Perhaps the most fundamental psychological task of a human being is to differentiate from his or her family and become a unique individual. For all eternity, there will never be another you. Imitation is death, uniqueness is life. To differentiate we must do one thing: listen to our own voice. When we listen to the voices of others without listening to our own voice, we lose ourselves and become a cheap copy of others. We essentially waste our life’s purpose.
In our daily prayers we say, “The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob,” because each of the patriarchs found his own unique path to serving God. If Isaac had never listened to his own voice, he would have likely become an Abraham “wannabe.” Instead, he listened to his own voice and discovered his own unique path of service. Imagine how hard it would be to differentiate from a figure so imposing as Abraham! Yet Isaac chose a different path than his father and became a very different person than his father; a testimony to Isaac’s great emotional strength and sense of self. The world didn’t need another Abraham; it needed an Isaac!
A contemporary example is Rabbi Noah Weinberg, of blessed memory, founder of Aish HaTorah. Rabbi Weinberg would never have started Aish HaTorah if he had listened to the people around him, many who said Jewish outreach is impossible and a waste of time, especially when there were so many other important unmet needs of the Jewish people. Instead, Rabbi Weinberg listened to his own voice which urgently called him to reach out to his brothers and sisters. In the end, he did get support from some Jewish leaders, and made an enormous impact on the Jewish people, but the definitive moment was his decision to listen to his own voice, which could have easily been drowned out from the many dissenting voices around him.
When we listen to our own voice we take ownership of our lives. Ownership comes only through great struggle and the ability and courage to tolerate great anxiety. As Dr. Rollo May put it, “Courage is the capacity to embrace the anxiety that comes with each step one takes towards freedom, independence, and authentic selfhood.” The battle to be oneself is perhaps the greatest battle anyone faces and there’s so much on the line. If we fail to listen to our own voice, we lose ourselves, our independence, and our vitality. When we do, we gain ownership of our lives, vitality and feel alive. (It is important to note that listening to ones own voice does not mean impulsively acting on one’s voice. It is always prudent to solicit feedback from trusted friends and mentors before one chooses a course of action.)
Social pressure is ruthless. There are voices all around us telling us who we should be, what’s right, and what’s the truth. The voices of peers shame us. But somewhere amidst these voices is our own. Somewhere there is my voice which knows what’s right for me. It takes courage to access our own voice and strength to march to our own drum. Dare I go against what others say? Dare I question those who know so much more than me? Dare I be different and think for myself? Can I take my stand and bear the onslaught of rejection and criticism?
When we do finally find our voice and listen to it we discover life itself because we are then truly free. When we give into social pressure and lose ownership, we become slaves to the Pharaoh of social pressure. Our horizons become narrowed and we lose our unique, innate creative impulse.
The Power of Why
How does one liberate oneself from all the enslaving voices that surround us and find one’s voice? The answer lies in one simple word: “why.” When we ask ourselves why we do what we do or believe what we believe, we are forced to confront our true motives for what we do and think. Why am I praying today? Why am I a doctor? Why am I religious? Why am I not religious? Why am I a mother? Is this what I want to do for me or do I feel pressured to do or believe this? Am I making this decision based on what I truly want or what I perceive others want me to want? Am I living my life or someone else’s life?
If we have the strength and courage to consistently ask ourselves, “why?” we have a chance of discovering our own voice and what we truly want. This is not self-centeredness; it’s self-discovery. Dare to ask yourself, “why” and taste one of the most expansive pleasures we can experience – the pleasure of being our true self.