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
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.
Five Questions with Parker Palmer
What Makes You Come Alive?
So many things make me come alive! To name just a few: walks in the woods, being alongside "big water," befriending my 27-year-old granddaughter (and others of her generation) as she finds her way into the world, my daily practice of writing, joining with others in working for social change, realizing (with Michelle Alexander's help) that "we are not the resistance"the resistance is coming from Washington, D.C., as the rest of us help midwife the inexorable birth of a new world that is rich with human diversity and alive with the struggle for equity and justice.
Pivotal turning point in your life?
In 1987, I gave a talk in front of 1000 presidents and deans at the annual conference of the American Association of Higher Education (AAHE). It was about the centrality of love in higher education, rightly understood, a rather taboo topic in those days. The talk received a prolonged standing ovation, was reprinted in national magazines, and the AAHE tape sold in record numbers. That talk brought my work out of obscurity and put it on the map. But here's the story behind the story: When I gave the talk, I was in the midst of the second of my three deep-dives into clinical depressionso I was barely "there" in terms of ego or ambition. When I recovered from that round of depression, and began to realize what was happening to my career as an education reformer, I understood that the more I can take my ego out of the equation, the clearer and stronger my work will be.
An Act of Kindness You'll Never Forget?
Again, there've been so many over the nearly 80 years that I've been around! The one that's with me at the moment (having just mentioned my experience with depression) involves a man I knew, a Quaker elder, who came to me every afternoon for months, and (after asking my permission), massaged my feet for half an hour or so, rarely saying a word except of affirmation and encouragement. Somehow, he found the one way I could feel connected to other people during a time when the utter isolation of depression had me on the edge of despair. I believe he saved my life.
One Thing On Your Bucket List?
I turn 80 in February, 2019, so I'm living my bucket list! I'm still writing, still teaching, still walking in the woods and alongside big water, still engaged in meaningful conversations with the younger generation, etc., etc. I'm also having a great ride with my latest book, "On the Brink of Everything: Grace, Gravity, and Getting Old," which is taking me into meaningful dialogue not only with elders, but with younger folks as well. Age itself makes me even more grateful for life, so the Big Item on my bucket list is enjoying and celebrating life to the hilt!
One-line Message for the World?
"We must love one another or die." (I borrowed this from W.H. Auden's poem, "September 1, 1939".)