Thomas Moore Interview
(A portion of this interview appeared in the September/October 2008 edition of New Visions Magazine.)
Thomas Moore, life-experience virtuoso, looks back and sees the common thread of his life work in his experiences as Servite, composer, musician, college professor, psychotherapist, and now a writer and speaker. Many people have reported that his books have given them a sense of relief, satisfaction and less stress about life and their place in it. He develops “a very careful, precise approach to things from a deep level” and teaches us how to include and nurture “soul” in every aspect of our lives. Author of seven audio works and 15 books, including the bestselling book Care of the Soul, you can find his music on CD and videos and writings on his website, www.CareOfTheSoul.net. His most recent book is A Live at Work.
Dawn: So if you don’t do your life’s calling right away it doesn’t go away?
Thomas: No, not at all. It’s something, this is the thing about this idea of soul that I write about, it’s not something that comes and goes, the idea of having a life work. Usually it’s something that’s in a person’s mind their whole life long. They might even start as a child thinking this is what I want to be when I grow up and most of the time it changes as you have different experiences. But most often, there is a seed there that remains the same. An example would be my own example, where I left home at 13 to be a Catholic priest. I thought that’s what I wanted to do and at a certain point, after putting 13 years into that, it certainly was what I thought was a life’s work, I left it. And yet I’m spending the rest of my life reading about the soul and speaking in churches. I’m doing the work that I was intending to do but it’s not exactly the same.
Dawn: If someone hears a calling early in life but they don’t respond to it, it doesn’t go away?
Thomas: No, it doesn’t go away. I think most people will say that. This kind of thing, the matters of soul, stay. They’re not bound by time, and they don’t just disappear. There is a situation, which is very common, where people start out early in life with a sense of a life work and they never go back to it. It’s not really that they’ve totally forgotten about it, but they’ve gotten caught up perhaps, in making a living. In the book I have a chapter called, Life in a Tower. I talk about how people often get stuck in a good job. It may seem like a good thing but in fact it imprisons them and keeps them from going back to their calling. It’s true that a lot of people maybe have neglected their life work but with a little bit of nudging they remember. I don’t mean they always go back to it, because a lot of people don’t, but they’d be happier if they did.
Dawn: What do you think of the current educational system?
Thomas: Not much.
Dawn: Well, you’re home schooling your daughter, so that says a lot right there.
Thomas: Well, it does say something, yes. My kids grew up in a Waldorf School. They went to a Waldorf School all the way through so all along I’ve been very interested in education. The thing about contemporary public education, and of course much private education, that I object to is that it’s seen as training for a job. Here we run into that same issue: a job versus a life work. I would think that an educated person is someone who understands something about the world, about their place in community and gets initiated into culture, the closest culture where it might be; learning about history and really learning it and arts and how to be with people and nature, a full education. Today we do training, we don’t really educate. So we get nervous when a child can’t use a computer. We’re not so worried whether they can be married or raise children or be responsible and intelligent participant in society. That was an old Greek idea. The ancient Greeks thought that was the heart of education: was to educate people so that when they got older they could really make a contribution to society. We don’t seem to see that. We think it’s more important that our kids develop a skill so that they can make a good living at it and have a certain level of income. I think that’s really a sad situation and leads to all kinds of problems. Testing is the big thing, and you can’t test for a real education.
Dawn: Do you think that the Waldorf School is the best option for educating our children?
Thomas: No, I don’t. I wouldn’t say that. It’s an option.
Dawn: That’s where my daughter is too.
Thomas: Oh, is she?
Dawn: Yes, she is.
Thomas: We are very happy that our children went to Waldorf School. They like it. As so many parents have expressed we didn’t really buy in 100% to the theory but that didn’t make any difference. It was the style of teaching that was important to us. Our children now say that they want their children to go to the same school. They loved it and her teacher has become a very close family friend, one of our closest friends, and that just will last forever, we think. I think as an alternative at this point, if you can swing it, if you can do it, it’s really probably the better thing to do.
Dawn: Besides not labeling our children that they’re a “little dancer”, “little lawyer”, “little healer”, “little writer”, “little actor”, what are the most important things parents can do to help them so they can find their life’s work when the time comes?
Thomas: There are several things. I could think about what I kept in mind for myself, for my own family. One thing is to keep an eye out and see what your children are by nature. My philosophy, based on this idea of soul, is that a person doesn’t come into the world blank and then just sort of finds his way or her way into some job or life position. They come with talents and with individual character and personalities. So you watch that, first of all and allow it to flower. So you support it. Now that I’m home schooling my daughter, frequently she’ll say to me, “What should I do? Now should I write a paper on this? Should I go travel and see this?” I always say to her, “You choose. It’s your choice. Do what you want to do.” and I try to encourage that individuality rather than say, “I think I know what this person should be or do.” I think that’s the most important thing. Then you’re giving your child opportunities. One of the things I did, I’m a musician, and like many musicians you hope that your kids will learn to read music at three-years-old, be accomplished at seven and wanting to listen to Bach every morning. It just isn’t that way. So one of the things I did early on, when the kids were only two- and three-years-old, I put instruments in the house. I had all kinds of instruments and just let them pick them up when they wanted to, when they were interested. And if they took lessons in a particular instrument and then they abandoned it after a year that was fine as far as I was concerned because they have to find their way. Finding your way involves, not failing so much but just trying something out, experimenting, I guess is the word. You have to experiment and I think a lot of people feel guilty about that: that they failed somehow. That they should continue in some particular area. A lot of older people feel that because they’ve been in a job for ten years or 20 years that they can’t move out of it, they don’t have the freedom to move. So what I wanted to do with our kids was give them the sense that they can choose at any time, they can stop something without any guilt and move ahead.
Dawn: That’s great. What instrument do you play?
Thomas: Well, I play piano but I studied composition when I was in college.
Dawn: Oh! My husband plays piano.
Thomas: Oh, really?
Dawn: And he’s a composer.
Thomas: Is that right? That’s amazing.
Dawn: Yes, so he has some of the same things as you.
Thomas: We have a lot in common.
Dawn: When our daughter started playing recorder in first grade, then she went to the piano.
Dawn: And she started to pick-out Hot Cross Buns. He was thrilled.
Dawn: So, what’s the best role education can play for our children, just supporting their own interests?
Thomas: Some of the things education does already: teaching the basics, history, nature, science and the arts. I think our values about what kids should learn are pretty much upside down: the first thing that goes in our public schools is the arts or sometimes sports. I think sports and arts are really important. Plato said that the arts are important to keep us soft, sensitive and aware and sports are important for keeping us tough and I think that still probably holds: that we have to be strong and we have to be sensitive. I’m not saying the arts and sports only do that but at least there is a long tradition about the importance of these two things in the educational process. So I think we have a lopsided emphasis on science. That’s a kind of residue of the 20th century which was the century of science. I don’t think the 21st century is going to be the century of science. I think it’s going to be very different, a very different culture. We’re making a difficult move into new values and I think our education is going to follow and I don’t think we’re going to have that same anxiety about science.
Dawn: Let me make sure I understand this concept: if our children are expressing different talents or interests that they have, the best thing that we can do is to give them the tools and the opportunity to explore them further as far as they want to explore them.
Thomas: Yes, perfect.
Dawn: That’s great! I got it right.
Thomas: I wish I could have said it that way.
(We shared a laugh here.)
Dawn: I’m fortunate in that everything I’ve done up to this point in my life, has really supported what I’m doing now, what I’m moving forward to. I know everyone’s not that fortunate so how important is it for people to begin with the end in mind? I guess they can really only do that though if they know what their calling is.
Thomas: I don’t think everyone knows what their calling is. In fact, I don’t think it’s the kind of thing you can really pin down, know and define. Often it’s rather vague. I don’t think I can say what my calling is. It’s there, you know that it’s there; you know when you’re following it and when you aren’t. This is this daimonic aspect of calling. I wrote about the daimon. It means that there’s something about calling that’s more like a call, a voice and you listen to it but you don’t know exactly what it wants of you. In a certain sense you may feel called to certain things at different times of you life and only toward the end do you see a common thread or you see where you’ve been heading. That’s an interesting and mysterious aspect of calling. I think in any one moment you may not be able to say, “This is what I’m called to do,” but you can say that you’re on track or you’re not. A lot of people feel that they’re not. I just finished a book tour where I talked to an awful lot of people all around the United States about this theme and one of the common issues that came up, people said, was that they don’t know what they’re called to do and they’re frustrated because they wished they knew. They know their not doing what really fulfills them but they don’t know what that is, what it would be that would make them feel fulfilled. When I hear that, the first thing I think of is that, probably in general, a person like that is not very close to themselves, they probably don’t pay much attention to what their heart desires, what their heart wants. I think this is a problem of our society: we live so externally. We judge everything by external standards and we don’t have habits of paying attention to our inner emotions so we’re not used to being guided by what’s inside of us. We’re usually guided by what’s outside of us. I think that’s one of the huge problems we have in finding our life work is that it requires, not a withdrawal from life, but both being in the world and also paying close attention to yourself.
Dawn: Right, that makes sense. So you traveled around and talked to a lot of people who read your book?
Dawn: What was the most amazing transformation that you heard about or saw?
Thomas: It’s a little difficult for me to think of suddenly. Let me just say something about that and maybe it will come back to me. I did talk to a lot of people, 20-25 people, who had stories of being in a profession that just wasn’t right for them. Feeling secure because they were making a decent living at it but knowing strongly enough that it wasn’t right so they took the leap, quit the job and did what they really wanted to do. Usually it was a job in some corporation that gave them a fairly decent salary, shifting to something they had to do on their own, with a great deal of financial insecurity but they felt perfectly fine for having made that leap. I can’t think of a really strong example right now, but that’s generally what was going on.
Dawn: When people do read your book has anyone reported that they found a sense of relief or satisfaction or less stress?
Thomas: People say that about all my books. One of the things that they say that’s very positive is that they feel like they were given permission to go ahead and do what they really felt they need and want to do. I talk to them when I give talks in bookstores and other places. I talk to them about the importance of desire. To find out what desires are really deep and require attention: otherwise you’d feel depressed for not following it through. People do feel assured and given permission and accepted for who they are, from the books, that’s for sure. Now one of the things that I can just tell you, it’s not important but very often people tell me they really appreciate my musings in the books and I hate to hear that. I feel like I’m really trying to develop a very careful, precise approach to things from a deep level and a lot of people take it as musings: just sitting around musing about things. So that’s not very pleasing to me. I hear that too. But I think the important thing is that people do feel that they’ve got permission to really move more passionately into their lives.
Dawn: How do you think the planet, our society and how we raise our children would change if everyone were following their calling?
Thomas: It would change quite radically. I think there would be less depression. People talk today about depression and they see it as just a purely physical thing, chemical reaction. I don’t think that’s true. I think our culture breeds depression, partly because we don’t encourage people to live out their callings. So I think there would be less depression, more joy, less acting out in addiction. I think in that way there would be a lot of benefits from it. It also would also force society away from this industrial model where you treat workers as though they were indentured to you, in service, rather than as employees, as people with a calling. I think another cause of depression and many other problems is that work is so dehumanizing still and people are not treated well. A lot of people hate going to work. I heard that over and over again when I was traveling. I’d say the great majority of people I talked to said that they hate going to work for one reason or another but most often because of the way they’re treated. That’s really a bad scene and I think if people were doing what they wanted to do they probably wouldn’t tolerate that kind of thing.
Dawn: How do you feel your life’s work has changed the consciousness of humanity?
Thomas: I’ve been one of these people to kind of move. I read the signs all the time and just move along. I started out, as I said, wanting to be a priest and when I woke up one day with no good external reason against it or to quit that or to end it, but with a strong inner feeling that it was over, I immediately got out and then I had to fish around for a while. I thought maybe I’d be a musician but realized that wasn’t quite right for me. Here’s an interesting thing, while we’re talking about that, there are certainly regrets, I think. I think very often when you make a life decision, like mine not to be a musician; I don’t regret it exactly but I wonder. Sometimes I wish I would have gone in that direction because it gives me so much pleasure. But you make your choices and they’re not always clear and you may wonder about them your whole life which is fine. That kind of reflection, that kind of remorse is really good, I think, for a person. I finally ended up getting a Ph.D. in religion, which was a wonderful thing for me. I loved it. I thought I’d teach that in college the rest of my life. I thought at that point my life work was so clear and I taught for 7 or 8 years and they fired me because they didn’t like the way I was teaching and writing. It was because I just couldn’t follow that strict academic style, it just wasn’t me. I was left without knowing exactly what to do but people were asking me if I would counsel them, if I would be a therapist for them so I did that for 20 years and then I wrote a book that a lot of people read and I was able to make a living writing, which is wonderful. So that’s what’s happening at the moment but my father’s 95 and he’s still working at a job, a new job, very different from what he’s ever done in his life. So I’m not saying this is the end of it.
Dawn (Miro’s question): Do you think that you or he would ever retire? What do you think of the concept of retirement?
Thomas: Retirement makes sense to me, for a lot of people, but it can mean many different things. I think today retirement is different from what it used to be. I think a lot of people retire formerly early. A lot of times it’s a financial decision because to be in retirement officially has financial repercussions so sometimes people do it but they have no intention of not working anymore, not being a worker of some kind. I think it’s different these days. Now my father, to use him as an example, he was a plumbing instructor all his life and he retired quite early at 62. He wasn’t really ready for it but he was kind of forced to retire. He was of another era and he saw retirement as “you just don’t do a job anymore”. But he’s been so busy. My mother died a few years ago and during that process he saw what was going on in the hospital so he decided to look for a job in the hospital. At 90 he took a position in the hospital, caring mainly for patients with dementia because he was able to deal with people like that, he has a talent for it. Even today, he’s 95, he works two days a week at the job. So he sees it as his new career. Even though I said his idea of retirement was different at the beginning, he had other things to do and he was open to seeing something to do. I don’t think he sees it this as a new career. It’s something he wants to do: he wants to be busy in his life. I think there is a place for retirement but it doesn’t have to mean that you don’t work anymore or that your quest toward a life work is over.
Dawn: I heard a statistic that says that within a few years of retiring, a lot of people die.
Thomas: Yes, well, people do see retirement as death, that life is over or that now you sort of glide toward the end. If people want to do that they can do that but I don’t think it’s a very constructive way of looking at retirement. Maybe we have a bad word. Maybe one day we’ll find another word for it. “Retire” sounds like it’s over. We might mean something else like, I don’t know what we’d call it. I have to think about that, maybe some other language for it. In some cultures, in India for example, I’ve heard from my Indian friends, they say that part of the philosophy that people are brought up in is that the older you get the more you should change the structure of your life to adjust to old age. Part of that is to understand that you can now give something to the people who are younger. It’s your job; it’s your position now to make a contribution to people, to give them the benefit of your experience: the things that you’ve learned. I think that’s a much more constructive way of having a philosophy of retirement. It would be something that you might even look forward to. Then you’d know that you have a position in society, something to do. It wouldn’t be specific, saying that you should move into a certain kind of job but that’s again looking at life work as a job. But it would be an attitude and philosophy that could lead to many things that would be more constructive.
Dawn: That’s one of the things Neale Donald Walsch talks about in Conversations with God. He says that people who are 55-60 and older actually have wisdom that they can teach to the younger generations and that’s really what they should be doing.
Thomas: Yes, that’s what I mean. It doesn’t mean that you have to be smart or the wise person but it means that you have something to do with your life. You can make a contribution but, of course, it has to work both ways. Like my father, having been a plumbing instructor, he loves to talk about plumbing and how water is purified and how we deal with our water. Even now he tells me, he’s gone to schools for the past 30 years to share about plumbing. (the tape recorder switched to the other side at this point and I missed some of what he said) …environment you give something back to people that you know it. So for him it is plumbing. It doesn’t have to be “how to live your life”. It doesn’t have to be spiritual wisdom, it can be plumbing. But nobody has allowed him to come in, nobody has accepted his invitation. They don’t have time. It doesn’t fit their schedule, ever. I think that’s a sad situation.
Dawn: Whoa, I’d make it fit.
Thomas: Well, yes. It’s not just that it would be great; kids would enjoy hearing someone talk about that subject but they would have that personal experience of being with an older person and learning from their experience. Just being with someone like that could give them a lot.
Dawn: Right. So what gives you the most joy in life?
Thomas: Well that’s really hard to say. I think one of the things that comes to mind is, I love my work, for one thing. I really love my work. I hate to have to have a day where I can’t work. I don’t like holidays very much. Part of it is that I’m able, now, to work at home. I’m with my family. I can teach my daughter in the mornings now. I’m connected to the family. My wife also works at home. She’s a painter and she has a studio here. I guess that’s the really the best thing.
Dawn: You love your life.
Dawn: That is awesome!
(We laughed together.)
Dawn: Well, Thomas, this has been lovely. I’ve really enjoyed talking to you.
Thomas: Good. I’ve enjoyed it too Dawn.
Dawn: Oh, good. Thank you.