Parker Palmer on teaching to the fearful heart

Parker Palmer on teaching to the fearful heart December 21, 2013

I read Parker Palmer’s classic The Courage to Teach several years ago and am re-reading it now. For many, the book doesn’t need an introduction. For those who aren’t familiar with it, think of it as a book on the psychology/spirituality of teaching.

A theme Palmer hits early on is the grip that fear has on both teachers and students—a fear of looking stupid, of not knowing, of not being good enough.

Fear can lead teachers to objectify their subject, thus maintaining a posture of power and control in the classroom—where they are the experts who “know” and students are ignorant. Fear can lead students to shut down, disengage, and block learning possibilities.

The way forward is for teachers to create an different environment in the classroom. Palmer mentions several things, two of which struck me in particular:

  1. Instead of teaching to the students’ ignorance, “try to teach to their fearful hearts” (p. 47) so they can be freed up to learn and change.
  2. Think of good teaching as an “act of hospitality” (p. 51), meaning creating an inviting space for learning, which rewards both student and teacher.

I like how Palmer zeroes in on fear as a core problem in education, and that effective, truly life-changing teaching means facing the culture of fear head on and bringing healing.

Palmer’s observations translate to other areas, too. For example, fear can also be an unhealthy motivator in how we think about God and how we live out a life of faith.

I’ve written about this before, and I’m writing about it again because, in my experience, fear is a central, unnamed, misnamed, and/or manipulated factor for many Christians as they plod through the day-to-day lives.

It doesn’t need to be said that there are different kinds of fear, and that fear is sometimes a healthy and even necessary emotion to have. I get that. I also understand that the Bible talks quite a bit about “fear” of God, which is a healthy reverence for God’s holiness, God’s “otherness.”

But I’m not talking about any of that. I am talking about a destructive fear that grabs deep down, becomes a core driving factor in our spiritual lives, and often pours out of us in unhealthy ways.

We all have our moments. No one is without sin. We all fall short. But, a day-to-day posture where the default expression of the the inner life of faith is belligerence, argumentativeness, mocking, sarcasm, manipulation, an excessive need to be right and others wrong, self-justification, insider-vs-outisder thinking, quest for domination, and the like are sure signs that deep down—perhaps further down than we realize—we are driven by fear;

a fear of losing our hold on certainty concerning ultimate reality;

a fear we may not be right about God.

I have understood this fear from the inside, and as I have come to understand more and more of that inner dynamic over the years, my eyes are more open to seeing it around me.

Such fear is not an act of piety but of unexamined self-centerdness.

So, how is fear overcome? By daily, moment-by-moment, renewing of our commitment to trust God.

Looks easy on paper, but trust is the hard part, since we often mistake trusting God with trusting how we have “captured” God in our internal theological “models.”

I like the word model here, because models are not inherently obstructive. They help us see a larger truth. The challenge, though, as I see it, is to keep our internal models from becoming ends in themselves rather than a means of seeing beyond them.

To borrow Parker’s language, maybe our lives with God would benefit from learning to teach to our own “fearful hearts.” Maybe we can think of theological deliberation as an “act of hospitality,” where collaboration instead of competition is the order of the day.


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  • Lise

    Peter – You are addressing some really significant points here. First, you raise
    the essential yet basic premise about teaching: Good teachers bring not only
    hospitality into their classrooms but vulnerability. Learning is an encounter
    between self, other and the material. Although teachers impart knowledge to the
    students, the students’ perspectives may allow teachers to see the subject
    matter again with fresh eyes almost like light refracted through a prism. And
    in good teaching something new always emerges. A dialogue ensues when teachers invite an open flow of energy exchange.

    But what you name in relation to how fear holds people (and entire cultures) hostage is far more complex. Much of what you’re discussing has been central in my field of work. The “fear of losing our hold on certainty concerning ultimate reality” is what keeps all of us clinging to our egos for dear life. God forbid we loosen this stranglehold on how we organize ourselves. This is the ultimate threat for that would result in psychic death and who wants to die? (Even if death and resurrection is one of the key tenants of Christianity).

    All of us have defensive posturing in certain areas of our lives for it is how we protect ourselves from pain. Psychological and spiritual health is often
    measured by how much freedom and playfulness we can invite/allow/tolerate when fear triggers us to put up walls and/or attack. Love is a free fall and spirituality, like learning, an encounter with self, other and God. I think there will always be an inherent struggle here because 1) we’re humans living in a broken world and 2) religion is so often kept within the confines of intellectual construct instead of viewed as an actual phenomenological experience. Intellectual constructs have built in boundaries whereas phenomenological experience and embodiment allow for a much bigger more expansive spirituality. God himself incarnated for a reason…

    Obviously, we all have to work on ourselves and call on God for the enormity of that task. But I also think we have a responsibility for how we respond to the fear of others. When I was a young clinician, I remember being in supervision and discussing approaches for when patients presented as resistant or even openly hostile. I was told to always see anger as diagnostic of someone’s hurt. Whenever I remembered this, my own defenses would go down and instead of feeling frustrated or guarded in my encounter with an individual I would try to see the person as a frightened wounded animal lashing out. Then I would send the person love. Sometimes it was with a smile; sometimes I’d just stand and breathe. But I would notice a shift. I didn’t like being a recipient of other people’s “stuff” (that’s another supervision lesson) but I saw that it wasn’t personal and that a little love went a long way. Most wounded animals want desperately to feel safe. I think we all do.

    It’s interesting that the title of the book you reviewed is “The Courage to Teach.” The root word of courage is couer, French for heart. May God give us all new hearts, hearts of flesh not stone.

    • Sheri

      Wow, Lise, thanks for that word root: couer. I’ve noticed that since I was born of Spirit, God has encouraged me to look more deeply into words I’ve always taken for granted. Thanks.

      • Lise

        You’re welcome. Aren’t words wonderful? I’ve also always loved that contained within the word discipline is the word “disciple.” And I think my absolute favorite scripture is John 1:1. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Merry Christmas!

  • Collins

    This is good stuff, Pete. Thank you

  • nanbush

    Wonderfully put. Thank you.

  • Sheri

    Absolutely!! I have the problem of hiding behind my theological model, as Eve hid behind bushes. But from who am I hiding? And with the Holy Spirit in my heart, need I hide? I think we all have a certain amount of PTSD from the time we are born from being told “what to do,” by subconscious forces (Satan’s favorite realm) working through ourselves and others. “Thinking” and “doing” can put us there too easily, in our egos, defending what was not God in the first place. Love needs no defense (Be still and know that I am). I just subscribed to your blog, and I can already tell you are going to help me stay “renewed” and refreshed in God’s Will. God bless you and your family these holidays, and may the Son’s birth remind you of your own sonship.

    • Lise

      Sheri – I was so struck by your phrase, “As Eve hid behind the bushes” for it reminded me of an image I read last night. I’m reading a beautiful novel called “Illuminations” about the saint/mystic Hildegard von Bingen. The author uses words beautiful in multiple contexts. Anyway, in a more graphic image she writes, “God had given me the visions for a purpose and yet I had hidden them away like rags soiled with menstrual blood. My task was to awaken. The command now reverberated within the chamber of my heart. See and speak. Hear and write. Be God’s mouthpiece.” I think we do that with love and definitely not with shame or fear.

      Welcome to Peter’s blog. There don’t seem to be many women on here so it’s nice to see a sister.

      • Oh yeah I enjoy the presence of women liking theology 🙂

      • Julie Walsh

        I haven’t read Hildegard, but I recently saw the movie on her life–Vision (2009)–which was beautiful and amazing. I don’t know how accurate it is. As for Eve and Genesis 3, it is interesting to see both shame and fear there, not only in the bushes but in the fact that the Serpent is a snake. (I’m a recent follower of Peter’s blog as well.)

        • Lise

          Thanks, Julie. I’ll have to keep my eye out for Vision. The novel I mentioned was well researched but its real power was in its imaginative portrayal of the woman herself who seemed quite a force to be reckoned with. Plus, it was a neat view into monastic life during those times. Yeah, it would be interesting to reflect on whether folks in near eastern ancient times feared the snake. The serpent was a symbol of power and wisdom in many cultures, as well as transformation. But I live in a climate where there are snakes and I can’t imagine that reptiles weren’t a little feared as well…. When you hear a rattle on the trail, you hight tail it outta of there!

  • Sheri

    P.S. as a parent, anything relating to teaching is helpful!

  • ctrace

    When you fear God alone you don’t fear man or man’s opinion of you.

  • Having ADHD as well as a general anxietey disorder with depressive phases, I know all too well fear and anguish which manifest themselves in strong anxieties about things of the everyday life as well as existential and spiritual questions.

    I don’t, however, fear God in a unhealthy way because I think He is perfectly loving and will accept anyone sincerely desiring Him, however imperfect that desire might be.

    But if consistent Calvinists are right and the creator of the universe hated a great numbers of humans before they were born , then he is not worthy of being called God and worshiped.

    I think that the spiritual anguish mentioned by Peter is intractable if you are a consistent Calvinist believing that God is the ultimate cause of all evils and believe that God reproach you the very sins he predetermined you to do.

    It is irrational to trust such a being for your salvation, for he could very well reject you at the end because you did not really belong to his elects.
    Interestingly enough John Calvin said something similar about “fake believers” who delude themselves into thinking God chose them.

    • Kennyd23

      For God so Loved the World ( that is everyone ) he gave his only begotten Son….

  • Christy

    Nice post. I really liked the last two sentences. I loved that Parker Palmer book, I should re-read it. To Know As We Are Known: Education as a Spiritual Journey is also an excellent read.

  • KrisAnne Swartley

    thank you for articulating this so clearly and with grace. wish we would have talked about this more in seminary.