Bridging the Inner Divide

Parker Palmer -- author, educator, and activist who focuses on issues in education, community, leadership, spirituality and social change -- addresses a common spiritual problem in his book A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life. He describes how people’s inner lives – who we are at the core of our identity: our values, passions, our relationships -- are divided from what we are doing in the world. In his words:

The divided life comes in many and varied forms. To cite just a few examples, it is the life we lead when

  • We refuse to invest ourselves in our work, diminishing its quality and distancing ourselves from those it is meant to serve

  • We make our living at jobs that violate our basic values, even when survival does not absolutely demand it

  • We remain in settings or relationships that steadily kill off our spirits

  • We harbor secrets to achieve personal gain at the expense of other people

  • We hide our beliefs from those who disagree with us to avoid conflict, challenge, and change

  • We conceal our true identities for fear of being criticized, shunned, or attacked

    (A Hidden Wholeness, p. 6)

“As adults we may ask, ‘Whatever happened to me? How did I lose that capacity to be here as I really am?’ We have to find a way to build a bridge between our identity and integrity as adults and the work that we do in the world.”

Joseph suffers from this painful divide during his late adolescence at the beginning of the narrative in this week’s Torah portion, Vayeshev. He desperately wants to find his place within his family, amidst his competitive brothers; yet, his brothers reject and despise him. This division leads him to dream twice of his entire family bowing down to him. Perhaps the pain of the actual divide between who he aspires to be and the reality that prevents him from being himself, blinds and leads him to the foolish act of telling his brothers about his dreams which make them hate him even more intensely.

The conflict comes to a head as his father sends Joseph to locate his brothers when they are out shepherding in the fields. As he is searching, he encounters a man wandering in the field. The man asks Joseph, “What are you seeking?” He responds, “I am seeking my brothers...” (Genesis 37:15-16).

This incidental encounter and question more subtly highlight Joseph’s internal void. “What is it that you are seeking?” should be read as an existential question here. His response, “My brothers” indicates, from this perspective that the only thing he is seeking in life is his brothers. What does this say about his sense of self? He is reduced to defining himself based on their acceptance of him. He has lost his own integrity. Not surprisingly, this seemingly simple question foreshadows the impending disaster with his brothers that awaits him around the corner.

At times, life asks us, “What are you seeking?” as we are aimlessly seek answers that can only be found within ourselves, hence the divide.

It is not until after Joseph is alone in the darkness of the pit that he embarks on a journey that teaches him to find the answer within, in the language of the Torah, “The spirit of God was with him.” Once he turns this corner, even though he faces other hardships he does so with integrity and wholeness. This journey ultimately prepares him to find his place among his brothers years later, serving as the leader who brings them together and to safety from the clutches of famine and grief.

The lesson of Joseph and Parker Palmer can help us directly face the divides in our lives with courage. There is direction when we are looking for answers for which we don’t even know the right question to ask. “What are you seeking?” can be a question that comes to us from unexpected sources, like a random person in a field. Let us first sense if there is a division between our inner selves and what we are doing in the world. Then we can be open to the explicit and subtle signs that life sends to us. We will recognize the form of the question: “What are you seeking?” At that point we can turn the corner to search for answers on the path we are genuinely meant to take.