“True self is true friend.” (p. 69)
Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation. Parker J. Palmer. 2000. Jossey-Bass Inc., Publishers. San Francisco, CA.
I decided to read Parker Palmer’s book, Let Your Life Speak: Listening to the Voice of Vocation, because a fragment of his thought was tucked inside Marcus Borg’s book, The Heart of Christianity…. It was actually a footnote. But, I was curious. I had often seen, and sometimes read, Parker Palmer’s essays on the OnBeing website. What I did not know was that Parker Palmer is a Quaker. He spent ten years in an intentional community at Pendle Hill, a Quaker village in Pennsylvania. He writes passionately about education and he is a life long teacher, even when he is not employed as a teacher.
Palmer’s book is quite short. I love big books so for someone like me, Let Your Life Speak… seemed like a risk. I was a bit skeptical as the librarian handed it over to me in the public library. But, I was also excited to read it and hoping it would offer guidance on how one’s life actually speaks. It sounds funny to say that listening to my life is not always easy. I should know what my life is saying since I am the one who is living it. Unfortunately, at least for me, I do not always know how to read the clues to my own life. It is like reading animal tracks or scat. For me, whenever I’m in the woods and I come upon a clue to what has been where I currently am, I panic and think it must have been a bear — and he or she is probably close by, perhaps even watching me!
Many of the essays have appeared elsewhere. If you cannot get to the library or get your hands on this book, then check out what might be online. Books, of course, have a different feel than anything you might read on screen, so I encourage getting the book. The first chapter made me weep for myself. But, it was not a weeping of regret; rather it was more a weeping of homecoming after so many years in exile. It was like meeting myself as a child and paying attention to who I was, or, have been, but missed having been forever preoccupied with the question: what do I want to do?, which was not so much about personal vocation as it was about where I could get a job to pay bills and keep myself from feeling I had wasted time and money on education. So excited by this little book’s message I read it again (109 page advantage.).
These are strong words from the heart. And, if anyone is familiar with Henri Nouwen then you will recognize a great generosity. Their similarities rest on their willingness to be open and honest about their egos. Also, their strong belief that we arrived with a God given nature. As Nouwen writes, “God knew you when you were being stitched together in your mother’s womb.” Palmer wakes the reader and reminds him or her that indeed our arrival here on earth is meaningful in as much as we arrive with something to give.
“We arrive in this world with birthright gifts — then we spend the first half of our lives abandoning them or letting others disabuse us of them.” (p. 12)
His awareness and sharing touched me, especially when he relates how he has written down what his granddaughter does in order to remind her when she is a teenager or older of who she was… . Yes. I know this too. I have known it since my daughter was kicking up a storm inside of me. When I carried her, she would be active for two days; then she would stop and take a break leading me to call the doctor’s office because I feared something had happened. This quality about her is still intact today. I can never find a camp to fit her character because she will not go to anything that requires a commitment from 9 to 5. Thankful, I am, to the ArtRoom, a small independent artist studio in our neighborhood which offers smaller classes and less hours per day. What my daughter loves is a day or two on and then rest. Indeed, she comes to this life already bearing gifts in the form of a particular rhythm. When the school year begins we walk and I must remind her that she will get a break during vacation time, and then someday she can make a life around her own rhythm.
The implication of God given “birthright gifts” is that we are divinely begotten and not made. If one believes we have something to offer at our arrival, even prior to it, then vocation can only come through knowing who we are.
“The deepest vocational question is not ‘what ought I do with my life?’ It is more elemental and demanding ‘Who am I? What is my nature?'” (p.15)
Who am I? is a critical question. Most people would answer such a question either with their job title, even if they are not particularly interested in their job; or with a more expansive and falsely emphatic list of endless things. Two extremes that see limits differently, and I would say, dangerously.
“Everything in the universe has a nature, which means limits as well as potentials, a truth well known by people who work with the things of the world” (p.15-16)
When it comes to limits, I am now a believer in them. Believing you must re-invent yourself as if it were as easy as buying new shoes is a bad belief system. In this sort of system there is very little honoring of anyone, especially the self that you are because you are now a multiplicity of potentials that/who (?) becomes and becomes and becomes … . Who can live with themselves or in a world in which they constantly deconstruct? And, as far as having “a nature,” well, perhaps, we have come to look at our own nature as we look at the natural world, as something we do not need or that we may modify to suit our desires, as if it were only there to be manipulated and not to be cared for as well. Perhaps, our care for the environment will not result in a full transformation of the world in which we live until we learn how “to grow” our inner selves in a non-egoistic way.
While we like to think anything is possible, there are, however, many indications that we as individuals have limits and unique natures. Most parents can understand limits. As parents we speak endlessly about our children’s strengths and weaknesses, quirks, vulnerabilities, and fears. Most people can understand individual nature. As friends and family members we can recognize someone we have not seen in years; and, when we think back to our childhood we can see traits that have endured throughout all the later renditions of who we are or our siblings, and oldest and dearest friends are; and yet we want to believe that changing who we are, our nature, is possible.
“But if the self seeks not pathology but wholeness, as I believe it does, then the willful pursuit of vocation is an act of violence toward ourselves — violence in the name of a vision that, however lofty, is forced on the self from without rather than grown from within. True self, when violated, will always resist us, sometimes at great cost, holding our lives in check until we honor its truth.” (p.4)
Unfortunately, in our postmodern world, Who am I? Is a question that often centers around having self-esteem before one even comprehends what a self is. Notice how Palmer writes “grown from within” when speaking about the self. His metaphorical use of “growing” is not unintentional. Later in his book he compares an agricultural understanding of life to our modern manufacturing one.
“We do not believe that we ‘grow’ our lives — we believe that we make them.” (p. 96-97)
There is a gentleness in nature that man has forgotten. There is also a beauty that comes with each stage of growth as well as in death. If anyone has watched a garden from seed to its finality then you witness beauty at each stage of life, and in the end, there is an incredible transformation as life’s finality folds into a new beginning. Unfortunately, today, our manufacturing way of life has taken over the natural world.
We believe there are no limits — even in nature.
Many times in our culture what we intend as a remedy to free us becomes something that confines us. Believing we can be or do anything we desire as long as we work hard or put our hearts into it can set us on a thousand and one day trips instead of a life long journey. Furthermore, if our culture supports a sense that you can be anything you want to be, the danger is a life that turns against you. You, then, are the blame for an incomplete life.
Limits are not a bad thing. In fact, Palmer’s understanding of limits makes them into blessings. If we can know ourselves and truly face what we like and dislike about ourselves we can begin to think about where we ought to journey. We could eliminate so many things for which we are not suited. We would be free to reach our full potential, and then, it is only from the point at which we reach our limit that there could ever be a possibility of going beyond.
But then, how is it that one begins to understand or answer the question, Who am I? Parker Palmer, in his steady, soothing voice, tells us to turn inward for the answer. As we turn inward we cannot afford to cheat ourselves by only focusing on what we like about ourselves.
“An inevitable though often ignored dimension of the quest for ‘wholeness’ is that we must embrace what we dislike or find shameful about ourselves as well as what we are confident and proud of.” (p.6-7)
What I love about this man is that he does not just tell you to listen to God or to your heart or if you listen to your heart that is God; but rather, he gives you these little insights into how to examine your life for clues to who you are by sharing some of his experiences. So, he tells us of his desire to have the title “president” under his name, and how his fear of failing as a scholar was behind his criticism of big academic institutions. He also examines how he often misread what his deepest desires were because he understood his interests narrowly. These are things we all do. Palmer offers a helpful way to look back without getting stuck in the past.
Let Your Life Speak… is a spiritual book. It is grounded in the Quaker belief of inner experience as a way to God and to transformation. There is no separation between life on earth and life somewhere else. Throughout Palmer’s book there is an insistence on being grounded — which works well with his inclination towards agricultural metaphors.
“The spiritual journey is full of paradoxes. One of them is that the humiliation that brings us down — down to the ground on which it is safe to stand and to fall — eventually takes us to a firmer and fuller sense of self.” (p.70)
When Parker Palmer relates parts of his personal journey and speaks of humiliation he is not proposing a strategy of humiliation to form a righteous soul, but rather he is relating what were for him humbling experiences, which, as a consequence put his feet on the ground — as the story of Paul on his way to Damascus revealed. To be grounded is to listen. Listening is a reflection, and then, if it is to yield anything at all, it demands an obedience to your insights.
“I must listen for the truths and values at the heart of my own identity, not the standards by which I must live — but the standards by which I cannot help but live if I am living my own life. ” (p. 5)
This little book of Parker Palmer demands a lot from its reader. It is like St. Benedict’s Rule. Its real assertion is in the doing, and not in the words on the page. It brings relief to the reader in a sense that drawing the limits closer to us makes life now accessible. I used to think a “calling” or true “vocation” meant that a voice called you and since I had never heard such a voice I had figured I was quite lost. But, Palmer shows us that we must pay attention to ourselves. For, in fact, we are all called. That is the good news.
“The world still waits for the truth that will set us free — my truth, your truth, our truth — the truth that was seeded in the earth when each of us arrived here formed in the image of God. Cultivating that truth, I believe, is the authentic vocation of every human being.” (p. 36)
Parker Palmer’s book is a beautiful little book to which one can return whenever one feels that the “way” is closed.