Parker Palmer

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Parker J. Palmer (born 1939 in Chicago, Illinois) is an author, educator, and activist who focuses on issues in education, community, leadership, spirituality and social change.


Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation (1999)[edit]

  • Summer’s keynote is abundance. … This fact of nature is in sharp contrast to human nature, which seems to regard perpetual scarcity as the law of life. Daily I am astonished at how readily I believe that something I need is in short supply. If I hoard possessions, it is because I believe that there are not enough to go around. If I struggle with others over power, it is because I believe that power is limited. If I become jealous in relationships, it is because I believe that when you get too much love, I will be short changed. …
    The irony, often tragic, is that by embracing the scarcity assumption, we create the very scarcities we fear. … We create scarcity by fearfully accepting it as law and by competing with others for resources.
  • The idea of vocation I picked up in those circles created distortion until I grew strong enough to discard it. I mean the idea that vocation, or calling, comes from a voice external to ourselves, a voice of moral demand that asks us to become someone we are not yet—someone different, someone better, someone just beyond our reach.
    That concept of vocation is rooted in a deep distrust of selfhood, in the belief that the sinful self will always be “selfish” unless corrected by external forces of virtue. It is a notion that made me feel inadequate to the task of living my own life, creating guilt about the distance between who I was and who I was supposed to be.
  • As young people, we are surrounded by expectations that may have little to do with who we really are, expectations held by people who are not trying to discern our selfhood but to fit us into slots. In families, schools, workplaces, and religious communities, we are trained away from true self toward images of acceptability; under social pressures … our original shape is deformed beyond recognition; and we ourselves, driven by fear, too often betray true self to gain the approval of others.
  • Everything in the universe has a nature, which means limits as well as potentials, a truth well known by people who work daily with the things of the world. … Engineering involves more than telling materials what they must do. If the engineer does not honor the nature of the steel or the wood or the stone, his or her failure will go well beyond aesthetics: the bridge or the building will collapse and put human life in peril.
    The human self also has a nature, limits as well as potentials. If you seek vocation without understanding the material you are working with, what you build with your life will be ungainly and may well put lives in peril, your own and some of those around you. “Faking it” in the service of high values is no virtue and has nothing to do with vocation. It is an ignorant, sometimes arrogant, attempt to override one’s nature, and it will always fail.
  • A scholar is committed to building on knowledge that others have gathered, correcting it, confirming it, enlarging it. But I have always wanted to think my own thoughts about a subject without being overly influenced by what others have thought before me.
  • If we are unfaithful to true self, we will extract the price from others.
  • I waste energy on anger rather than investing it in hope.
  • I was fired because that job had little to do with who I am, with my true nature and gifts, what I care and do not care about. My resort to adolescent rebellion reflected that simple fact. … I was laughing to keep myself sane. Perhaps the research I was doing was what a good sociologist “ought” to do, but it felt meaningless to me, and I felt fraudulent doing it. Those feelings were harbingers of things to come, things that eventually led me out of the profession altogether. Obviously I should have dealt with my feeling more directly and exercised more self-control. Either I should have quit that job under my own steam or settled in and done the work properly. But sometimes the "shoulds" do not work because the life one is living runs crosswise to the grain of one's soul. At that time of my life, I had no feeling for the grain of my soul and of which way was crosswise. Not knowing what was driving me, I behaved with blind but blissful unconsciousness—and reality responded by giving me a big and hard-to-take clue about who I am.
    • pp. 40-41
  • If I try to be or do something noble that has nothing to do with who I am, I may look good to others and to myself for a while. But the fact that I an exceeding my limits will eventually have consequences. I will distort myself, the other, and our relationship—and may end up doing more damage than if I had never set out to do this particular “good.”
    • p. 47
  • Over the years I have met people who have made a very human claim on me by making known their need to be loved. For a long time my response was instant and reflexive, born of the "oughts" I had absorbed: "Of course you need to be loved. Everyone does. And I love you."
    It took me a long time to understand that although everyone needs to be loved, I cannot be the source of that gift for everyone who asks me for it. There are some relationships in which I am capable of love and otters in which I am not. To pretend otherwise, to put out promissory notes I am unable to honor, is to damage my own integrity and that of the person in need, all in the name of love.
    • pp. 47-48
  • Here is another example of violating one's nature in the name of nobility, an example that shows the larger dangers of false love. Years ago, I heard Dorothy Day speak. Founder of the Catholic Worker movement, her long-term commitment to living among the poor on New York's Lower East Side—not just serving them but sharing their condition—had made her one of my heroes. So it came as a great shock. when in the middle of her talk, I heard her start to ruminate about the "ungrateful poor."
    I did not understand how such a dismissive phrase could come from the lips of a saint—until it hit me with the force of a Zen koan. Dorothy Day was saying, "Do not give to the poor expecting to get their gratitude so that you can feel good about yourself. If you do, your giving will be thin and short-lived, and that is not what the poor need; it will only impoverish them further. Give only if you have something you must give; give only if you are someone for whom giving is its own reward."
    When I give something I do not possess, I give a false and dangerous gift, a gift that looks like love but is, in reality, loveless-a gift given more from my need to prove myself than from the other's need to be cared for. That kind of giving is not only loveless but faithless, based on the arrogant and mistaken notion that God has no way of channeling love to the other except through me. Yes, we are created in and for community, to be there, in love, for one another. But community cuts both ways: when we reach the limits of our own capacity to love, community means trusting that someone else will be available to the person in need.
    • pp. 48-49
  • When the gift I give to the other is integral to my own nature, when it comes from a place of organic reality within me, it will renew itself—and me—even as I give it away. Only when I give something that does not grow within me do I deplete myself and harm the other as well, for only harm can come from a gift that is forced, inorganic, unreal.
    • pp. 49-50
  • The attempt to live by the reality of our own nature, which means our limits as well as our potentials, is a profoundly moral regimen.
    • p. 50
  • Reality—including one’s own—is divine, to not defied but honored.
    • p. 51
  • … honoring one’s created nature
    • p. 51
  • Our strongest gifts are usually those we are barely aware of possessing. They are a part of our God-given nature, with us from the moment we drew first breath, and we are no more conscious of having them than we are of breathing.
    • p. 52
  • When I understand this liability as a trade-off for my strengths, something new and liberating arises within me. I no longer want to have my liability “fixed”—by learning how to dance solo, for example, when no one wants to dance with me—for to do that would be to compromise or even destroy my gift.
    • p. 53
  • There is as much guidance in way that closes behind us as in way that opens up ahead of us. The opening may reveal our potentials while the closing may reveal our limits—two sides to the same coin, the coin called identity.
    • p. 54
  • Each time a door closes, the rest of the world opens us. All we need to do is stop pounding on the door that just closed, turn around—which puts the door behind us—and welcome the largeness of life that now lies open to our souls. The door that closed kept us from entering a room, but what now lies before us is the rest of reality.
    • p. 54
  • In depression, the built-in bunk detector that we all possess is not only turned on but is set on high.
    • pp. 59-60
  • It is odd that some of my most vivid memories of depression involve the people who came to looking in on me, since in the middle of the experience I was barely able to notice who was or was not there. Depression is the ultimate state of disconnection—it deprives one of the relatedness that is the lifeline of every living being.
    I do not like to speak ungratefully of my visitors. They all meant well, and there were among the few who did not avoid me altogether. But despite their good intentions, most of them acted like Job's comforters—the friends who came to Job in his misery and offered "sympathy" that led him deeper into despair.
    Some visitors, in an effort to cheer me up, would say, "It's a beautiful day. Why don't you go out and soak up some sunshine and look at the flowers? Surely that'll make you feel better."
    But that advice only made me more depressed. Intellectually, I knew that the day was beautiful, but I was unable to experience that beauty through my senses, to feel it in my body. Depression is the ultimate state of disconnection, not just between people but between one's mind and one's feelings. To be reminded of that disconnection only deepened my despair.
    Other people came to me and said, “But you're such a good person, Parker. You teach and write so well, and you've helped so many people. Try to remember all the good you've done and you'll surely feel better.”
    This advice, too, left me more depressed, for it plunged me into the immense gap between my “good” persona and the “bad” person I then believed myself to be. When heard these words, I thought, Another person has been defrauded, has seen my image rather than my reality— and if they ever saw the real me, they would reject me in a flash. Depression is the ultimate state of disconnection, not only between people, and between mind and heart, but between one’s self-image and public mask.
    Then there were the visitors who began by saying, "I know exactly how you feel...." Whatever comfort or counsel these people may have intended to speak, I heard nothing beyond their opening words, because I knew they were peddling a falsehood: no one can fully experience another person's mystery. Paradoxically, it was my friends’ empathetic attempt to identify with me that made me feel even more isolated, because it was over-identification. Disconnection may be hell, but it is better than false connections.
    Having not only been “comforted” by friends, but having tried to comfort others that way myself, I think I understand what the syndrome is about: avoidance and denial. One of the hardest things we must sometimes do is to be present to another person's pain without trying to fix it, to simply stand respectfully at the edge of that person’s mystery and misery. Standing there, we feel useless and powerless, which is exactly how a depressed person feels, and our unconscious need as Job's comforters is to reassure ourselves that we are not like the sad soul before us.
    In an effort to avoid those feelings, I give advice, which sets me, not you, free. If you take my advice, you may get well—and if you don't get well, I did the best I could. If you fail to take my advice, there is nothing I can do about it. Either way, I get relief by distancing myself from you, guilt free.
    • pp. 61-63

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