" 'Heart,' 'spark,' 'spirit' whatever word we use for the mysterious force that animates us, its full potential cannot be realized in isolation. Indeed, according to developmental psychologists, individual growth is possible only through interaction with the human and natural world, and through experiences that challenge us. 'Souls are like athletes,' wrote Trappist monk Thomas Merton, 'that need opponents worthy of them if they are to be tried and extended and pushed to the full use of their powers.'
"Many of us already know the value of stretching our souls in personal life. . . . We are slower to attempt such transformations in the public sphere. Self-assertion there requires us not only to modify our outlook and behavior but also to confront a bewildering and often disorienting maze of institutions and individuals, powers and principalities. So we may stay silent in the face of actions we know are unwise or morally troubling. We keep our opinions to ourselves, because we doubt our voices will be heard, mistrust our right to speak, or fear the consequences if we do speak out. We feel we lack political skills. . . .
"Yet coming out of one’s cocoon in the public sphere is just as necessary to self-realization as it is in private. I once told a young Puerto Rican activist about the notion, common among many of his fellow students, that they’d lose their identity by getting involved—find themselves 'swallowed up' by the movements they joined. He laughed and said the reverse was true.' You learn things you never knew about yourself. You get pushed to your limits. You meet people who make you think and push you further. You don’t lose your identity. You begin to find out who you really are. I feel sad for people who will never have this experience.'
"You begin to find out who you really are. The implication is clear enough: We become human only in the company of other human beings. And this involves both opening our hearts and giving voice to our deepest convictions. The biblical vision of shalom describes this process with its concepts of 'right relationships' with our fellow humans, and with all of God’s creation. The turning point for the Buddha, writes James Hillman, came only 'when he left his protected palace gardens to enter the street. There the sick, the dead, the poor and the old drew his soul down into the question of how to live in the world.' As Hillman stresses, the Buddha became who he was precisely by leaving the cloistered life. A doctor I know works in a low-income clinic because, she says, 'seeing the struggles of others helps me to be true to myself. It helps me find out how people in very different circumstances live out their humanity.' Community, in other words, is the mirror that best reflects our individual choices, our strengths and weaknesses, our accomplishments and failures. It allows our lives to count for something."
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