Tami Simon: Hi Parker.
Parker Palmer: Hi Tami.
Tami Simon: I want to talk to you today more about the undivided life. There’s so many ways that we can talk about all the various divisions that people feel that I feel. But I want to start off by hearing what you have to say about the division that I think many people feel about their work life, and that, “I work for money and what I really wish I were doing today.” The undividable — you know, I feel divided. I’m going to work for money, but that’s not what’s really in my heart. What’s in my heart, though is, you know, riding my bicycle through the streets or hiking around a mountain, and obviously I need money. This is a clear division in my being. How can I resolve this?
Parker Palmer: Mmm, Hmmm. Well you know, I’ve always felt the divisions in our lives are on a number of levels and some of them are built into the nature of things and need to be held as creative tensions in a way that keeps opening us to new possibilities. While other divisions as in the division between my own integrity and my actions in the world. We need to work on closing those divisions as much as possible. And I think one of the inevitable divisions of life has to do with the fact that we never will achieve in our embodied form on this earth — what is at every moment the truest desires of our deepest hearts, and one simple way to put it is that that’s something that a grown-up person embraces and tries to work creatively with as much as possible.
The money question has a lot to do, of course, with some important decisions that we all have to make about how much money we think we need and what’s the difference between our needs and our wants. And sometimes when we can sort that out and discover that we don’t need as much as we thought we needed or that there are other values in life that are equal to the value of money for us, these questions start in their own slow way to kind of untangle and even resolve themselves.
I’ll give you a concrete example from my own life. When I was in my mid-thirties and had a PhD from a major university and a teaching job that was paying me very well at another major university and a promising career in academia, I decided to get off the track in a variety of ways that I was called to by my own sense of vocation, by my own sense of meaning and purpose. Without going into details I will say that one of the features of this getting off the track was that I suddenly found myself doing work that was very meaningful to me, but for which I was being paid a fraction of what I had been making at the university — less than 50 percent, in fact, of what I had been making at the university. I had, at that time, three young children and I had grown up in a family where my parents helped support me significantly in college, and I expected and hoped to do the same for my children. And I was stricken with a sense of guilt, and real bafflement about what was it that I was doing to myself and to them to have gotten in a situation where it looked as if I couldn’t build up their college bank accounts to the point where I could give them the same kind of support that my parents had given me.
Well, I don’t mean to make a very painful and serious wrestling match sound easy, because it wasn’t, but what I eventually came to understand was in fact fairly simple. The simplicity on the other side of complexity and that was that my children then being three, four, five years old. If I were to spend the next twelve to fifteen years doing something that I really hated in order to make a lot of money so that I could send them all to college. And then when they got to be age eighteen and decided not to go to college, which they might well do, I would hate them as well as the years I had spent doing work I hated. And I didn’t want that to be my witness or gift to their life. Put gift in quotes, there.
I wanted instead to model a life of following passion and integrity as possible. And one of the interesting consequences of that decision, which I think in the long run panned out very well, was that in addition to my day job, working in an intentional educational community where the agenda had to do with peace and justice and economic sharing, I started taking on a life as a writer and speaker, which I don’t believe I would have done had I been comfortably ensconced in the university in order to make a little additional money that I could then set aside for the education I wanted to provide my children. In other words, by making a decision on behalf of my purposes and intentions, one of the consequences was the opening of a vocational track that eventually grew larger and larger and proved to be profoundly mine, as a writer and a traveling teacher, speaker, workshop leader, etc.
So, I don’t, again, mean to say that these are easy things and my own story is my own story. It does not generalize necessarily into anybody else’s life, let alone everybody else’s life, but I have talked, of course, with many, many people because of my book, “Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation,” about this dilemma. And the one place that I always feel confident in coming down, is simply this that if you have this question alive in your heart about a great gap between the work you’re doing for money and what it is that you would truly want to do with your life – and I don’t mean just going out and having some fun this morning – but I mean a purposeful engagement that you feel would satisfy your deepest heart. If you’re holding that tension in a significant way, don’t stuff the tension. Don’t sit on it. Don’t suppress it. Don’t sweep it under the rug. Do that great thing that Rainer Maria Rilke calls us to do in “Letters to a Young Poet,” when he says to a young man who is wrestling with questions like these. You’re asking very important questions, but their not questions that yield to easy or immediate answers. Indeed they may not yield to conventional answers at all. But if you will live the questions, Rilke famously says, if you will wrap your life around this question. If you will not sweep it under the rug, but embrace it as a tension that you’re being called to hold, he says that you may find some distant day, without even knowing it, that you’ve lived your way into an answer. And because I’ve experienced that process in real life, I always feel confident saying to people if this is truly your question, then that might be good counsel, that might be a good path to walk.
Tami Simon: When I hear a phrase like the undivided life, I think, oh there’s some kind of goal that Parker is pointing to potentially. There’s some point in time when I won’t feel divided anymore. And it sounds to me more like you’re saying that we have to understand that creative tension is always part of our life, and to make a distinction between creative tension and what it means to really feel “divided” and I’m wondering if you can elucidate that a little more.
Parker Palmer: Yeah, you have it exactly right, Tami, from my point of view. I mean I’m 70 years old and I still have to make on a fairly regular basis decisions about areas of my life where I feel divided. And so I don’t imagine, and it’s been a long time since I imagined, that I would ever arrive at perfection in this aspect of my life or any other aspect of my life. I actually think that perfection is a kind of nightmarish wish dream. If you think of it socially, the people who promise perfection on earth are actually the totalitarian dictators who want to run everything themselves and are offering a false promise in order to seduce people into some sort of political or social pathology. And I feel the same way about spiritual teachers who promise perfection. I have never felt that wholeness, that human wholeness, a word that has meaning for me, had anything to do with perfection.
Wholeness has to do with embracing the whole of who you are, which includes your shadow as well as your light. It includes the broken parts of you as well as the whole parts of you. It has to do very much with that great line that Leonard Cohen has been singing in recent years. There’s a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in. So when I talk about living divided no more, or the decision to live an undivided life, I’m talking about a decision that recurs again and again in different contexts and in different guises. It’s not a once-and-for-all decision.
It reminds me a little bit of the sort of liberal Christians I know who used to be asked by their fundamentalist brethren, “Have you been saved?” And they would answer something like, “Yes, again and again and again and again, and now I need it again.” If salvation means wholeness then it’s something that we’re constantly having to move into or work toward or embrace as a possibility in ourselves in all of our complexity. And as I said a moment ago, it’s one thing to think about the divisions within myself that I do have some control over, such as a radical division between what I genuinely believe to be the good, the true, or the beautiful, and something I’m being asked to do that violates all of that. That’s a decision that I have to stand up under and walk into and sometimes make with courage.
But there’s also a great gulf running down the middle of history. I talk about it as the tragic gap, the gap between the reality that’s going on around us and what we know to be possible from our own experience. We know for example that it’s possible for people to engage in economic sharing in a way that leaves no one poor, while everyone has enough. We look around and we see a society in which a few people have way more than enough and a lot of people don’t have what they need. There’s this tragic gap that we have to occupy and act in and keep trying to close. But idea that there will some day be a world without racism, without poverty, without various deep gulfs between us, is it seems to me a fantasy, and the problem with fantasies is not that they’re not pleasant. It’s not that they wouldn’t be worth aiming for. It is that when they don’t come into being, lots of people get off the train. They lose their motivation for continuing to do this work. The best people I’ve know in antipoverty work, in work against racism, for example, any form of injustice, are people who will say time and time and time again what I’m trying tot do with my life is not going to be achieved in my lifetime or my children’s lifetime or my grandchildren’s lifetime, but the legacy I want to leave is that even though we don’t achieve perfection, these are the things we must be working on and making incremental progress as we are able, not only with our words, but with our actions. And so I don’t see this in terms of perfection and I think it’s dangerous counsel, perfection is, because it lets people down in the long run and we lose energy for the kind of commitment we need to make on an ongoing basis.
I can’t think of any great social activist: Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker, — name your hero or heroine around the world, who wouldn’t say something along these lines: The work is never finished. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be doing it. On the contrary it’s the bigger jobs that we are given as human beings that won’t be finished, while the little jobs that have measurable outcomes and can be finished next week or next month or next year – they need to be done in some way, but they are not the great callings of our lives.
One example that I like to give in the world of education where I’ve spent many years as an activist working on educational reform, is that it’s a doable task to get kids to jump over hurdles called standardized tests, the doable task to raise test scores in a way that leaves a lot of people nodding sagely and saying “lookie here we’ve improved our education.” But raising test scores and getting kids over those hurdles is a very different thing from educating a child, which is something toward which one can only plant seeds, pour a lot of love and devotion into it, a lot of human nurture and probably not live, if you’re a teacher, to see its ultimate outcome. I know very few adults who were touched by good teachers who wouldn’t say, “I wish Mr. so-and-so or Mrs. so-and-so were still alive so that I could thank them for seeds they planted that only now, thirty, forty years later, have begun to come to full flower.
Tami Simon: That capacity, Parker, that you’re pointing to, to either stand in the tragic gap when it comes to a social problem that one might be dedicated to solving, multi-generationally, or to just live with the creative tension that we experience all the time. That capacity to be with that gap or that tension – what do you think are the qualities that you’ve had to develop and that you’ve seen other people develop just so you can be with that tension?
Parker Palmer: Mmm, hmmm. That’s a wonderful question as all of your questions are because that puts a finger on the work that I think we need to be doing. I think we need to be educating people in our schools and colleges and universities, for example, and helping to form people in our religious communities to take another example, in ways that allow them to grow their own capacity to hold these tensions. So the qualities that I think we need to inculcate are these, and I’ll list a few in no particular order. But, I think the first one is patience. We need to help kids understand that the job of learning does, in fact, take a lifetime. And that means experiencing the intrinsic rewards that come with learning itself, rather than simply waiting for the ultimate reward – quote, reward – of being able to jump a hurdle and say, “I got an A on the test.” And if you look at good teachers, or you look at good religious leaders, I think one of the things they do is to make the journey itself so inviting and so inherently rewarding that people want to take that journey and they want to take it into deeper reaches, into greater mysteries, not simple questions on which they know they will find the answer soon, but more complex things that they enjoy pursuing because there is enjoyment in the pursuit itself. I think that good teachers and good religious leaders are not in the business of giving people answers the way so many do, but of teaching young folks and adults as well that there is inherent excitement in getting a hold of the right question and living your way into it.
So patience is one thing and I think that a second virtue that we can cultivate to hold tension creatively comes when we experience the fruits of doing exactly that. So let us take for example a situation in a classroom where a question is being debated or in a religious community where a decision needs to be made, and in both situations you have the yays and the nays; you have the pros and the cons; you have people who take position x and position not x. And our typical way of working in a situation like that is that after fifteen or thirty minutes we get so anxious about the tension between the yays and the nays that we want, as it were, to call a vote literally in a decision-making situation to say let’s vote and get this thing over with. Let fifty-one percent of the people decide where we should go on this question. Or in an educational setting, we call in some authority, like the authority of the teacher’s voice or the text book to tell us or pretend to tell use what the answer is.
But there’s a different way to do it in both situations. And roughly speaking, that we have a name for that, which is a process called reaching consensus. And reaching consensus means that you keep holding that tension, entertaining both the yays and the nays in a way that respects all the voices, while teaching people that there are certain ground rules, certain disciplines to this kind of inquiry without which is goes off the track. Respecting all the voices, letting people question in an honest, open way, a nonjudgmental way, what it is each other is saying, what to you mean by that?, where does that come from in your experience? How might my experience link to that? How might my meaning link to that? And to keep doing that in a way that miraculously, as time goes on, opens up a third possibility for folks who thought that they had the only two answers in town and that those two answers were contrary to each other.
So I think if you think of creative tension as literally the pulling left and the pulling right of the mind and the heart, you can think about that as a tension that cracks something or breaks us open if we are brittle. If we insist of the rightness of where we stand. If we’re rigid and unwilling to move, or if we’re more flexible than that, you can picture that tension that pulls us right and pulls us left as pulling us into something larger, into a greater capacity to see more of the truth or to see the truth in a different way. I think lots of us can point to examples of that in our own lives, where once we believed something to be absolutely true, but by exposing ourselves to situations where folks in an open and generous way, honored what we had to say, but also introduced other ways of looking at the situation, we end up a while later with a new understanding.
One very simple way of putting this is to say that in lots of situations if the ground rules are clear and they’re honored in the observant, all of us thinking together are smarter than any one of us thinking alone. And that’s the basic principle of consensus. It’s a communal principle that says no one of us has a corner on the market of truth. But at the same time it’s not enough just to say one truth for you, another truth for me, and never mind the difference. Because down that road lies a kind of radical and I think mindless and often heartless relativism and chaos. But if we can hang together in community and experience these tensions as things that pull us open rather than break us apart, then I think we can get somewhere. So the virtue of a flexible heart and a flexible mind, which can be inculcated by a different way of doing education or a different way of helping people on the spiritual journey is another thing I think much to be recommended.
In higher education for centuries there have been names for this. We’ve talked about the importance of a liberal education as an education that helps people entertain contradictory ideas, hold paradoxes, live with ambiguity without getting trapped in what some have called paralysis by analysis, without getting trapped in that sort of mindless relativism that just shuts a person down and thrusts you into isolation. But always holding these things in communities of discourse and dialogue. We can project that in a much larger way, which is what I’m attempting to do in a book that I’m just starting to take notes for. We can project this on our national political situation.
The essence of democracy is not that it promises a final resolution to all things. Show me somebody who’s talking about a final solution and I’ll show you a Nazi, a fascist, a totalitarian. That again is a nightmarish wish dream, the wish dream that everything would be settled and resolved my way. But in our democracy, the genius of it is that it’s designed to hold tension in a way that keeps opening us to larger truth. It’s one of the reasons that democracy historically has, as Winston Churchill famously said, “been the worst political system ever devised except for all the others.” And has constituted the seedbed of human progress and growth. Even though our movement towards this has been slow, we have at least healed one piece of our nightmarish and evil American legacy of slavery and racism with the election of an African-American president, which, when I was born in 1939, was inconceivable to anyone, I think, in our country that this would happen in our lifetime. That doesn’t mean racism has been overcome. But it means that the democratic process has functioned to open us to new possibilities and new truths that were once regarded as impossible.
So the sadness about the breakdown of our democratic institutions, for example, the sadness and the righteous anger that we ought to feel when the executive branch of the government overwhelms the legislative branch of government and starts declaring war, for example, on its own hook. The tragedy of that that ought to distress us and anger us and move us to action, is that there’s the breakdown of a creative tension holding system, which was planted right at the heart of our democratic society in order to keep opening us to new possibilities.
So these are not simply, I think, abstract philosophical concerns. I think they come to roost in our everyday lives and to loop back to your original question, we need to be thinking long and hard about the virtues, what Alexis deToqueville called “the habits of the heart” that we need to be helping people develop in places like schools, colleges, and universities and religious communities as well as other voluntary associations to keep alive the inner life of virtue that makes for folks who can hold tensions in a creative way, not only in their personal lives, but in their public lives.
Tami Simon: What I notice as you’re talking is it’s so intuitively obvious that whether it’s personal inner conflicts that we have to honor both sides or whether it’s in our democratic process and something new and creative can come from that, what I feel often is some kind of criticism that people like “Wow, that’s a lot of inner conflict for one person to be having, Tami,” in terms of comments that I’ll get about my own life or in a social sphere, like let’s just drive this to a conclusion, please, you know –enough! And that there’s such an intolerance for conflict – that kind of tension – in our world. I’m wondering where do you think that comes from?
Parker Palmer: Well, I think that’s my experience, too. That when you talk with people about conflict or better yet, just sit back and watch how we deal with it, I think what you just described is exactly what happens. People show high anxiety in the presence of conflict, which is why the typical business meeting can tolerate conflict for about fifteen minutes before somebody calls for a vote — if the institutional structure allows voting to resolve the thing. One of the things you do in communities and institutions that want to operate by consensus is you don’t allow people to vote on solutions. You structure your decision making in a way that requires people to hold the tension. So granted that it happens in institutions and in private life – where does it come from? I think ultimately where it comes from is that we love maintaining the illusion that we are somehow in control of everything. When in fact we’re in control of very little except what goes on inside of us, which is what the inner journey is all about. I think it’ s part of the perennial wisdom that we can’t control the world around us or the lives of other people, but we can work creatively with various ways of responding inwardly to what happens around us in other peoples’ lives and in the society as it impacts on us.
Thomas Merton once said that because we have this gift of being able to make new decisions about how we inwardly respond to that which is around us, we don’t have to adjust to the world. We can adjust the world. And I like the modesty of that very much. It doesn’t mean — what I’m saying that we’re not in control of the world doesn’t mean we’re powerless. But we have to have a modest stance toward what’s possible. That we can adjust the world rather than having to adjust to it. But I think ultimately we create all these myths that lead us to do things like wanting to get this tension over with right now in order to maintain and pump up the illusion that we have more power than we have. And I think part of the inner journey is a journey toward relaxing into the fact that I have some powers and I have a responsibility to myself and to others around me to be deeply thoughtful about how I use those powers, the powers of my own inner responses and how they impact on other people. But there’s much that’s not in my control, and I must learn to give a life-giving dance with all of that – the dance between my power-fullness and my power-lessness.
I sometimes think of good living as being akin to what it means to being a good farmer. If you go back a hundred years before agribusiness started exercising its form of the pretense of control, doing things that are destroying the topsoil and ultimately, I think, creating more ecological problems than they could conceivably solve. You go back a hundred years to being a good farmer meant having the skillful means to do all of the things that are in your power to do. To prepare the land properly, to steward it in an ongoing way, to plant the right kind of seed at the right time in the right places, to cultivate it with all the skill that a good farmer has. But then to acknowledge and not lose heart over the fact that you have no control over the weather, that you have no control over cyclical changes in the soil and the environment itself, that there are powers larger than your own at work with which you must learn to dance in. That the crop that you carefully and even lovingly planted last fall gets wiped out by a spring hail, and you can’t give up the ship in the face of that. The only way you can sustain that sort of live, it seems to me, is by learning to do this dance between your own powerfulness and your own powerlessness and not blinking either one, holding again that paradox, which is another way of talking about an undivided life.
It’s the height of arrogance to think I have all the power or to act as if I do, and it’s the height of giving up to imagine that I have no power at all. So to hold the paradox of those two poles is, again, one form of the undivided life. And it comes with tension. It comes with a constant need to cultivate one’s faith. It comes with hailstorm after hailstorm and the need to return to plant the field again.
Tami Simon: As I listen to you Parker, I have two responses–imagine that—diametrically opposed. One is, of course, I feel a sense of relaxation and openness when I think about accepting what I don’t have control over. At the same time I think if I really took this in what Parker’s saying would I really become just like a loser here in business for having consensus processes and we’re not really getting things done in a quick time frame; and in my personal life I’m sort of more easy going and before you know it I have less money, less success. Yeah, I might be a little happier and more relaxed, but I’m kind of in the loser camp.
Parker Palmer: (Laughs) I guess at age seventy I don’t know who a loser is anymore. (Laughs)
Tami Simon: But what do you mean by that?
Parker Palmer: I don’t know what the definition of loser is. I understand what our social definitions of losers are–people who don’t maybe make as much money as would sustain the kind of lifestyle you see in the glossy magazines. Or, people who don’t project an image of toughness or masterfulness in whatever they’re doing. I understand that those are the cultural definitions of being a loser versus being a winner, but I have to say that in my own heart of hearts and whenever I get close to someone else’s heart of hearts those aren’t the rubrics at all of what winning and losing is all about. And in fact winning and losing sort of lose their meaning as terms when I get close to the heart of the matter in myself or in another person. I mean I’ve known hugely successful people who in worldly terms, successful in terms of money and public image, who were profoundly sad and lost inwardly, who felt a variety of things, including the idea that life had been nothing but a prolonged stress test or that nobody really saw them as they were.
Thomas Merton who was I think very insightful about these things said so many people live lives of self impersonation and if you want my ultimate definition of a loser, I guess, if that’s the term I have to lose, I think a loser is a person who on the day of his or her death looks back and says I never showed up here with my true self, and my chance to do that is over. That’s the kind of thing that seems to me ultimately to be lost.
I’m again, at age seventy—and I don’t think that I have always been thinking this way in my life. At a younger age I probably was more influenced by cultural images than I am right now. But at age seventy I do not think that on the day I die, which is a day that one can sort of see with increasing clarity as one ages. I do not think that on the day I die I’m going to asking did I make enough money, did I write enough books, did I get good enough reviews, did I sell enough stuff. I think I’m going to be asking a much deeper question about did I do whatever I did by my best life. And did I do it in a way that on balance was more life giving for myself and other people than it was death dealing. Again I don’t think there’s any perfection in that. I’ve done things in my life that looking back I regard as death dealing for myself and/or for someone else—usually both at the same time. And I have to embrace that as part of who I am and include it in this sort of ultimate calculus of meaning, which is again part of what I mean by wholeness.
But I just can no longer think within the cultural rubrics of winning and losing. One of my favorite stories, Tami, is as you know is the story of the woodcarver from Chuang-Tzu. Chuang-Tzu being this fourth century BC Taoist teaching master, and the book in question being “The Way of Chuang-Tzu,” from which this wonderful story called “The Woodcarver” is taken. And it’s basically the story of a person doing extraordinary, beautiful work. And to focus on just a small part of the story, when he’s asked, “How do you do the amazing things you do in the carving of wood?” he talks about receiving a command from the prince and having to go into a period of meditation, really, of withdrawal, of inner settling so that he can “move beyond all thought of gain and success.” Or to put it in these words, “winning and losing.” The Taoists were very big on the notion, and they have a story about this that if an archer is shooting for a prize he misses the target (laughs), and I think that it’s by moving beyond those categories of winning and losing that we come closer to the heart of the matter. Now, in a way I think that puts a different lens on the very situation that you just describe.
I certainly understand from my own limited experience as a person kind of running his own business. I understand in a small way what it is to have to meet deadlines and make good decisions under pressure and all of that, and I can barely imagine what that’s like when you’re responsible for a corporate setting and the jobs of a hundred people and a lot of marketing and output that needs to happen. So, in that situation I’m sure as is true of my own life there are times when you need to make a call out of your own best judgment and years of experience without sitting down and reaching consensus with everyone else you work with. And then there are probably other times when if you don’t sit down and work something through, you’re pulling the rug out from under yourself and the whole enterprise. So the point I’m making is very simple. There would be a variety of reasons for doing one or the other of those things that would seem to me at least to be a whole lot better than trying to avoid being a loser. There’d be some higher norm by which one would make the decision about do I on this day make a hard call that no one else seems to want to make or seems to understand, or do I on this day in this situation continue to explore and talk because the inner teacher tells me that’s what I need to do.
So I’m not resisting the nothing that sometimes we need to make a call. I talk glowingly about democracy’s capacity to hold tension, but there are a thousand times a day when somebody needs to make a decision and if they don’t a lot of folks are going to suffer. So I’m not resisting the notion that we need to operate in various modes, but as I said, I think there are better reasons for doing that than winning or losing.
Tami Simon: Yeah. Now you say it’s the inner teacher that can help the leader make the call when necessary. What do you mean by the inner teacher.
Parker Palmer: Well, that’s a great mystery isn’t it? Because all of the spiritual traditions, I think all of the wisdom traditions ultimately rely on and call upon at their best, some seed of true self that is planted within the human being, the psyche, the soul, identity and integrity. It goes by different names because nobody knows its true name. Sometimes the best one can say when pressed as to what are you talking about, well, it’s the being in human being. This place within ourselves that’s very quiet, which reaches very deep, that is so easily layered over by all kinds of things, including what the woodcarver would call an obsession with gain and success by the noise that’s around us all the time and gets into us a lot as well–the static not only on the airwaves but in our own egos and minds. So the inner teacher, I think, is a place that every human being has but that it takes discipline to get to or to allow it to get to you. And that discipline is a lot about the spiritual practices that are recommended by many traditions in many different ways that have to do with quietude, with a certain kind of disengagement or withdrawal that doesn’t mean abandoning your daily life, but that means standing somewhere in your inner landscape that is out of the reach of your ego, at least for a while–the ego that wants to look good, the ego that wants to measure up to other people’s expectations. And instead going to that place in your inner landscape where you feel more deeply grounded in your own truth and more deeply called to your own path in life.
It’s a hard thing to talk about because it elude language, and yet I think it’s one of the most important things for us to keep pointing toward with this language, which always falls short of really naming it. For a lot of people I know it’s the voice they hear when they wake up at three o’clock in the morning wondering why they did this or that, or said this or that, or how they got on this or that path that seems not at all right for them. It’s a voice that easily disappears when you go back to your routine the next day and are surrounded by all these reinforcements that trigger your anxieties that got you in a pickle in the first place.
So, it’s a place that the wisdom traditions have always known about and that different people find different paths to. For some it’s walking in the woods. For some it’s spiritual reading. For some it’s prayer and meditation. For some it’s sitting with an Anam Cara, a true friend, a friend of the soul who really sees who you are and helps you see that, too. That’s probably as close as I can come to saying what that phrase means to me at the moment.
Tami Simon: One of the interesting things to me is what’s happening during periods of your life when you can’t access the inner teacher. For somebody who has times in their life when they can and then suddenly it’s like, no clarity. Have to make a decision and there’s no inner teacher voice that I can really distinguish clearly.
Parker Palmer: Yeah. For me—I mean I’m very acquainted that in my own life. I don’t know how that feels to you. But for me it’s kind of like the cycle of day and night. You know, and under the noonday sun you can find your way in the world pretty easily, but if you’re out in the forest at night (laughs) it’s kind of scary and you’re stumbling around. And yet one thing you learn over time is that we need that alternation of light and darkness to help us know what both look like. Without the contrast we’d be even more lost than we are. And so I think that the complexity and confusion of life, the tragic gap that we talked about, the impulse toward perfection that we have in ourselves that will never be fulfilled. All of these things can lead us down blind allies into places of profound lostness. I’ve been in those places a lot in my life. It’s not a place that you value while you’re there. But in my case at least I can look back on those times and realize that those lost times were some of the most important schools of the spirit in my life because I was profoundly reminded of what it’s like not to have light, and my search for a way back to the light, back to guidance, was deepened, and in some way disciplined by those times of profound lostness. I find it very interesting in myself that I need these alternations. I need these oppositions. I need these contradictions in order to find a straight path.
Tami Simon: You said disciplined that you’d come back from these periods of time that you’d come back with a more disciplined approach. What do you mean by that?
Parker Palmer: I think I would look back on those periods of lostness and realize that they had precursors. That something had slipped in me prior to getting lost, so that it was like being out in the woods with a compass and just deciding, oh I can do without this for a while, and a few days later realizing that I had no idea where I was and I had no idea where I’d left the compass. So the precursors in my life would have to do with not only the falling away of certain disciplines such as silence and reflection and soul talk with an Anam Cara, close friend of the soul. Times when I’ve let things like that go. These precursor times in my life would also have to do with buying in once again to certain illusions about myself and my powers and my privileges and rights that took me down paths that were just cross grained to my own truth, to my own soul.
As you know, Tami, because we’ve talked about these things before and I’ve written a lot about them, part of my journey has been with clinical depression. And I’ve been fascinated with a relatively new stream of evolutionary biology in which scholars, researchers are putting forward the notion that clinical depression is actually an evolutionary adaptation that was designed originally to keep human beings from pursuing a path that they were incapable of successfully or ultimately negotiating. One of the features of clinical depression is that you simply run out of energy. You run out of will power, you run out of steam. The notion that some evolutionary biologists have put forward is that this is nature’s way of telling you to turn around, go back up to that main trail where you first got lost and find a road that you can walk. And I must say that some of my experiences with depression fall exactly into that category where the precursor condition is getting crosswise with my own truth related to the falling away of some of these disciplines like sitting with a friend who helps you tell the truth about yourself. And the school of the spirit was this profound reminder that I got in the lostness that I didn’t want to go there again if I could possibly avoid it. So a kind of heightened awareness, I think, comes out of some of these experiences about the practices, the disciplines, whether those are certain ways of meditating, seeking out certain people to talk to, or the more subtle practices like noticing when it is that if your ego illusions about yourself that are driving a decision or an action rather than a deeper layer of your own truth–noticing those things and reclaiming them is what I mean by disciplines and practices.
Tami Simon: You know Parker, I had the joy of spending three days with you in a studio in Madison when we recorded the Sounds True program, The Undivided Life, and you shared with me some of your experiences with clinical depression as part of that recording. And afterward I developed a kind of theory and I want to try it on you and see what you think, because I’ve now talked to and recorded hundreds of different spiritual teachers. And I was so moved by the time we spent together and your warmth and brilliance, and I thought Parker received his initiation into full humanhood though depression. I’d never met anybody who’d had that experience before. Meaning I’ve met people who had practiced on retreats for weeks and weeks and weeks a year for decades and different kinds of spiritual practitioners, but I’d never met somebody who I thought: this person was initiated into the mysteries of life through depression. That was the theory I developed. I’m curious what you think about that.
Parker Palmer: Well, first of all thank you for honoring my experience by mirroring it back to me and I think you know that I value those days that we spent talking in Madison as much as you do. They were very evocative for me and made me think a lot, too. I’m glad for that mirroring back. There’s nothing in it that sounds false to me. At the same time I think I’m maybe the last person to know where I am on the full humanness scale or how it was that I got there. As I think anyone would do when asked a wonderful question like that or having such a wonderful mirror held up, I quickly think of other many other streams that have tributaries that have fed the stream of my life that I would say have also contributed to the initiation.
Tami Simon: Well, of course, but there was one comment you made, which was how in your third bout with depression in your sixties knew yourself as quote, unquote, the darkness.
Parker Palmer: Right, I remember that, and I remember your response and I remember saying that up until that point I–and I’ve heard a lot of other people do this—have talked about depression as being lost in the dark, and it was coming out of my third depression, that I realized that no, that’s an inadequate description of the experience. I had actually become the dark, and I remember you telling me later that one of your great teachers in I believe the Buddhist tradition had said that becoming the dark was the goal of practice.
Tami Simon: Becoming the dark, becoming the void, becoming the light, all equivalent in a certain sense, but that sense of total vastness.
Parker Palmer: Mmmm hmmm, I think in that sense of initiation I would absolutely affirm what you said. What remains profoundly mysterious to me is how and why some people are able to hold that experience that allows them to find all the rest, the light, for example you just named, while other people remain lost there even to the point of taking their own lives. So there’ s a sacred mystery of all that, that I’m quite certain will remain mystery for me, but yes, in that sense, that was my initiation.
Tami Simon: Now this interview series, Parker, is called Insights at the Edge and you mentioned here you’re seventy years old now or turning seventy, that there are certain creative tensions that are alive in your world now that you’re working with and I’m wondering what those are.
Parker Palmer: Well, some of them are personal. Some of them are intellectual and vocational. Somehow they all weave together. Let me just first of all talk about a wonderfully creative tension for me, and I think this one will indicate how positive that word tension is in certain respects in my life.
My wife and I are about to begin a four, four-and-a-half-year journey with my eighteen–year-old granddaughter who’ll be moving in with us to start her trip into and through college, for which we are her sponsors and primary support. She’ll be living with us, which is not exactly what one expects to be doing as one enters the decade between seventy and eighty, which is to be helping in this stage of life to companion a young adult on her journey into the world of full adulthood as one companioned one’s own children many years ago.
What’s come to me so powerfully about this as a creative tension is that while this is going to pose some challenges for us like how later are you staying out? When can we expect you home? When can we stop worrying about how you are and where you are? – all of those questions that we thought were behind us. At the same time I can’t think of any better way for a person to take the journey of this next decade, if I’m given that much, a decade in which I think many elders start turning in on themselves. I can’t think of any better way to take it than in the company of a very bright, very engaged, very vivacious and kind eighteen-year-old, who can sort of remind you what spring is like even as you enter the late fall or early winter of your own life. And so that’s something I regard as a wonderful creative cutting edge of tension in a positive sense in my own life.
On the intellectual and vocational front, one of the things that I’m finding happening to me is more public exposure that I’ve had in the past for the writing and speaking that I’ve done and a lot more pressure as it were from the outside world for me to say this or that. And at age seventy a sort of two-edged situation that I’m still trying to figure out.
On the one hand, a lot of personal awareness that even though I have some sort of public voice, there’s still a lot that I don’t know very much about and on which I don’t want to pretend to have anything important to say. So, on the one side there’s this appropriate humility that comes with age of realizing what one doesn’t know and what one’s limits are. My dad used to—he was a very kind and generous man and the harshest thing I ever heard him say about anyone—he described a fellow we all knew, he said, “He’s a humble man because he has a lot to be humble about.” And I sort of feel that way myself.
On the other side of that tension pulling in the other direction, is this need I feel within me to respond clearly and respectfully to people who send e-mails or write letters or make phone calls or show up at my doorstep in one way or another. Even though we live in an age of technological, arms-length distanced communication, I feel no better about ignoring a heart-felt e-mail than I would feel about someone addressing me on the street and me turning around and walking away from them without saying a word. There’s this need in me to receive the stranger with gratitude because I feel grateful to lots of strangers for the reception they’ve given me and at the same time this knowing that there’s so much I don’t know and so many questions for which I have no adequate response. So that’s an interesting place to be. I’m really glad that the degree of public visibility that my work now has did not happen to me when I was forty or fifty because I think I might have been wrongly impressed by it at that time. That’s no longer the case. I feel in a much more grounded place and I’m very glad for that.
One more creative edge in my own work, as you know Tami, I began my working life after I graduated from Berkeley with a PhD in sociology. I began my working life by walking away from the university and becoming a community organizer in Washington, D.C. I founded a little organization with the help of a couple of other people called the Institute for Public Life. And for five years in the Tacoma Park, east Silver Spring area served as a community organizer working on basically racial issues in that rapidly changing neighborhood. That was a very early sign in my life of my social-political interests, which eventually a few years later came out in a book called “The Company of Strangers” about the renewal of America’s public life and then as time went on became engaged with the Quakers where I learned more about the inner journey in a community that also cares very much about political and social issues. As years went by focused my work more and more on education and community. And now I’m feeling a great need to return more explicitly in my writing to the political arena. So as a person who feels that despite the election of Barack Obama, which I personally celebrate and desperately want to succeed, I am a person who, not alone in believing that this democracy of ours is very fragile and an unfinished experiment in democracy continues to be at risk.
I think there are all kinds of forces in our society that don’t want to engage in the creative tension holding and instead have some sort of totalitarian wish dream to get them out of town while we take charge. They don’t like pluralism, they don’t like diversity, they don’t understand creative conflicts. It makes them very nervous and they want to run the show their way. Those are impulses that threaten democracy and since I know a little about how democracy works and a little bit more about the inner journey I’m launching out on writing a book on the inner work we need to do to recover lives as citizens, which is the only way I know to renew a democratic system is through citizen engagement, commitment, energy, and activity, and I’m especially interested in what I call citizenship in the pre-political layer of our society, the public life, not in the formal institutions of government, important as they are, but in that substructure of democracy, that consists of families and neighborhoods and religious communities and educational institutions and voluntary associations and city parks and public squares and life on the street that rich mix of stuff that makes democracy possible, that allows citizens to have a collective voice that can be amplified to be heard by governments that are often hard of hearing and that also provides a buffer to protect private lives from being invaded by massive political powers.
If people want a quick take on why the public life is important, simply look at a totalitarian society and realize that there is no public life worth of the name in those places. You can’t gather on street corners, you can’t attend rallies, you can’t in many places go to churches or synagogues or mosques. You simply have to live a private life which is easily manipulated by massive centralized power.
So I want to write a book about the root system of citizenship in the inner life, which is where I think everything takes its roots, that human beings do. Terry Tempest Williams has a great line, “The human heart is the first home of democracy.” I believe that to be profoundly true, and I want to write a book that takes that as a starting point and tries to be constructive about how we might help folks develop the habits of the heart that will help our democracy reclaim itself.
Tami Simon: Wonderful. As we end our conversation I want to go back to the beginning to a question about someone who is working for money and feels distanced from their true passions and what they really to be doing. Looking at someone like you at age seventy who’s really crafted a life where the soul and role—to use your words—are aligned. But how the undivided life was wrought through the hard work of your life. It’s not like there’s some simple answer and how it has related not just to the personal but to the political and social when each one of us looks at the challenge might be that we’re facing. Especially a challenge like this about our work life. There’s a lot packed in to that one discovery for any given person.
Parker Palmer: Oh, very much so, and it’s the work of a lifetime. We have so many stories among friends and people more famous than that of folks who found ways over the years to keep doing what they really cared about in ways that either greatly enriched a life, the other part of which was a day job, or in which grew into work that became their day job. So there’s a lot of work involved in taking this journey and a curious paradox for me. There’s one level on which we have to relax with trust into the ocean of life, knowing that it will buoy us up despite how rough that ocean can get sometimes. And then there’s another level of life on which we have to paddle like hell to turn the boat into the wind before it tips. The paradox of working and not working; of effortfulness and effortlessness; of powerfulness and powerlessness—we don’t want to ignore either pole of the paradox. So for me there has been a lot of hard work and then back to the drawing board, but there’s also been a trusting that not everything that I did had to make money right now, although I did need to make money right now and finding ways to do that that were at least within the broad reach of my own integrity. Maybe not the deepest desire of my soul, but within the reach of my integrity. So many both/ands, it’s hard to count the ways.
Tami Simon: Thank you Parker, wonderful to talk with you.