Friday, June 05, 2009


Parker J Palmer, Let Your Life Speak (2000).

Here's a very readable short book, written with an elegant simplicity, and transparent honesty, about 'being who you are' rather than 'being what others want you to be'. It's a modern commentary on the adage 'To thine own self be true... And it must follow as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any[one].'

At the beginning (p2) Parker states his purpose: 'Seeking a path more purposeful than accumulating wealth, holding power, winning at competition, or securing a career, I had started to understand that it is indeed possible to live a life other than one's own'. From our first days in school, we are taught to listen to everything and everyone but ourselves, to take all our clues about living from the people and powers around us.

How is it possible to listen to your 'self' without being selfish? Parker notes that the deepest vocational question is not 'What ought I to do with my life?' It is more elemental and demanding: 'Who am I? What is my nature?' He quotes Frederick Buechner, who defines vocation as 'the place where your deep gladness meets the world's deep need.'

Here's something I said an audible 'Yes!' to (he was telling my story as well as his own!): 'Teaching, I [came] to understand, is my native way of being in the world. I am white, middle-class and male - not exactly a leading candidate for communal life. People like me are raised to live autonomously, not interdependently. I had been trained to compete and win, and I had developed a taste for the prizes.'

Parker (and I, too) serve education from outside institutions - 'where [he writes] my pathology is less likely to be triggered - rather than from the inside, where I waste energy on anger instead of investing it in hope... ' Parker says he has a 'tendency to get so conflicted with the way people use power in institutions... I spend more time being angry at them than I spend on my real work.' He writes about pathological bosses or corporate culture getting rid of people whose propensity for truth-telling threatens the status quo. (I uttered an audible 'Yes!' again).

Another quotable quote: 'The social systems in which people try to survive often try to force them to live in a way untrue to who they are. If you are poor, you are supposed to accept, with gratitude, half a loaf or less; if you are black, you are supposed to suffer racism without protest; if you are gay, you are supposed to pretend that you are not. It is tempting to mask one's truth in situations of this sort - because the system threatens punishment if one does not.' No punishment anyone might inflict on us, says Palmer, could possibly be worse than the punishment we inflict upon ourselves by conspiring in our own diminishment.

And here's a good word for pastors and other people-helpers: 'One 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 to everyone who asks me for it... If we are to live our lives fully and well, we must learn to embrace the opposites, to live in a creative tension between our limits and our potentials.'

Back to the question about 'self': Thomas Merton makes an important distinction between the 'true self', and the 'ego self' that wants to inflate us (or deflate us, another form of self-distortion). The true self has been 'planted in us by the God who made us in God's image - the self that wants nothing more, or less, than for us to be who we were created to be.'

Parker Palmer's journey towards truth-telling was enhanced by two other journeys - through failure/rejection (when he lost a job, not because he was bad at it, but, as he discovered later, his heart would never be in it) - and, later, dark clinical depression.

His writing style reminds me of my key-mentor-preacher's - John Claypool - who also had a gift of uttering profound truths in simple, direct language.

One of the highlights in this book is Parker Palmer's description of the discernment exercise he did with some wise Quaker friends at a crucial juncture in his life. I can think of a couple of intersections in my vocational history where I might have chosen another route if I'd had access to this sort of group-wisdom. (Would I have left a terrific church in Melbourne, Victoria, and gone to Canada? Probably not: though God was in that painful time across the Pacific [1]).

One question gives me pause: how many human beings throughout history have the privilege of submitting their lives to so many options/choices?

Some of the thoughts I've highlighted include:

* Burnout is a state of emptiness - trying to give what I do not possess.

* We are led to truth by our weaknesses as well as our strengths.

* The distortion of the true self comes from living from the outside in, rather than from the inside out.


Rowland Croucher

June 5, 2009

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