Soulfelt expression may be one essential component to purposeful living.

Posted Jan 10, 2019

Craig is the worship leader at my church. To say his style is unique would be a great understatement.

Craig mostly plays piano and sings at church, combining a mix of folk and country with a bit of blues and funk thrown in for good measure. He is humble, but once in a while, he plays a solo, and when this becomes apparent, my wife and I glance across the aisle at each other, and smile knowingly that we are about to share a sacred moment. Whenever Craig sings his one-of-a-kind rendition of Leonard Cohen’s masterpiece “Hallelujah,” for example, tears flood our eyes. And we leave church a bit different as a result.

Craig is nearing retirement and recently pulled back from leading all three worship services, restricting himself to the early 8:00 a.m. service. His replacements are talented musicians in their own right, but many in the congregation started attending church earlier just to hear Craig play. There is just something intoxicating about his music.

The best way I can describe Craig’s music is that it is “soulfelt.”

“Soulfelt” appears in none of the major dictionaries. By this criterion, it is not a word.  

But, I think it should be.

I don’t know what causes words to become words, but I think what I will now call the “word” soulfelt should find a place in our lives.

The first time I heard the word “soulfelt” was in a literary class in creative non-fiction. We studied classic essays in this genre (Annie Dillard’s “Living Like Weasels,” for instance), and we hunted for clues as to what made some essays stand out more than others. Our wise and insightful instructor, Todd, made the point that, though there are different ways to get there, some essays ultimately arrive at a “soulfelt truth.” And that is what elevates them to a different level.

It's difficult to accurately define something that hasn’t really ever been defined—much less empirically studied—so all of what I am about to say is subject to debate and revision.

The closest synonym to “soulfelt” probably is “soulful.” The difference is telling. For something to be soulfelt, it must be “felt.” Deeply.

In other words, soulfelt expression allows an individual to channel something deeply meaningful and emotional to that person. Typically, it is the culmination of a person’s long-term experience, tapping an individual’s passions and strengths in ways unique to their identity. There often may be a degree of vulnerability necessary.

Gabriel Jimenez | Unsplash
Source: Gabriel Jimenez | Unsplash

Many kinds of activities could be soulfelt. I have been inspired by observing the soulfelt work of true craftsmen, devoted athletes, caring health professionals, passionate teachers, innovative artists, sincere librarians, visionary business leaders, and even detail-minded accountants. A few years ago, Odell Brewing released a video story of a family farmer who I believe farmed in a soulfelt way. Volunteering can be soulfelt. So can leisure. So can a parenting decision or a conversation with a friend or a romantic gesture.    

Individuals may be powerfully moved in prosocial ways when they witness someone express themselves in a soulfelt manner. Observers sometimes may feel “chills” or “goosebumps,” for instance, in a state of elevation or awe. The reaction of the audience witnessing Paul Pott’s first performance on Britain’s Got Talent provides one example. Following Fredrickson’s model of positive emotion, this may result in people broadening their thinking and building their resources in a variety of ways. They may feel the desire to imitate what they are observing.

Age may interact with soulfelt activity in complicated ways as well. Older individuals may be able to tap their experience more powerfully to express a soulfelt behavior. If observers know the history of someone’s experience, they also may interpret a behavior as being more soulfelt, increasing the strength of their emotional response. The difference between Johnny Cash’s rendition of “Hurt” and the young Trent Reznor’s original version may demonstrate this in both regards, I believe.

Soulfelt expression may be essential to us because it connects us with purpose and identity. Individuals, families, communities, and organizations that engage in soulfelt activity may feel like they are doing what they are “meant” to do. They may be more effective in a variety of ways. And the world will be a better place as a result.

Questions for reflection:

1. When have you observed others express themselves in a soulfelt way? How have you been touched by this?

2. When have you done something soulfelt? How did that feel?

3. What activities in the future do you believe hold the greatest promise for soulfelt expression in your life? How can you create space to develop your strengths in that area?

4. What obstacles get in the way of your soulfelt expression? What can you do to address those obstacles?

5. How can your organization select individuals who can express themselves in soulfelt ways, that fit with the mission of the organization? What can be done to nurture these individuals and free their time to allow them to engage more in these activities?

Note: Myles Johnson contributed to this post.