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Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation Hardcover – September 10, 1999
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The old Quaker adage, "Let your life speak," spoke to author Parker J. Palmer when he was in his early 30s. It summoned him to a higher purpose, so he decided that henceforth he would live a nobler life. "I lined up the most elevated ideals I could find and set out to achieve them," he writes. "The results were rarely admirable, often laughable, and sometimes grotesque.... I had simply found a 'noble' way of living a life that was not my own, a life spent imitating heroes instead of listening to my heart."
Thirty years later, Palmer now understands that learning to let his life speak means "living the life that wants to live in me." It involves creating the kind of quiet, trusting conditions that allow a soul to speak its truth. It also means tuning out the noisy preconceived ideas about what a vocation should and shouldn't be so that we can better hear the call of our wild souls. There are no how-to formulas in this extremely unpretentious and well-written book, just fireside wisdom from an elder who is willing to share his mistakes and stories as he learned to live a life worth speaking about. --Gail Hudson
From Publishers Weekly
A gifted academic who formerly combined a college teaching career with community organizing, Palmer took a year's sabbatical to live at the "intentional" Quaker community of Pendle Hill in Pennsylvania. Instead of leaving at year's end, he became the community's dean of studies and remained there for 10 years. Palmer (The Courage to Teach) shares the lessons of his vocational and spiritual journey, discussing his own burnout and intense depression with exceptional candor and clarity. In essays that previously appeared in spiritual or educational journals and have been reworked to fit into this slim volume, he suggests that individuals are most authentic when they follow their natural talents and limitations, as his own story demonstrates. Since hearing one's "calling" requires introspection and self-knowledge (as suggested by the eponymous Quaker expression), Palmer encourages inner work such as journal-writing, meditation and prayer. Recognizing that his philosophy is at odds with popular, essentially American attitudes about self-actualization and following one's dreams, Palmer calls vocation "a gift, not a goal." He deftly illustrates his point with examples from the lives of people he admires, such as Rosa Parks, Annie Dillard and Vaclav Havel. A quiet but memorable addition to the inspirational field, this book has the quality of a finely worked homily. The writing displays a gentle wisdom and economy of style that leaves the reader curious for more insight into the author's Quaker philosophy. (Oct.)
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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We have all heard the saying, "do what you love and the money will follow." What Palmer is saying is that we need to do what we love because to do otherwise is to deny the world our unique selves, and at the same time hold ourselves in a cage of inauthenticity. This is career counseling as spiritual practice.
My reading of this book was interrupted by the demands of an autumn garden. And so I set about the gardening while asking myself where in my life had I encountered those moments of deep gladness and what had I been doing at those times? Asking too, when had my life become divided as such? Over the coming day and especially for several hours in the depths of that night, while I was not dreaming, I was semi-awakened and a whole stream of deeply glad events across my life returned to me in a tapestry of understanding and personal insight. Much of the remainder of the book is taken up with is journey thru struggles and there is much to do with facing his shadow (in the Jungian sense of this) and to the things in life that bring each of us to that point. He finishes on a positive note as to how he made it thru his journey, an allegory to encourage us to do the same. It could do though with another chapter. Its a while since he wrote this and perhaps a revisiting on the theme of looking backwards in order to go forwards, he could better illustrate these points now, with less focus on the depths of his then depression and a greater, more coherent story line about not just the truths he discovered but how he also then became he who he was born to be.
Parker Palmer's book, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation (2000) is an incredible self-reflection on the concept of vocation. Drawing on his own experiences, Palmer offers an intimate and honest analysis of his personal story in finding fulfillment, which will aid the reader in determining his or her own course in life. With the sage advice that only comes from a traveler who has trekked the way before, Palmer acts as a guide to vocation by showing the way with the wisdom gained from the walk on his own path.
Instead of the traditional understanding of vocation as some outward call, Palmer advocates that vocation is really a voice and a vision that comes from within. He writes that "Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you" (p. 3). This idea of listening to self, care of self, and inner self is not only illustrated through the life of the author but also in quotes and vignettes of spiritual and social leaders like Henri Nouwen, Fredrick Buechner, Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, and Rosa Parks. Likewise, Palmer draws on his education and community organizer background as well as his Quaker faith and poetry to highlight these lessons. With complete transparency, vulnerability, and humility, Palmer explains how living in the "true self" is ultimately not some sort of desire for self-preservation, but actually a means to individual and communal renewal. The self is always connected to the social, and when the element of vocation is introduced, they come together in service. It is in the intertwining of personal awareness, spiritual formation, and community consciousness that one's life may speak the loudest and with greatest impact.
Parker Palmer's proclamation in Let Your Life Speak will help identify several critical elements needed for someone trying to define their Focused Life. The first of which is that of identity. A common question of self-reflection is to ask `who am I?' Palmer however contends that a better question to ask is `Whose am I?' While the first can resemble some narcissistic tendencies and inflation of ego, the latter recognizes the supremacy of God and His ownership in our lives. Since vocational callings come from within, we often find purpose out of the passions and gifts granted to us from the Creator. Secondly, Palmer differentiates the need for living out of authenticity rather than what others think ought to be. Addressing the pressures that are often placed on us by well-meaning outsiders, Palmer explains how these masks of expectation tend to be in conflict with the authentic self.
Finally, anyone studying the concepts of a Focused Life will surely come across literature emphasizing the need to build upon strengths. While this practice is certainly true for someone to become highly productive, Palmer states that, "life is not only about strengths and virtues; it is also about my liabilities and my limits, my trespasses and my shadow. An inevitable though often ignored dimension of the quest for `wholeness' is that we must embrace what we dislike or find shameful about ourselves as well as what we are confident and proud of"(p. 6-7). This holistic approach to self-awareness will yield a deeper understanding of not only capabilities but also act as the criteria needed for decision making and weighing opportunities.
This book resonated with me on several levels. Parker Palmer is certainly a change agent for the Kingdom that has helped thousands of people find meaning in vocation. A surprisingly connecting topic was Palmer's honest contemplation of his battle with depression. While I have never experienced depression myself, I have had several friends and family members struggle through the despair depression brings. Palmer's two insights for handling depression, first to speak to its importance and second, the rejection of simple "religious" and "scientific" answers, will benefit any future counseling I do in this manner. In addition, Palmer's last chapter, "There is a Season: From Language to Life" combined the metaphors of life as a journey and seedbed, to the natural cycle of seasons. In discussing autumn, Palmer compares growth with the paradox of the hidden wholeness that accompanies death. In order for new life to begin, the old must first pass away. In terms of winter, Palmer writes that the cold and snowy season is gift, reminding us for the need of rest and dormancy in order to have a healthy life. The dialogue around humus and humility for vibrant life in spring was incredibly encouraging. Palmer writes that "spring teaches me to look more careful for the green stems of possibility: for the intuitive hunch that may turn into larger insight" (p. 104).
Still yet, the section that struck me most in Let Your Life Speak, was chapter four "Leading from Within". Palmer essential states that leadership is example. Considering the interdependence in community, Palmer writes "if it is true that we are made for community, then leadership is everyone's vocation, and it can be an evasion to insist that it is not" (p. 74). In addition, Palmer promotes authentic leadership that comes from the heart as well as an understanding of spirituality along with technical abilities. In the final portion of the chapter on leadership and vocation, Palmer cautions about the five bestiary monsters to avoid or conquer by "getting into". It is these five monsters that wish to address in my personal integration of life and ministry. The first shadow-casting monster is that of insecurity. One of the biggest lies the Enemy attacks us with is the question of identity and by playing to our insecurities. The serpent tempted Adam and Eve in the Garden with a question of both. Therefore as mentioned already, the identity of a ministry leader and anyone living with a Focused Life must define their reality and personality in Jesus Christ. The second monster is that of a battleground. Instead of caving to the competitive nature of flawed humans, I seek to advance a cooperative, creative and collaborative style of leadership. Rather than competing with one another, my team members will complete each other. The third monster to slay is that of "functional atheism" or the false belief that ultimate responsibility rests with the leader. I was warned young in my ministry calling from a wise mentor that `if I take the blame for failures in ministry I may one day take credit for the success in ministry". This of course is contrary to the servant model Jesus emphasized. Even the Son said he can do nothing apart from the Father and that he only does what he sees the Father doing (cf. John 5:19). The fourth monster is the fear of chaos. I feel that as an apostolically inclined ministry leader, I tend to be more entrepreneurial in nature and therefore more accepting of chaos. I know that for anyone or any organization to grow, change is required. This often assumes some sort of innovation and chaos. Finally, the fifth monster is the paradox in the denial of death. Again, as was covered in the discussion on fall and winter seasons, death is required for new life, as seen in the resurrection of Jesus.
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