Let Your Life Speak
by Parker Palmer
This book Let Your Life Speak by Parker Palmer was recommened to me by my friend Shayne. It has been surprizingly impactful for me over the past few days as I’ve read through it. Here are my notes. If you are looking for a quick summer read and want to consider the idea of “vocation,” i.e., how what you are doing with your life should be connected to who you are, then you should read this book. It was really great. Here is a bit of a synopsis.
LISTENING TO LIFE
“Ask me whether what I have done is my life,” a line from a poem by William Stafford called “Ask Me” heads Palmer’s first chapter. The assertion of this poem and this book is that many of us live lives where our vocation and our identity are a mismatch. The reason this is so is because we impose upon our lives a vocation instead of listening to our lives and discovering the vocation imbedded in who we are as persons made in the image of God. Palmer says that if we’ll begin to listen to our lives, we’ll begin to hear that “the life I am living is not the same as the life that wants to live in me…a life hidden like the river beneath the ice…what am I meant to do? Who am I meant to be?” p2
Palmer says, “Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you. Before you tell your life what truths and values you have decided to live up to, let your life tell you what truths you embody, what values you represent.” p3 Most of us spend our lives imitating others, role models and such. Palmer calls this, “a life spent imitating heroes instead of listening to my heart.” P3 It’s a real tragedy to be stuck in a job that has very “little or nothing to do with who I am, with my true nature and gifts, with what I care and do not care about.” 40 Life in this vein becomes an act of the will and grim determination. The problem with this arrangement is that our lives will never represent anything real in the world.
Vocation, Palmer says, does not come from the will but from listening. Vocation isn’t what I do, it is a calling that I hear. “Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I have to begin to listen to my life telling me who I am.” p4 Listening to our lives is like trying to catch a glimpse of a wild animal. The only way to do it is to go into the wild places and then sit still. After long hours the creatures will begin to stir.
NOW I BECOME MYSELF
The idea that vocation comes from a voice external to ourselves is often the way we are raised, especially in the church. Palmer says that the voice concerning our vocation does not come from “out there,” but from “in here, calling me to be the person I was born to be, to fulfill the original selfhood given me at birth by God.” p10 The first approach has us “wearing other people’s faces.” The second approach just takes time and intentionality. The first approach is steeped in “oughts.” “We do not find our callings by conforming ourselves to some abstract moral code. We find our callings by claiming authentic selfhood, by being who we are…the deepest vocational question is not ‘what ought I to do with my life?’ It is the more elemental and demanding ‘Who am I? What is my nature?’” p15 The question “who am I,” is always derived from the question, “whose am I?” There is no self outside of relationship.
Vocation: that which you can’t ‘not’ do.
The stewardship of selfhood is a sacred thing. We were put on earth to offer ourselves in the service of God and creation. Palmer says that if you are unfaithful to that calling then you’re causing terrible damage.
WHEN WAY CLOSES
He says that patience will often reveal a way. But sometimes way closes behind us and that has the same effect. What an incredible difference there is between the assertion that most white middle class children are taught, “you can be anything you want to be,” and the assertion that you must listen to your life, that you must discover from within, what your life’s vocation will be. The message in the former is that the universe is without limits. But our experience of life is that we do slam into our limitations. p39 Palmer was fired from a job he had in college, but he now sees that he was fired because “that job had little or nothing to do with who I am.” p40 He insists that a job like that was never in the cards for him, even since birth. “Each of us arrives here with a nature, which means both limits and potentials We can learn as much about our nature by running into our limits as by experiencing our potentials.” p41-42 “Our problems as Americans – at least among my race and gender – is that we resists the very idea of limits…our national myth is about the endless defiance of limits: opening the western frontier, breaking the speed of sound, dropping people on the moon, discovering ‘cyberspace’ at the very moment when we have filled old-fashioned space with so much junk that we can barely move. We refuse to take no for an answer.” p42-43
ALL THE WAY DOWN
When he struggled with deep clinical depression, his therapist taught him that depression was not an enemy trying to crush him, but the hand of a friend pressing him down to the ground on which it was safe to stand. He had been living at too high an altitude, to his thinking, for four reasons.
- he lived largely in his head (the place farthest from the ground)
- his faith was largely about abstractions about God (not experiences of God)
- he had an inflated ego/thought more highly of himself than he should (masking his fear that he was actually less than he should be)
- He realized that he had a distorted personal “ethic” and lived his life largely by images of what he “ought” to do (rather than by insight into his own reality, what was true and life giving for him).
He makes a pretty big deal out of this “ought” thing that we all have. Ought sort of goes away when you really know who you are. Ought turns into just being and that is living all the way down.
All of this led him to begin to say, “The way to God is down.” p69 God is not in our lofty ideas, concepts, self-esteem, or ethical standards, but God pulls us (generally through humiliation/humbling) down to the ground of being where God lives. Only then can we find a place to walk and fall without hurting ourselves and others. It is on the ground that we become aware of the true self, which God has given us, and we become at home in our own skin.
He uses some of Annie Dillard’s book “Teaching a Stone to Talk,” and her imagery of “hard things” to illustrate that the spiritual life is a journey down. On the way down we go through all of the lofty things we use to keep us from our true identity, things foisted upon us our whole life long that we learn to play with and distract ourselves. But the journey of the spiritual life tears these layers away until we find our true foundation in God. There we discover the givenness of our humanity and of our salvation.