The fourth step on my journey into emptiness was to let go of the roles I occupy in other people’s lives. One of my roles is to be a minister. Part of being a minister is to carry the needs of other people about whom I will be for them. One day, I may help someone with a painful situation, and to them, I become the epitome of kindness and wisdom. That very same day, however, I might not have time to answer another person’s call. So they call me again to tell me how upset they are—at that moment, for them, I may feel like the epitome of an uncaring world.
All of these emotions are perfectly legitimate for people to feel. After the first call, it would be easy for me to believe that I am wonderful; after the second call, it would be easy to believe that I am horrible. But if I pay too much attention to these outer perceptions, I lose sight of who I really am, in the haze of trying to be what everyone wants and needs.
This is not only a hazard for ministers: all of us have roles we play for other people, expectations placed on us as workers, as leaders and followers, as parents and children, as lovers and spouses. We wouldn’t be ourselves without our roles, but there is a self beneath the roles.
One day, while writing in my journal, I imagined that I slipped out of my roles, as if I were air or water being sucked right out of a suit of armor. I felt astonished that I could so simply leave behind judgment or praise, and find myself like one hovering behind all the roles I usually occupied. It felt peaceful in that space. I was a spirit that was free to stretch and breathe. In that airy space, I caught a glimpse of my deeper self: I felt myself a spark of light, a caller of spirit, beloved of the larger Mystery. I wanted to be silent, to breathe, to give thanks.
Later, when I was walking on the beach, I saw an empty crab shell. I realized that crabs teach us a wonderful lesson about letting go of our roles: they withdraw from their shells at regular intervals—whenever they have grown too tight—to start fresh and soft again. The roles, like the shells, are good things. But in the journey of the soul, we need to slip out of them periodically, or we will be unable to grow.