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Parker Palmer: An Elder's Look Back at Healing Our Divided Selves and Worlds

Nuggets From Parker Palmer's Call

This past Saturday, we had the privilege of hosting an Awakin Call with Parker Palmer.

Parker J. Palmer is an American treasure -- an iconic writer, teacher, and activist who for more than 50 years has deeply addressed subjects from contemplation to community, the inner life to public life, education to social change. He encourages, embodies, and designs processes for a vulnerability and an accessing of our deeper selves in community with others that makes possible the bridging of the "tragic gap" between the inner self and the outer world -- so they merge into a "mobius strip" where the inner becomes the outer and vice versa. Founder and Senior Partner Emeritus of the Center for Courage & Renewal, Palmer in 1998 was named one of the thirty most influential senior leaders in higher education. In 2010, he received the William Rainey Harper Award, whose previous recipients include Margaret Mead and Elie Wiesel. In 2011, the Utne Reader named him one of "25 Visionaries Who Are Changing Your World."

It was another record breaking call and brilliantly moderated by Preeta, whose own inner and outer trajectories have been deeply informed by Parker's work. Their dialogue, and Parker's responses to each question that came in from listeners (of which there were far more than we could get to, even with going 15 minutes over time) held a quality of timelessness that is still reverberating in my consciousness. It is unusual to have someone in this age of uber compressed information and dramatically diminished attention spans, speak with the rootedness, generosity and lack of haste that an oak tree has. Responses edged with humor and humility that broke deep ground, and surfaced profound stories, nuanced insights, fierce truths. There was in the pace, presence and potency of the responses a deep honoring of the question, the questioners, the broader community of listeners, and also an honoring of the vast field that we are all held in. A conversation that had the quiet, comfortable tenor of someone speaking with friends on a cozy front porch. A conversation outside the insistent circle of clock time, and inside the expansive circle of soul time.

The audio recording of the call is available on this page. And a complete transcript will be added here as well (courtesy of a crowd-sourced effort by volunteers around the globe. If you'd like to participate let us know!)

In the meantime here are a few links to resources Parker referenced in his reflections:
Will Fascism Trump Democracy?
Joan Blades and Living Room Conversations
What's an Angry Quaker to Do?

And here is a selection of call excerpts that offer a glimpse of the rich landscape that was covered:

On My Father: My father was the most significant influence in my life. At age 19 he came to Chicago with a high school degree and to make a long story short in the middle of the Depression took a temp job as a bookkeeper in a company and 20 years later had risen to owner and chair of the board. He was an ethical businessman who understood he and his company owed a debt to society. He didn't always hire the best and the brightest as they say -- he instead hired people with potential. And because he was a great teacher he taught them what they needed to be successful in their line of work whether it was driving a truck or selling silverware. Growing up with a father like that was a tremendous blessing
A Sense of Being an Outsider: I was the first person in my family to go to college. I didn't have the burden that comes with growing up in a highly educated family where there are expectations laid upon you early on. My dad was very content for me to become whatever I was going to become. The life of the public intellectual, or the life of the mind sort of snuck up on me. I always felt like an outlander, and that sense of being an outsider gave me a perspective on what was happening in academic institutions and other settings and on myself that sort of launched me on an independent path. I consciously chose not to go to the center of anything but to work the margins. I wanted to use my sociology degree on the street instead of the classroom.

Discovering the Need for Cultivating the Inner Life: The inner life was not a phrase that had great meaning for me early on. That developed for me in desperation. In the late 60s when I became a community organizer my heroes were assassinated, the cities were burning and the Vietnam war was raging. I discovered I needed more than an external set of skills and the objective techniques that I had learned along the way. I needed to cultivate my inner landscape. And that's when I fortuitously discovered the work of Thomas Merton. In my work as a community organizer working on racial justice and reconciliation I discovered a genuine source of inner life and discovered a contemplative tradition in the life of Thomas Merton. I never met the man but have always considered him a companion on my journey.

A Lesson in Vulnerability: At one point after enrolling in Union Theological Seminary for a year I was given a fieldwork assignment to work with young people from Spanish Harlem. At that point I'd never known a person of color in any depth. Working with junior high kids from Spanish Harlem was a real education to put it mildly. It was a crucifying experience. There was a famous moment there my sixth or seventh time of meeting with them, with them continuing to totally thwart my agenda -- I broke down and wept in public for the first time in my life. And one of the great lessons of my life is once I got off my arrogant perch -- once they saw I was emotionally vulnerable they became my friends and allies. "Oh he hurts too." And I became more open to what they had to teach me. That's when I started thinking about the power of vulnerability and realized that my life would shrink to a point of diminishing returns if I didn't turn inward.

Proof of God: I left the seminary after a year to continue my graduate studies in sociology of religion at Berkeley, where I studied under Robert Bellah. God told me she didn't want me to have anything to do with her church ever. So she sent me to Berkeley in the 60s which in my book has always been evidence of God :) My eyes were opened even further.

An Insight After Burn Out: Eventually I burned out as a community organizer and realized I needed a year sabbatical. I'd found that as a community organizer I was trying to draw people to something I'd never fully experienced myself: community.

Finding Pendle Hill & Radical Equality: We spent 11 years at the Quaker community of Pendle Hill. 80 people eating meals together, making decisions together, working and studying together daily. It was a community that practiced radical equality. As Dean of Studies I was making the same salary as a freshman was making working in the kitchen. The only difference was that since my wife and I had children we got a small annual increment for each of our three kids. A supplement of 600 a year. I think it's impossible for a person like me ever to fully get rid of that sense of entitlement that gets baked into you. Am not going to claim it's totally gone, but living in a radically equal universe grounded my sense of entitlement, and I opened up to the fact that the value of a human being has nothing to do with how much money they make. It has everything to do with who they are and what they are saying and whether they walk their talk. It was transformative that decade -- the value had a lot to do with living in this communal model in which the Quaker principles of equality etc were really put into practice to a greater extent than any organization I've ever worked in.

Depression & the Divided Self: The problem with every perfect setting is we take ourselves with us. With depression -- you're not just lost in the dark you become the dark. Nobody fully understands what it is about or how and why it comes to a person. My depressions had a lot to do with the struggle that I was having over finding a path in life. Things got heavy for me. There was some kind of dividedness in the work I was doing and the life I was living. Each piece made some sort of sense but it was very hard for me to put the pieces together in a coherent whole and construct out of that a sense of self. One of the main things in depression is a loss of sense of self. The divided life was way beyond an interesting spiritual subject. Coming to terms with it and trying to understand what drove it became a matter of survival. Sometimes depression can include the meaning that the work you're doing is diminishing you and you need to find another path.

Mystery and the Dark Night of the Soul: got to the point where this might be the day to end my own life. I wrote about this in a little book called Let Your Life Speak. I said there, "People walk around saying I don't understand why so and so took her own life. I understand perfectly. They needed the rest. It's an absolutely exhausting experience." I'm one of the lucky ones but I have no idea why. It drives me nuts when people say,"You must have said the right prayers." That's not the way the world works. There is simply a mystery about the Dark Night of the Soul. I live with that mystery. But it was that mystery that drove me into an examination of the divided life, and the power of the human heart to claim it's own integrity.

A Litmus Test for Life: How did these courageous people like Rosa Parks do what they did knowing that the full weight of established institutions was going to come crashing down on them? I think the answer to that as best one can answer it is that these are people who came to understand that no punishment that anyone could lay on them could be worse than conspiring in their own diminishment. I've walked through life using that as a litmus test for decisions I need to make.

Humility, the Mud that Helps Things Grow: Depression is debilitating it lays you low. In those periods I felt the world was full of knives. There were times when I had enough of me left to battle my way through that debilitation but there were other times where I had to acknowledge, "I am not capable of doing this right now." Even family life was so painful when I was in the depths of this depression so I had to move into a small apartment. I was glad for a certain form of quiet company when friends could visit me. In a small community that becomes publicly known. This is a humiliating experience. But the word humiliation is related to the word humility which is related to the word humus, this is the muck and mud that helps things grow. It's not just word play this is an existential reality for me. It was a grounding down of my sense of entitlement. Something in me needed to understand that life was just as much about becoming humus as it was about raising prize winning flowers and one needs to embrace all of that.

Vulnerability & Discernment: Wholeness does not mean perfection. It means acknowledging your brokenness as part of who you are. It took me 10 years after my first experience with depression to be able to write and speak about it publicly. Until that much time had past something in me knew that I did not have that experience integrated thoroughly enough to stay on my own two feet while going public about it. It's important for leaders to have their learnings well enough integrated so that the group doesn't gasp and say, "Oh my gosh are we going to have to take care of this person?"When I can say with confidence, "I am all the above -- my strengths and weaknesses, and these days I have no trouble acknowledging that at all," and people can see, "Oh he's okay with that," -- that's helpful. If a leader is modeling the vulnerability without coming part at the edges then he's giving us a gift of encouragement.

Solitude in Community: Our circles of trust are where we really do try to hold the paradox of community and solitude -- ways of being alone together. For me solitude in community which is the model I learned from the Quakers has had great power.

Spaces Where the Soul Can Speak: What is important about the circles of trust is these are communal settings in which our intent is to create a space where it is safe for a person's soul to speak. That doesn't happen much in other forms of community. Civic community gets verbal and even frenzied. There is a role for that but there's also a role for places where people can first figure out what is that deep truth in them that is wanting to come to the surface.

This is My Truth. Now What?: I was facilitating a circle of trust for physicians, and we were considering a poem about death and dying. One guy said, "I work in a healthcare system that has me right on the edge of violating my Hippocratic oath two or three times a week." Because of the code of the circle no one tried to probe deeper, they simply held his words. A few minutes later he spoke again," That's the first time I've ever said that to a circle of peers." More silence more receptivity. Then he spoke a third time, "The truth is that's the first time I've ever said that to myself."That's a powerful moment. When someone has that moment of realization. I have just heard something from inside of me and I can't blow it off as if someone else said it to me. This is my truth so what do I do? In this case it led to the doctors in his system creating a penalty free zone for the reporting of medical violations.


In closing, a few lines from Parker's recent book 'On the Brink of Everything':

Solitude does not necessarily mean living apart from others, rather, it means never living apart from one's self. It is not about the absence of other people -- it is about being more present to ourselves.

In gratitude for all those whose efforts make these calls and their ripples possible.

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