A lot of people will tell you to listen to your intuition. I’m about to tell you the same thing, sort of, except I’m not altogether good at doing it myself. But then there’s what I think is not just listening to your gut, but listening to your subconscious’ gut – something that is so deep down but loud that it almost sounds like your own instincts are shouting at you to listen to them from right next to your ear.
I’ve learned to both my joy and sorrow that when your subconscious is trying to hit you over the head, you really, really ought to pay attention to it.
The Joy: I’ve mentioned here before that I had a family member who was an author and he got me interested in writing seriously; this was my uncle. For as long as I’d wanted to be a writer I wanted to collaborate on a book with him, but by the time I was writing regularly and publishing almost regularly, he was in his 80s and it didn’t look like he would be doing any more writing. But to make a long story short, I discovered an unfinished novel of his, got his permission to finish it – but then dallied for a year because I was afraid that my own skills would never live up to his.
I was halfway through writing another book – in fact, right in the middle of typing a sentence – when I was suddenly struck with You need to finish your uncle’s book. If you don’t do it now you never will. It was, as I said above, as if someone was yelling in my ear. The feeling was visceral and almost physical. It was an absolute certainty. Write it now, or it will never be finished.
So I did. I started the very next day. For the next few weeks I worked on it, occasionally sending him chapters, which he could read, if slowly, and comment on or give his stamp of approval to. When the book was finished it was sent to his agent, who found a publisher for it.
A few months later my uncle suffered a massive stroke that damaged both his brain and his eyesight. He was no longer able to see or concentrate well enough to read more than a few lines at a time. Had I waited, he would not have been able to look at the new pages of his book that I wrote.
I could have still written it, technically speaking. But I probably wouldn’t have. If my subconscious was right, I definitely would not have.
The Sorrow: Last December, on a Saturday morning, I picked up my cell phone after getting up that morning to see if I’d had any messages waiting for me. I didn’t, at least not on my phone. But I was hit with one of those subconscious hammers again telling me I needed to call my college mentor (who I’ll call Dr. Shakespeare, which he would have approved of). Again, it was like a shout in my ear. You should call him. You haven’t talked to him in months. How would you feel if you didn’t call him, and he died, and you didn’t take this one last chance to talk to him?
I didn’t call him. It’s not that I didn’t want to, and I certainly didn’t like that I hadn’t talked to him for months. But I have a quasi-phobia about calling people. I won’t call anyone unless I have a direct message that’s fairly short and to the point; otherwise I start getting this fear that I’m interrupting something important. So I simply end up not picking up the phone at all. During the last few years, most of my non-face to face time with Dr. Shakespeare was spent writing letters. So after not managing to call him, I forgot about the message from my subconscious’ gut.
Until Monday morning, when a mutual friend called to tell me that he had died. On Saturday.
I talked with his wife after that, spoke at a remembrance for him at my alma mater, and was one of only a handful of invited speakers at his memorial service. I felt honored to speak, and was happy to do it. But the whole time I also felt like a fraud. A traitor. I’d been given the obvious chance to talk to him one more time – or at least try to – and I’d thrown it away.
That’s a sorrow I’m not going to forget if I live to be a hundred and ten.
There are times when my instincts feel muted enough that I’m wondering if what I’m hearing is something I’m actually hearing or it’s just my imagination. But when it hits that deep, when it feels almost like an earthquake inside me, when it’s a loud echo reverberating in my skull, when it’s so unsubtle that even I can’t fail to hear it…this has to tell me something.
Yet my record of listening to my subconscious’ gut is mixed, so this also tells me that I need to get a lot better about paying attention. I don’t want whatever is trying to help me to feel like its standing atop a cliff above the clouds shouting endlessly through a microphone while I’m plodding obliviously away towards some wall or cliff.