural environment, wit and intelligence. Life, this voice insists, needs to be experienced, in God's name.
Which then is the real voice? Is one of these voices to be heeded and the other resisted? This is a complex question, and there's more to it than meets the eye. Historically, the temptation (at least in religious circles!) has been to simply identify the voice of Jesus with the voice that calls us toward self-sacrifice, towards carrying our crosses, so to speak. It's all about renouncing oneself. Jesus himself said it, as did every great saint: Unless we take up the cross we cannot be his disciples.
Yet Jesus and these others said more. Our failure to take heed of the rest of their message has led to a spiritual life that is a half-truth with nasty consequences. Then in the name of religion we become unhealthily fearful, timid and guilt-ridden. When this happens, the other voice : the one inviting us to enter more fully into the dance of life : may not be blotted out but it is driven underground. Then, because we have neglected a good part of that to which God calls us, we develop martyr complexes. We become frustrated people whose energies are negative and manipulative.
How do we find the balance in these two voices? If both voices invite us to experience the truth and yet they appear to be in opposition to each other, where do we go, which do we choose? There is no simple truth here or anywhere else for that matter. Truth is painfully complex, as are we! Truth is always larger than our capacity to absorb and integrate it. So to be open to the full truth is to be in constant tension, perpetually stretched as it were, at least on this side of eternity!
Sometimes these voices are in opposition to each other in our lives, and we can't have it both ways; we have to choose one over the other. Jesus did! Truth has real boundaries and there's a danger in letting it mean everything. But there's an equal danger in letting it mean too little, of reducing a full truth to a half truth; and nowhere is this danger greater than in our tendency to let either voice : the voice of pain or the voice of pleasure : blot out the other.