Finding A Voice Amidst Threats and Fears

by Lane Wallace on March 9, 2017

I haven’t been posting very often, lately, because I’m deep underground, mentally, working on my book manuscript. A deep dive into a complex subject like authentic voice is all about momentum–allow yourself to be distracted by focusing on other writing, even for a few hours, and you’re likely to forget the train of thought you were pursuing through the tangled maze of data and material you’re attempting to wrestle onto a page. This situation is also likely to continue for the next few months, as I plow ahead on chapters. But my plan is to have at least a first draft finished by summer.

Occasionally, however, real-life events illustrate points I’m writing about. And seeing as I just finished a chapter, I’m taking a quick breather to note one such parallel before descending again into the depths.

One of the big questions I’m exploring in this book is how people find their “authentic” self and voice. (For those who haven’t read my previous posts, I define authentic voice as the expression of our most authentic selves: the most honest and important values, traits, feelings, beliefs, thoughts, dreams, hopes and fears we possess at our core.)  In my last post, I talked about the importance of curiosity in that process; that one way we discover what resonates strongly within us, and what must therefore be an important part of who we are, is by exploring the world and trying new things with an eye toward what draws us and sparks that resonance and passion.

There is also a piece of the process that involves honest, unbiased reflection and assessment of what is deep within us, as well as unbiased processing of what we explore and experience in the outside world.

But in many cases, we discover what we care about most through a tougher and more painful process. Because often, we only realize just how much something (or someone) matters to us when we’re threatened with its loss. This is certainly true of the people close to us, which is what prompts so many tearful “Wait! I’m sorry! Don’t go!” scenes in relationships. But it’s also true of the values, beliefs, and issues that make up our “authentic self.”

As one of the educators I interviewed for my book on voice noted, “We might imagine we value something, but then, in an actual situation where cost is involved, we might decide we really don’t.” The opposite can also be true. We might be unaware that something matters to us until we encounter conflict over it, or fear that we might lose it. Then, with a bit of a shock, we might realize just how important it is to us. And our authentic inner voice might suddenly find itself driven to speak–and act. As an editorial in The New Yorker put it last month, “Movements are born in the moments when abstract principles become concrete concerns.” They are also born in moments when we hit a wall; where we can turn away, go on with life as usual, and remain silent no longer. In truth, movements are probably born most often when those two moments converge.

This has been true many times in history. One of the examples I list in the book is Leymah Gbowee, who was awarded the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize (along with Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Tawakkol Karman) for her role in mobilizing women to force peace negotiations in the country’s civil war and getting the dictator Charles Taylor to relinquish power. She was a 31-year-old social worker when she stood up, spoke out, and began the movement. What prompted that action, and that courage? In an interview she gave in 2011, she explained, “When the war started in 1989, I was 17 years old. And from 1989 until 2003, when I was 31, I lived in fear. Between those years, at some point fear gave way to anger, and anger gave way to a need to transform the society…We took our anger … and decided we’re going to use it to transform our communities … So that power came from within.”

That same process–the discovery of a core value and voice from feeling threatened, along with a surge of power, anger, strength, courage and need to speak out and act to protect that value–can be seen in more recent events, as well. The women’s marches in cities around the world on January 21st of this year, for example, drew somewhere between 3.3 and 4.6 million people, making them the largest protest in U.S. history.

The most notable part of those numbers, however, (at least for this discussion) is how many of those women had never protested, or even been active or political, before that moment. What sparked that sudden activism in so many women? As I have said before, “Some particular issue, or moment, created such a disparity between their inner truth and what they were seeing or experiencing that they felt compelled to speak.”

That particular moment, in this case, was the election of Donald Trump. Suddenly, sparked by a realization of the potential threat he posed to how women were viewed, treated, protected by law, or even listened to, millions of women realized just how important the issues of women’s equality, rights, and legal protections were to them. Those issues were no longer abstract principles, well-established and “safe,” but concrete concerns … and concerns in serious danger of being lost. And in the clanging alarm bells that rang in the hearts, minds, and souls of women around the country and the world, many women discovered not just the clear, authentic sound of their inner voice, but the strength and power of an authentic voice released and transformed into action in the world.

Nobody sane would wish hard times or threatening events on anyone. But one of the consistent themes I’ve discovered in researching where and how people discover a strong, authentic voice is a link between the two. When the margins of comfort and normalcy are stripped away, we discover what matters most to us. And faced with serious-enough threats to those things, we realize that if we care about them, we can no longer be silent. We must speak. And in that process, we discover not only the sound of our authentic voice, released at last, but also the power of that voice. We become stronger ourselves, and discover the empowering strength of joining our voice to those of others. We also discover that there’s a kind of elation that comes from standing up, speaking out, striking back, and trading silence or passive bystander status for “upstander” action.

That’s not the only benefit to having a strong, authentic voice, of course. It also has a huge impact on our ability to pursue passionate, fulfilling paths, find sustainable happiness, enjoy healthy, strong relationships, and make better decisions and trade-offs at the important intersections of our lives. But one of the most important benefits of developing a strong, authentic voice is that it gives us incredible inner strength–strength we all need to protect people we love and the values we hold dear. And with that strength, it gives us power. Not “power over,” but “power to…” As in … the power to control our own destiny, turn vision into reality, and change not only our world, but the world beyond ourselves.

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