An author looks inside and finds a voice that speaks the truth.
By Mary Allison Cates
FEBRUARY 21, 2000:
Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation by Parker J. Palmer (Jossey-Bass Publishers), 112 pages, $18
If I didn't know better I would say that college was just a place where people get together and tell stories. Surrounded by dirty laundry and stacks of unread textbooks, sleep-deprived students stretch their chemically dependent imaginations into tall tales that will entertain their children some day. You have heard these stories. "Back in my college days... ."
But I know better. I know that seniors in high school agonize over what to major in even before they send off for college applications. First-year students maintain the crazed frenzy necessary to try every possible activity and field of study before it's too late. Much to parents' relief, sophomores drag themselves to career services offices looking for respectable summer employment, while juniors cower in the shadow of the looming, decision-laden senior year.
This kind of pressure to perform is all too familiar to Parker J. Palmer, author of "Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation." Palmer, a teacher, activist, and member of the Religious Society of Friends (Quaker), shares his furious efforts to succeed in the field of higher education and the admirable tasks and values he assumed in his climb. But just as he began to cash in his accomplishments for dream job opportunities, he discovered the emptiness in seeking his vocation as "an act of will and grim determination."
Palmer shares that his good works were responses to noble causes and imitations of his esteemed heroes rather than reflections of the voice of his own true identity. He raises the counter-cultural idea that a vocation is not the point at which grunt work and connections pay off or the intersection of summa cum laude and social skills. It is a journey of being rather than doing that calls humans to act out of their most authentic selves in response.
Readers follow Palmer's outward journey from a professorship to a community organizing position in social service to his days living in a Quaker commune. But the book's focus is on his inner journey that calls into realization his talents and interests. Palmer uncovers glimpses of his personality in periods of silence, in paying attention to what he is instinctively drawn toward, and to his fondest memories.
He remembers his childhood dream of being a pilot and comes across an old high school newspaper in which he expresses this career goal in an interview. Looking back he recalls the hours he spent diagramming airplanes and studying and labeling each detailed part. But a closer look reveals another aspect of his personality that makes more sense. Palmer spent the majority of his time writing about airplanes and creating countless airplane books. He discovers that he was born a writer.
But Palmer recognizes that the journey inward is not without its pain. He examines his faults and limitations, his ego, his defense mechanisms, and other brokenness too mysterious for words. And from the depths of depression he grows to "find the river of life beneath the ice that guides him toward vocation."
What Palmer says to the reader is as simple as a kindergarten maxim. "Be yourself!" But by offering his own experience as an example he points out that true selfhood is a complex roller coaster journey into the unknown. The mystery of our very own beings is just as painstakingly infinite as the mystery of God. As Palmer says, "Accepting it turns out to be more demanding than attempting to become someone else."
So why bother? Self-examination does not exactly enhance a resume or calm tuition-paying parents. It doesn't even lend itself to everyday conversation or enough money to pay the rent. And you can't get a doctorate in the field of selfhood. But Palmer says that in becoming ourselves "we will not only find the joy that every human being seeks we will also find our path of authentic service in the world."
It's the challenge that faces every person interested in being real amid the pressures to "succeed" that dominate the culture of the working world and, in turn, the culture of the college campus. It's the idea that education is not only about memorizing and doing, but it also includes listening and remembering, acknowledging the mystery of God and of ourselves, and telling those familiar stories that stem from the core of our beings.
"Back in my college days... ."
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