Bill Long 9/7/05
Thinking about Let Your Life Speak
I first ran into Parker Palmer's work about 25 years ago when I was finishing my doctoral work and regularly participated in a discussion group of young urban professionals in Boston. We were excited by his "discovery" of community, which he laid out in A Company of Strangers. It seemed to us that Palmer (and it took me quite a while to conclude that his name was Parker Palmer rather than Palmer Parker) was a voice for our age--an age that longed for intimacy, integrity, depth and content in the midst of a political system that had just let us down (Viet Nam and Watergate) or was letting us down (Jimmy Carter in the White House). The "key" would be to deepen relationships in community while not ignoring the demands and allure of the teeming city in which we lived.
I can see today, twenty five years later, that I was right that Palmer was a voice for our age. Now at the acme of a brilliant career, Palmer has won numerous awards and been recognized as one of the nation's most influential people in working with teachers and in understanding what one might call the "spirituality" or "inner life" of the teacher. I became "reacquainted" with Palmer recently when a treasured friend referred me to Palmer's little book, Let Your Life Speak, as a work that helped her clarify some of her vocational strivings. Thus, I eagerly returned to Palmer's work to see how his thinking had evolved in the intervening years as well as to see how his thoughts on vocation mesh with mine, as I am a person who has devoted a lot of time to thinking about this question. My conclusion is that Palmer's book is a little gem, but it is not at first clear whether it is nearer to talc or corundum on the Mohs scale of hardness. This essay probes my uncertainty.
Giving Permission to Listen
These six brief essays explore the common theme of vocation, and his central insight, it seems to me, is that true freedom in vocational selection occurs when you begin to listen to your heart rather than the externally-imposed expectations of others which you may even have internalized to a large extent as you mature. By stressing the centrality of this inner search, he gives permission to people to spend time in this discernment process. Indeed, he would probably contend that there is no more important task in life than to discover that unique self which you were made to be. If this sounds a lot like a secularized version of Quaker theology, it probably is. Palmer served for a decade as dean of the Quaker Pendle Hill community outside of Philadelphia, and has found the various Quaker "methodologies" (such as the 'clearness committee' which aided him in rejecting an offer to become president of an unnamed school) essential to his personal and professional growth.
I think the importance of his approach to vocation, where one spends whatever time necessary to listen to and cultivate that inner voice that let's you become who you truly are made to be, cannot be overemphasized. The value of patient listening to the heart is not emphasized in our culture. Indeed, the people with whom Palmer has had most to do over the years, teachers, are probably among the group least able to do the kind of deep reflective work about vocation because of the insistent demands of the day. Yet the inner life of the teacher or vocation-seeker, the confrontation of our own fears in the listening process, the courage to hear and obey what we find, are crucial items as we try to find our place in the world and our heart's greatest longings. For this purpose, then, Palmer's work has had and will continue to have deep resonance, not only with teachers but those seeking their vocation in ministry or other professions.
What's Really "Up" with Palmer?
Yet, something didn't sit right with me as I read his book. It may have been my uneasiness because I perceived that our respective paths were so similar but our destinations have become so different.* However, I think my "dis-ease" with his book arises
[*i.e., we both have elite educations with distinguished Ph. D.s, both of us toyed with the idea of ministry in Protestant traditions, both of us were allured by but eventually didn't succeed in university teaching, both of us were trustees of big institutions at very young ages because we wanted to become presidents of institutions, both of us never succeeded in the latter move, both of us are arranging knowledge according to our own way of perceiving the world rather than the typical scholarly methods, both of us are utterly committed to teaching, both of us have faced long bouts of depression and seeming feelings of inutility]
from my perception that he, at base, has an instrumental view of life and that life has ultimately "worked out" for him, whereas I have been and feel I still remain in the deep wilderness of inner searching. Let me illustrate this important point.
One of the numbing and humbling realities he faced was two long bouts with depression in his 40s. He movingly tells the story of his personal emotional immobility, the well-intentioned but useless advice of friends and the usefulness of some counsel he finally received. But then, he seems to be "well" and charges off in (new?) all directions with his work. He neither really takes us into the depression with him, tells us why he feels he was depressed, or explains how the depression altered his perspectives on the world or affected his writing, thinking, teaching and learning. I am sure he has thought about all these things, but the impression I receive from the book is that his depression was only a kind of "time out," something like an athletic injury, that, once "treated," allowed him to become the ambitious man that the ambitious child wanted to become. He quotes approvingly Frederick Buechner's definition of vocation as where "your deep gladness meets the world's deep need" (p.16), but leaves the two questions unanswered and undealt with: (1) what if you are never able to find your deep gladness? and, even more important, (2) what if your deep gladness finds no need to meet in the world?
It may indeed be that his book is designed and most useful for those who are beginning the seeking process and want "permission" to listen to their lives. It may be, also, that I am just jealous of all Palmer's "success" when I am a similarly-situated white male who can't shake the ambition game instilled in me by being brought up in a wealthy Connecticut suburb in the 1950s. But, I think also, that there may be times, very long times, in life where the uncertainty of vocation reigns. Indeed, it may last an entire life. I am not sure that Palmer understands that. Color him apatite.
Copyright © 2004-2009 William R. Long