Speaker: Parker Palmer

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

Parker J. Palmer is a renowned writer, teacher, and activist whose work speaks deeply to people in many walks of life. For more than five decades, he has written and spoken about subjects ranging from contemplation to community, the inner life to public life, education to social change. He is known as one of the nation’s most thoughtful voices, calling us all to ways of being in the world that honor the human heart and promote a humane society.

Founder and Senior Partner Emeritus of the Center for Courage & Renewal, which oversees the "Courage to Teach" program for K–12 educators across the country and parallel programs for people in other professions, including medicine, law, ministry and philanthropy, Palmer has written ten books and designed powerful processes for people to access their deepest truths in community with others. He was named in 1998 by the Leadership Project, a national survey of 10,000 educators, as one of the thirty most influential senior leaders in higher education and one of the ten key agenda-setters of the past decade. In 2010, he received the William Rainey Harper Award, whose previous recipients include Margaret Mead, Elie Wiesel, and Paolo Freire. In 2011, the Utne Reader named him as one of "25 Visionaries Who Are Changing Your World"—people who "don't just think out loud but who walk their talk on a daily basis." In 2005, Living the Questions: Essays Inspired by the Work and Life of Parker J. Palmer was published, in which university presidents, scientists, physicians, religious leaders, business consultants, public school educators, philanthropists, and community organizers bear witness to the depth, breadth, and reach of Palmer’s work and his courage and determination to live a life congruent with his ideas and principles. 

Palmer’s growing edge is learning how to live an engaged and creative life as an elder on “the brink of everything.” In his address to the class of 2015 at Naropa University, Palmer’s words have something in them that is at once as much a farewell as it is a warm handshake, and as illuminated with retrospect as it is a spirited call for forward movement:

“As you integrate ignorance and failure into your knowledge and success, … [t]ake everything that’s bright and beautiful in you, and introduce it to the shadow side of yourself. Let your altruism meet your egotism. Let your generosity meet your greed. Let your joy meet your grief. Everyone has a shadow. […] when you are able to say, ‘I am all of the above—my shadow as well as my light—the shadow’s power is put in service of the good. Wholeness is the goal, but wholeness does not mean perfection. It means embracing brokenness as an integral part of your life.”

Palmer is tall, white-haired, smiling, and amicably unhurried in his delivery. Standing behind the wooden podium, he inhabits the capacity to truly connect, to be with—to be a living bridge between himself and others. Now in his late seventies, it is a life’s journey that brought Palmer to the position of being able to speak both for himself and in service to others—and, as such, to live the integrality that he calls “the undivided life.”

To Palmer, who was raised in a Methodist household, the question and endeavor of how best to marry practice and life, self and other, and, ultimately, self and vocation, grew out of a religious context.  It naturally evolved into an engagement with civil society and the higher education community. Over time, this question and its various experiential iterations and demands showed Palmer the necessity of self-examination and self-knowledge—and the associated inner work of integrating all aspects of oneself, and all aspects of experience, in the name of an open-heartedness and a vulnerability to truth.

To Palmer, such a vulnerability makes possible the bridging of the gap between the inner self and the outer world. The divided life is one lived from “the gap between who we really are and the face we put on to the larger world,” a gap that, Palmer explains, eventually becomes painful. “As human beings,” says Palmer, “we are born whole, integral—with no distinction with what’s going on inside of us and what’s going on outside of us.” But the gap gets created and widens as we grow; to bridge this gap is to live from a place of freedom, authenticity, and service.

Much of Palmer’s work is grounded in his Christian upbringing and education.  He began a religious course of study at Union Theological Seminary in New York City upon graduating from Carleton College with a dual degree in Philosophy and Sociology in 1961. But as his path naturally brought him to a deep engagement with the nonreligious public sphere, Palmer continued to affirm the spiritual nature of his message.  He speaks for the importance of value- and wisdom-based work over work aimed merely at efficiency and measurable results.

After completing his doctorate in sociology at the University of California, Berkeley in 1970, Palmer moved to Washington, D.C. with his family to become a community organizer, during which he also took on a tenure-track role teaching sociology at Georgetown University. Sensing the need to ground his work with community, Palmer became involved with The Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Pendle Hill, Pennsylvania. His experiences with the Friends led him to new questions and challenges about the expression of faith—challenges that contributed to periods of depression in his life that claimed his energy and ambition but eventually became pivotal to his life’s work. Having faced this period of darkness, Palmer came out with an evolved way of perceiving the value of the experience and a stronger rootedness in his own self-expression.  

His experiences of depression, alongside the journey of life itself, feed into Palmer’s belief in the importance of “that integral quality,” or the “capacity to be here as I really am.” This capacity—also a responsibility and a requirement of a life fully lived—is one that he sees as especially relevant to the classroom and to the work of education professionals, who face the necessary work of bridging the gap between self and other and, in so doing, preparing younger generations for coexistence in an increasingly diverse society.

In 1997, Palmer founded the Center for Courage & Renewal, which runs the Courage to Teach program for K-12 educators as well as profession-specific programs, leadership programs, and programs offering guidance in team and organizational transformation. Over the course of his career, Palmer has also published ten books, including Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation (1999), The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life (1997), A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life (2009), and Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit (2011). His most recent book is On the Brink of Everything: Grace, Gravity and Getting Old (2018).

News, events, retreats, and conversations can be found on Palmer’s blog, The Growing Edge, and his columns for “On Being” can be found on that site. Fittingly, for Palmer, life cannot but occur on an edge—the edge on which all of experience can become a bridge between the self and the world that it seeks at heart to inhabit.

Palmer holds a Ph.D. in sociology from the University of California, Berkeley, and thirteen honorary doctorates. He lives with his wife in Madison, Wisconsin.

Join us in conversation this legendary figure who is frequently described as an American treasure.

Terry Patten

Terry Patten

Jul 28, 2018

A New Republic of Heart

Chip Conley

Chip Conley

Feb 29, 2020

The Making of a Modern Elder: From Attaining to Attuning

Parker Palmer -- with Mary Pipher and Michael Penn

Parker Palmer -- with Mary Pipher and Michael Penn

Apr 16, 2020

Courage & Vulnerability: Corona and the Wisdom of Elders