I have a tiny whisper that goes in and out with me,
And what can be the use of it is more than I can see.
(with apologies to Robert Louis Stevenson)
My tiny whisper goes in and out with me, such a steady companion that I’m rarely conscious of hearing it. But I react to it, oh, yes! I react to it. What I wonder — before I tell you about it — is whether you sometimes go about accompanied by your own tiny whisper. This is what mine says to me:
How do I feel? How do I feel about this?
An innocuous little whisper, no? And then I dutifully stop, and ponder, before I go to the gym, or begin exercising, or even brush my teeth (full-scale version, with tiny pick and floss as well as paste and toothbrush): How do I feel? How do I feel about this? My tiny whisper is second-guessing me. Giving me another chance to decide something already decided..
And as often as not, my response to the whisperer is to take off the sneakers, to put down the brush and toothpaste. Later. I’ll do it later. I don’t feel so terrific, I don’t feel like doing this right now.
I’ve teased it out for you here, but mostly it goes automatically. The voice, the second guess, the response, mostly negative. Mostly working to reverse an action I’ve already decided on doing. That’s the killer, of course, that’s why I want to bring that tiny whisper’s existence into the spotlight. I, the conscious thinking I, has pulled myself together to do something I think is a good idea. But between the idea and the execution falls, not T.S. Eliot’s shadow, but my whisper.
Which actually is a shadow, of course, at least in the sense that Carl Jung, that great anti-Freud, posits that everyone has a shadow side. It’s our dark side, that’s turned away from our rational good sense and straightforward actions and best intentions. The dark side harbors ugly thoughts, ill-wishes and ill intentions, and hurries to sabotage both others and oneself.
Quite a long time before Carl Jung, Hebrew folklore posited two basic impulses that dwell within each person, the yetzer ha-ra and the yetzer ha-tov, the evil impulse and the good impulse. I’ve always pictured them as two tiny angels, one sitting on each of my shoulders. My better self, my worse self, arguing back and forth: Do this, no, do that. The war within, a civil war, in effect. And which one wins is a toss-up, every time.
More frequently than I’m happy to admit, it’s the yetzer ha-ra that prevails. The cutting remark that didn’t need to be made. The generous word that was never spoken. The stint on the treadmill that didn’t happen this morning, the teeth quietly accumulating some more plaque — those purely physical phenomena are the tip of a much larger iceberg.
I once was given very sound words of wisdom by a spiritual advisor. “Follow your instincts,” he said. “You have good instincts, so follow them.” But it’s amazing how difficult it is to follow such a seemingly simple instruction! The tiny whisper, always there, below the level of my conscious attention, always second-guessing those good instincts, often subverting them.
It’s only in the past few months that I’ve really become aware how omnipresent this tiny whisper is. It’s only recently that I’m learning to recognize it, to coax it or chase it into the light, and thereby learn to manage it, and regain the freedom to say yes or no with an undivided heart.
Always a late bloomer, I wonder if I’m the only one. Do any of you have your own tiny whisper? Your own second-guesser? If so, what imaginative shape does it take? How do you fight your own war within?
And those for whom this is a non-issue, know how fortunate you are, and rejoice!