Care of the Soul: Reflections about Living Well
A Guide for Cultivating Depth and Sacredness in Everyday Life
As a practising Catholic, this weekend is the most spiritual of the year. It is a time to reflect on whether we are doing good in the world. Who is important to us? How can we celebrate our lives? How can we serve our community? How can we serve others? How can we build compassion for ourselves and others? These are all questions of the soul, and asking them is important, whether or not one participates in organized religion.
So this is a good weekend to take another look at Thomas Moore’s 1992 New York Times bestseller, Care of the Soul.
Fulfilling work, rewarding relationship, person power, and relief from symptoms are all gifts of the soul,” he writes in the introduction. “They are particularly elusive in our time because we don’t believe in the soul and therefore give it no place in our hierarchy of values. We have come to know soul only in its complaints: when it stirs, disturbed by neglect and abuse, and causes us to feel its pain. It is commonplace for writers to point out that we live in a time of deep division, in which mind is separated from body and spirituality is at odds with materialism. But how do we get out of this split? We can’t just ‘think’ ourselves through it, because thinking itself is part of the problem. What we need is a way out of dualistic attitudes. We need a third possibility, and that third is soul.”
Moore, who is a psychologist and former priest, provides essay after essay of reflections about the complexities of living. He says that modern society denies the needs of the soul, and that caring for its needs can lead to transformation and meaning.
The book is an ideal companion to life changes and loneliness. I first read it when my first child was very small and much of my time was taken up with multiple routine tasks. Moore’s advice to honour the spiritual side of daily homemaking was a welcome perspective.
Recently, I picked it up again as the empty-nest stage of life draws near and I begin questioning accomplishments to date.
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Story: Honour Negative and positive experiences to cultivate soul
Most of Moore’s book encourages readers to face hidden, hurtful and frustrating things about themselves and their loved ones as a first step in transformation.
One of his best arguments, for example, emphasizes how important families are to the soul. On pages 28 and 29, he makes a case for honouring both the shadows and positive elements in these relationships:
At a certain level, then, it doesn’t matter whether one’s family has been largely happy, comforting and supportive, or if there has been abuse and neglect. I’m not saying that these failures are not significant and painful or that they do not leave horrifying scars. At a deep level, however, family is most truly family in its complexity, including its failures and weaknesses. In my own family, the uncle who was my ideal source of wisdom and morality was also the one who drank excessively and who scandalized the rest by refusing to go to church. In my practice I’ve worked with many men and women whose families were intolerably violent and abusive, and yet all that pain has been redeemable, able to become the source of much wisdom and transformation. When we encounter the family from the point of view of the soul, accepting its shadows and its failure to meet our idealistic expectations, we are faced with mysteries that resist our moralism and sentimentality. We are taken down to the earth, where principle gives way to life in all its beauty and horror.”
Moore alternates between his own experiences and those of his psychotherapy clients to hint at ways of making life more meaningful.
Structure: Describing myths to encourage analysis
Most of Moore’s book consists of nine arguments that encourage readers to avoid judgement, embrace everything they dislike about themselves and face fears and emotions. He argues in favour of viewing illnesses, physical incapacities, self-confidence issues, jealousy, failure and other weaknesses as opportunities for growth without underestimating or reducing the suffering such issues can cause.
He also argues that people consider emotional experiences and values when choosing activities, lifestyles and careers. On page 187, for example he describes the questions someone might ask about a new job.
It’s obvious that climbing the ladder of success can easily lead to a loss of soul. An alternative may be to choose a profession or projects with soul in mind. If a potential employer describes all the benefits of a job, we could ask about the soul values. What is the spirit in this workspace? Will I be treated as a person here? Is there a feeling of community? Do people love their work? Is what we are doing and producing worthy of my commitment and long hours? Are there any moral problems in the job or workplace—making things detrimental to people or to the earth, taking excessive profits or contributing to racial and sexist oppression? It is not possible to care for the soul while violation or disregarding one’s own moral sensibility.”
Sound and Style: Popular Academic
Throughout Care of the Soul, Moore presents stories and arguments as a teacher might. He highlights and quotes multiple mentors, such as Carl Jung, James Hillman, Wolfgang Giegerich, and David Miller in long paragraphs. To emphasize the universality of his suggestions, Moore couches them with “we,” even when the descriptions of situations or stories are about specific people.
When describing ways to create a more soulful life, Moore presents his ideas as facts. On page 241, for instance, he suggests several ways to view a place so that it honours a human need for soul.
A tree, an animal, a stream, or a wooded grove can all be the focus of religious attention. The spirituality of a place might be marked with a well or a drawing on the ground or a pile of stones. When we place historical markers on old battlefields or on homes where our ancestors were born or where George Washington slept, we are performing a genuine spiritual act. We are honouring the special spirit that is attached to a particular place.”
Care of the Soul is best read slowly, in a piecemeal fashion so that each of a multitude of theories and ideas can be integrated and enjoyed. Fans might also be interested in visiting the author’s website.
Care of the Soul: A Guide for Cultivating Depth and Sacredness in Everyday Life
By Thomas Moore
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About the Author
Tracey Arial helps Canadians grow with notable nonfiction and urban agriculture.