This line, written by Parker Palmer, in Let Your Life Speak (2000) leapt off the page into my heart. I had spent most of my life trying to be good. Growing up as a preacher’s kid reinforced my desire to please people, to not embarrass myself or my father through my choices. Getting involved in a conservative evangelical para-church group during university lengthened the list of rules and expectations that I was subject to, while also narrowing my perspective. Gaining the surname Toogood through marriage only seemed to strengthen my commitment to goodness.
Wrapped up with being “good” was also the notion of sacrifice. This is what it felt and sounded like to me: feeling tired or overwhelmed? Say yes anyway, for the good of the kingdom. Cooking for church functions not your favourite thing? Oh well, it is your duty as a good Christian woman. It’s not about you. Is there something you really want to do? You can’t trust your heart. If you want it, it must be selfish in some way. Do the opposite. As you can probably imagine, this thinking did not lead to peace, coherence or satisfaction in my life.
The messages that I started to hear in my late thirties that contradicted the need to simply be good were at first disturbing, and then a siren call to freedom. These new messages came by expanding my reading beyond what could be bought at a Christian bookstore, as well as my graduate studies.
Reading The Path: Creating your Mission Statement for Work and Life (2001) was a game changer. I remember thinking that some of the ideas were kind of “out there”, but I took what was helpful from the book and composed my mission statement.
It was revolutionary to think that I had the agency to choose what felt good and right for me.
Parker Palmer’s book The Courage to Teach was another book that challenged me to think about what it meant to pay attention to my identity and integrity. I remember finding it a tough read in 2000—what does this even mean? Picking it up again recently, I laughed to see so much highlighted text, and so many tabs. I realized how significant that book was in shifting my thinking and being.
Another aspect of embracing wholeness was to find coherence and integration between the different parts of my life. A message from the pulpit that didn’t sit well with me was “Only what is done in the church will last for eternity.” I was coming to see my teaching as holy work, and I couldn’t agree with this.
I was living in a binary world.
All my thinking was divided into two categories: good/bad, right/wrong based on a conservative Christian worldview. As my world expanded through my Masters’ studies, I became uncomfortable with the dissonance between my belief system and what I was noticing in my expanded world. Instead of rejecting the ideas that didn’t seem to fit, I stayed curious, writing about them in my journal, testing out the new ideas to see if they made sense.
What would it look like to “work with” students instead of “doing to” them?
One of the key concepts in my graduate learning was the principle of working with students, instead of doing to them. Each course seemed to deepen my understanding of how this could change my practice.
One day in a typical Math class, some students were talking as I finished one example and started on another. I asked them to stop talking while I was teaching. The students responded, “But we’re talking about math.” I started wondering, what if I gave them space to talk between examples? Some talked about the connections they were making to the last question. Some students looked ahead to the next question. I could wander around and see who was getting it, and who wasn’t, and provide support. This changed everything.
During work time, I stopped asking for and expecting silence. Rather, I created space for students to talk about math, and construct their own meaning. Student achievement and retention soared, because they had a voice and knew they could get the help they needed to succeed. I was struck by how this simple shift in practice, that cost nothing, could impact achievement so significantly.
More than the external results, I was surprised by the internal results. It felt better, and more respectful to work with students, to listen to them, and adjust to create a safer and more engaging learning experience. When I wasn’t so focused on following the rules myself (being good), I created space for other people to also be whole, rather than compliant.
Where else might this principle be helpful?
Once I started to see the power of this concept in the classroom, I started to apply it beyond teaching. It changed my parenting, and my spiritual life. I started to see how my church operated from a “doing to” stance. “We have decided to . . .move in [this direction]. So you need to do [this!]” I resisted being on the other side of “doing to”. I don’t remember hearing messages that encouraged us to know ourselves, or find our unique path of service, or to practice self-compassion. Rather, no matter how much I was doing, it seemed there was always a call to do more, sacrificing our time and self for the greater good, without regard for gifts or vocation. Both my husband and I found it harder and harder to attend church and listen to messages that we didn’t agree with. After struggling with the dissonance for some time, we left that church.
We form our communities from these same two needs—the need for self-determination and the need for one another. But in modern society we have difficulty embracing the inherent paradox of these needs. We reach to satisfy one at the expense of the other. Very often the price of belonging to a community is to forfeit one’s individual autonomy.
Years later when I read this section in Meg Wheatley’s book Finding our Way: Leadership for an Uncertain Time, (2007) I realized that was what I was experiencing in that church. Without being able to articulate it fully at that time, I came to a place where I had to choose self-determination, honouring my identity and integrity, in the pursuit of wholeness.
This was the work of emerging wholeness. And it was both freeing and immensely uncomfortable.
What started as an intellectual transformation leaked into my spiritual life. I didn’t shout my personal evolution from the rooftops. I didn’t have the courage to take a stand at church or at school. When we left the church, we cited a problem with the distance, not the theology. At school, when I decided that I would give the common tests when my students were ready instead of on the appointed day, I didn’t tell anyone. I waited for a while until I saw that students were more successful, and were staying in the course before quietly mentioning it to one or two colleagues. I started to be more concerned with being true to my values, than being compliant with other people’s expectations.
Is it not clear to you that to go back to that old rule-keeping, peer pleasing religion would be an abandonment of everything personal and free in my relationship with God? I refuse to do that, to repudiate God’s grace. Galatians 2: 21 The Message
The transformation from being good to being whole took place over many years, one decision at a time—impacting my thinking, my doing and my being. As I read and studied more broadly, I found more writers who put into words what I was experiencing, and I grew into my wholeness in new and deeper ways. After being away from the church for over ten years, I am so grateful to have found a church community where I can both belong and be my whole, authentic self.
The journey to wholeness continues. In each new stage of life, I need to re-ground myself in my values, my personality and strengths, my desires and interests, and inquire into what it might mean to be whole in this time and space: for work, family, recreation and well-being. I keep striving for wholeness and meaning, and wondering, day by day, how to live that out.
What might wholeness look like for you? What expectations and messages are getting in the way of you living your authentic life? I am giving you permission to listen to your heart and find your unique path.