Recently, somebody I love confronted me about the most common advice I give to people, when I am asked. No matter what, if people are going through crisis and ask me what I think they should do, I usually answer with, “Follow your heart.” The person who confronted me felt that what I mean when I give this advice is, “If it feels good, do it,” or “Follow your whims no matter who it hurts.” Those things are the exact opposite of what I mean when I say, “Follow your heart.” This blog is by no means an attack on that person. I can see why she was confused. I wanted to clarify to her, and to everyone who has ever received that advice from me, what I mean when I say it.
After World War II, when the enormous atrocities of the holocaust were revealed, the entire planet stood gasping, trying to understand how humanity could be capable of such horror. In the interest of answering that question, Stanley Milgram did an experiment. He basically tried to find out what percentage of people would deliver a deadly shock to another human being if told to do so by someone he or she perceived to be an authority. If you want to read the details of the experiment, you can here but in summary, he discovered that most people were willing to kill another person if ordered to do so. People cried as they delivered what they thought were deadly shocks to screaming actors, but in spite of their obvious inner turmoil, they did what someone else told them was the right thing to do. Only 35% of people refused to deliver the deadly shock. Those 35% had an inner compass that they listened to more than any outside voice. They followed that compass even when an authority figure attempted to override it. In short, those people did the very difficult and rare thing. They followed their hearts.
History has demonstrated again and again that human beings will do horrible things when they are following orders, when they are in large groups, when they have sublimated their inner voices to something outside of themselves, be it a government or a religion or a political dogma or a social scene. I don’t trust any dogma enough to let it guide me. I will not submit my will and wisdom to something outside of me. I will not do something that feels evil to me, even if everyone else is doing it. I won’t base my morality on words in a book. I won’t trust that our culture’s ideas of morality represent truth because looking back through time, social norms have often been used to enforce oppression. I believe that God lives inside of us, not outside of us, and all of us our capable of courage and greatness and beauty and truth and love IF we follow our hearts. But most of us don’t. Most of us live our lives doing what we are told, and then we die. We want an easy religion or social code, a list of rules that does our thinking for us. We want an illusion of safety more than we want truth. We want popularity more than we want love. We think we can’t trust ourselves, so we let the voices around us goosestep us into our graves. I don’t want to waste my precious life doing that shit.
My path to truth began years ago when I betrayed someone, someone I loved profoundly, someone I knew in the core of my soul to be good, and kind, and righteous. I betrayed him because he became unpopular, because the mob decided to hate him, because throwing him under the bus was the cool thing to do. My own treachery wrecked me. I heard a voice within me speak to me when I did that. It was so clear, so distinct from my own thought processes, that it could not be denied. It said this. It said, “You are betraying your own soul.” As I heard this, a knowing flooded me. I knew if I stayed on the path I was on, the path of seeking popularity and people’s approval at the cost of my own integrity, I would become evil. That scared the shit out of me. I realized hell isn’t a place you go. It’s a thing you become. And I was well on my way. As I was having this realization, the song, “A Return to Innocence” came on. I knew something bigger than I was was inviting me to become pure again, to work my way back, one brave step at a time, to a place of a peace, of integrity, of truth. A place where I could live with and genuinely love the girl who lived in the mirror. I said yes to that invitation.
I wrote a very difficult letter to the person I had betrayed, apologizing for my evil and seeking his forgiveness. He graciously gave it. And then, the voice within told me that I had to protect him, no matter what it cost me. So I did. I made it my mission to protect him from every ugly word that was ever said about him. I sat on the bulletin boards where people were mocking him, and I defended him, and made myself hated in the process. I spoke up if someone said something ugly about him in my presence. Needless to say, the mob that had decided he was uncool was not pleased. This once cool kid became a joke. I lost my popularity and got back a piece of my soul. The modicum of inner peace I found as I did this more than compensated me for the loss of my so-called friends.
I decided to start listening to the voice within and do what it told me without question. The more I listened to that voice, the louder it became. Now, it’s almost physically painful for me to disobey that voice. I have grown unaccustomed to betraying my soul. That voice is more interested in me actually becoming a person of integrity, no matter how messy the process is, than it is in me being a person who hides behind a veneer of piety, who is perceived as good. That voice asks me to be real, to let the whole pretty-ugly mess of me hang out for the world to see. It doesn’t seem to care if I say “fuck,” but I have discovered, after years of shaving off layer after layer of lies around my heart, that it does care who I fuck, because it doesn’t like it when I hurt myself or other people, and fucking without loving almost always hurts someone.
It almost never asks me to do easy things. It has asked me to give up friendships that were fun and lucrative because they were dishonest or harmful. It has asked me again and again to speak truths that make people hate me. It has asked me to be homeless. It has asked me to be celibate. It has asked me to give away things that I wanted to keep. It has asked me to be honest about my weaknesses and frailties, to walk up to people and say, “I fucking lied to you. I’m sorry.” It has asked me to pray for and bless people I want to hate and curse. (Full disclosure: I often do the hating and cursing before I get around to the praying for and blessing. I’m a work in progress.) It has asked me to be transparent, to show the world what I really am, even when it makes me feel vulnerable and scared, even when it makes people mock me and vilify me and attack me. It is teaching me to do no harm, ever, to myself, or to others, or to any living thing, which sounds pretty, but isn’t as easy as it looks. (And I’m still working on that too.) This voice is almost never lets me do the easy thing, the thing that feels good. This voice won’t let me off the goddamn hook. It won’t let me lie anymore. It won’t let me cheat anymore. It won’t let me fake it ’til I make it anymore. It won’t let me say things that will make people like me. Every day, it asks me to give up another drop of the poison that lives in my heart. The problem with giving up poison is poison is usually so sweet. It’s excruciating to release your poisons, but that voice insists that I do.
In spite of the treacherous and painful road it often leads me down, that voice is my dearest friend, because every time I listen to it, I get another piece of my lost soul back. If it were not for that voice, that voice that makes me do the right thing even when everyone else is doing wrong, that makes me tell the truth even when the truth is going to cost me everything, that is teaching me to honor my body, to trust my instincts, to be brave, brave, brave, constantly brave, I would not be the woman I am today. Not that I’m perfect. Like I said, I’m a fucking mess sometimes. But I’m way less of a fucking mess than I was before I decided to listen to that voice. And while I don’t have much money and I have way fewer friends than I used to, and I have been downright vilified in many of the social scenes I used to be a part of, I have genuine peace, and joy, and light, and beauty, I never dreamed possible. Had it not been for that voice, I would still be in a constant cycle of abusive relationships. I would still be a liar. I would be working a shit job I hate instead of traveling the world and selling books. I would hate myself. If I wasn’t dead. Which, let’s be honest, I probably would be. That voice, that beautiful, not-so-still, not-so-small-anymore, voice, has saved me. I would literally rather die than disobey that voice. Because I know my soul depends on my listening to that voice. And I’ve lost my soul before. I never, ever want to lose it again.
So when I say to people, “Follow your heart,” I say it because I know the God that lives within me lives within them also. I know the divine will speak truth to them, ask them to do hard things, lead them to a place of true peace. And I want to give the gift I have been given, am being given, to my precious brothers and sisters. That is why, when people are at critical junctures, and ask me for advice, I almost always say, “Follow your heart.” I’m not saying, “Do what feels good.” I’m saying, “A return to innocence is possible, and it starts when you listen to that still, small voice within and do whatever it tells you to do, no matter what the cost.”