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Let Your Life Speak by Parker Palmer
Excerpt from
Let Your Life Speak

Listening for the Voice of Vocation

by Parker J. Palmer

Published: Jossey-Bass Inc., 2000

Chapter II, Now I Become Myself, pg. 9-22

Next > (pg. 22-36)

With twenty-one words, carefully chosen and artfully woven,
May Sarton evokes the quest for vocation--at least, my quest
for vocation--with candor and precision:

Now I become myself.
It's taken time, many years and places.
I have been dissolved and shaken,
Worn other people's faces.

What a long time it can take to become the person one
has always been!
How often in the process we mask ourselves
in faces that are not our own. How much dissolving and
shaking of ego we must endure before we discover our deep
identity--the true self within every human being that is the
seed of authentic vocation.

I first learned about vocation growing up in the church. I value much about the religious tradition in which I was raised: its humility about its own convictions, its respect for the world's diversity, its concern for justice. But the idea of "vocation" I picked up in those circles created distortion until
I grew strong enough to discard it. I mean the idea that vocation, or calling, comes from a voice external to ourselves, a voice of moral demand that asks us to become someone we are not yet--someone different, someone better, someone just beyond our reach.

That concept of vocation is rooted in a deep distrust of
selfhood, in the belief that the sinful self will always be "self-ish" unless corrected by external forces of virtue. It is a notion
that made me feel inadequate to the task of living my own life,
creating guilt about the distance between who I was and who
I was supposed to be, leaving me exhausted as I labored to
close the gap.

Today I understand vocation quite differently--not as a
goal to be achieved but as a gift to be received.
vocation does not mean scrambling toward some prize just
beyond my reach but accepting the treasure of true self I
already possess. Vocation does not come from a voice "out
there" calling me to become something I am not. It comes
from a voice "in here" calling me to be the person I was born
to be, to fulfill the original selfhood given me at birth by God.

It is a strange gift, this birthright gift of self. Accepting it
turns out to be even more demanding than attempting to
become someone else! I have sometimes responded to that
demand by ignoring the gift, or hiding it, or fleeing from it, or
squandering it--and I think I am not alone. There is a Hasidic
tale that reveals, with amazing brevity, both the universal tendency
to want to be someone else and the ultimate importance of becoming
one's self: Rabbi Zusya, when he was an old man, said, "In the coming
world, they will not ask me:'Why were you not Moses?' They will ask me:
'Why were you not Zusya?"'2

If you doubt that we all arrive in this world with gifts and
as a gift, pay attention to an infant or a very young child. A few
years ago, my daughter and her newborn baby came to live
with me for a while. Watching my granddaughter from her
earliest days on earth, I was able, in my early fifties, to see
something that had eluded me as a twenty-something parent:
my granddaughter arrived in the world as this kind of person
rather than that, or that, or that.

She did not show up as raw material to be shaped into
whatever image the world might want her to take. She arrived
with her own gifted form, with the shape of her own sacred
soul. Biblical faith calls it the image of God in which we are
all created. Thomas Merton calls it true self. Quakers call it
the inner light, or "that of God" in every person. The humanist tradition
calls it identity and integrity. No matter what you call it, it is a pearl of
great price.

In those early days of my granddaughter's life, I began
observing the inclinations and proclivities that were planted in
her at birth. I noticed, and I still notice, what she likes and dislikes, what she is drawn toward and repelled by, how she
moves, what she does, what she says.

I am gathering my observations in a letter. When my grand-
daughter reaches her late teens or early twenties, I will make
sure that my letter finds its way to her, with a preface something
like this: "Here is a sketch of who you were from your earliest
days in this world. It is not a definitive picture--only you can
draw that. But it was sketched by a person who loves you very
much. Perhaps these notes Willie help you do sooner something
your grandfather did only later: remember who you were when
you first arrived and reclaim the gift of true self."

We arrive in this world with birthright gifts--then we
spend the first half of our lives abandoning them or letting moth-
ers disabuse us of them. As young people, we are surrounded
by expectations that may have little to do with who we really
are, expectations held by people who are not trying to discern
our selfhood but to fit us into slots. In families, schools, work-
places, and religious communities, we are trained away from
true self toward images of acceptability; under social pressures
like racism and sexism our original shape is deformed beyond
recognition; and we ourselves, driven by fear, too often betray
true self to gain the approval of others.

We are disabused of original giftedness in the first half of
our lives. Then -- if we are awake, aware, and able to admit our
loss -- we spend the second half trying to recover and reclaim
the gift we once possessed.

When we lose track of true self, how can we pick up the
One way is to seek clues in stories from our younger
years, years when we lived closer to our birthright gifts. A few
years ago, I found some clues to myself in a time machine of
sorts. A friend sent me a tattered copy of my high school news--
paper from May 1957 in which I had been interviewed about
what I intended to do with my life. With the certainty to be
expected of a high school senior, I told the interviewer that I
would become a naval aviator and then take up a career in

I was indeed "wearing other people's faces," and I can tell
you exactly whose they were. My father worked with a man
who had once been a navy pilot. He was Irish, charismatic,
romantic, full of the wild blue yonder and a fair share of the
blarney, and I wanted to be like him. The father of one of my
boyhood friends was in advertising, and though I did not yearn
to take on his persona, which was too buttoned-down for my
taste, I did yearn for the fast car and other large toys that
seemed to be the accessories of his selfhood!

These self-prophecies, now over forty years old, seem
wildly misguided for a person who eventually became a
Quaker, a would-be pacifist, a writer, and an activist. Taken
literally, they illustrate how early in life we can lose track of who
we are. But inspected through the lens of paradox, my desire
to become an aviator and an advertiser contain clues to the
core of true self that would take many years to emerge: clues,
by definition, are coded and must be deciphered.

Hidden in my desire to become an "ad man" was a life-
long fascination with language and its power to persuade, the
same fascination that has kept me writing incessantly for
decades. Hidden in my desire to become a naval aviator was
something more complex: a personal engagement with the
problem of violence that expressed itself at first in military
fantasies and then, over a period of many years, resolved itself in
the pacifism I aspire to today. When I flip the coin of identity
I held to so tightly in high school, I find the paradoxical
"opposite" that emerged as the years went by.

If I go farther back, to an earlier stage of my life, the clues
need less deciphering to yield insight into my birthright gifts
and callings. In grade school, I became fascinated with the
mysteries of flight. As many boys did in those days, I spent end-
less hours, after school and on weekends, designing, crafting,
flying, and (usually) crashing model airplanes made of fragile
balsa wood.

Unlike most boys, however, I also spent long hours creating
eight- and twelve-page books about aviation. I would turn
a sheet of paper sideways; draw a vertical line down the middle;
make diagrams of, say, the cross-section of a wing; roll the
sheet into a typewriter; and peck out a caption explaining how
air moving across an airfoil creates a vacuum that lifts the
plane. Then I would fold that sheet in half along with several
others I had made, staple the collection together down the
spine, and painstakingly illustrate the cover.

I had always thought that the meaning of this paperwork
was obvious: fascinated with flight, I wanted to be a pilot, or
at least an aeronautical engineer. But recently, when I found
a couple of these literary artifacts in an old cardboard box, I
suddenly saw the truth, and it was more obvious than I had
imagined. I didn't want to be a pilot or an aeronautical engi
or anything else related to aviation. I wanted to be an
author, to make books--a task I have been attempting from
the third grade to this very moment!

From the beginning, our lives lay down clues to selfhood
and vocation, though the clues may be hard to decode.
trying to interpret them is profoundly worthwhile--especially
when we are in our twenties or thirties or forties, feeling
profoundly lost, having wandered, or been dragged, far away from
our birthright gifts.

Those clues are helpful in counteracting the conventional
concept of vocation, which insists that our lives must be
driven by "oughts." As noble as that may sound, we do not find
our callings by conforming ourselves to some abstract moral
code. We find our callings by claiming authentic selfhood, by
being who we are, by dwelling in the world as Zusya rather
than straining to be Moses. The deepest vocational question is
not "What ought I to do with my life?" It is the more elemental
and demanding "Who am I? What is my nature?"

Everything in the universe has a nature, which means
limits as well as potentials, a truth well known by people who
work daily
with the things of the world. Making pottery, for
example, involves more than telling the clay what to become.
The clay presses back on the potter's hands, telling her what it
can and cannot do--and if she fails to listen, the outcome will
be both frail and ungainly. Engineering involves more than
telling materials what they must do. If the engineer does not
honor the nature of the steel or the wood or the stone, his failure
will go well beyond aesthetics: the bridge or the building
will collapse and put human life in peril.

The human self also has a nature, limits as well as potentials.
If you seek vocation without understanding the material
you are working with, what you build with your life will be
ungainly and may well put lives in peril, your own and some
of those around you. "Faking it" in the service of high values
is no virtue and has nothing to do with vocation. It is an
ignorant, sometimes arrogant, attempt to override one's nature,
and it will always fail.

Our deepest calling is to grow into our own authentic self-
hood, whether or not it conforms to some image of who we
ought to be.
As we do so, we will not only find the joy that every
human being seeks -- we will also find our path of authentic
service in the world. True vocation joins self and service, as
Frederick Buechner asserts when he defines vocation as "the
place where your deep gladness meets the world's deep need."3

Buechner's definition starts with the self and moves
toward the needs of the world: it begins, wisely, where vocation
begins--not in what the world needs (which is every-
thing), but
in the nature of the human self, in what brings the
self joy, the deep joy of knowing that we are here on earth to
be the gifts that God created.

Contrary to the conventions of our thinly moralistic culture,
this emphasis on gladness and selfhood is not selfish. The
Quaker teacher Douglas Steere was fond of saying that
the ancient human question "Who am I?" leads inevitably
to the equally important question "Whose am I?" -- for there
is no selfhood outside of relationship. We must ask the ques-
tion of selfhood and answer it as honestly as we can, no mat-
ter where it takes us. Only as we do so can we discover the
community of our lives.

As I learn more about the seed of true self that was
planted when I was born, I also learn more about the ecosys-
tem in which I was planted -- the network of communal rela-
tions in which I am called to live responsively, accountably,
and joyfully with beings of every sort. Only when I know both
seed and system, self and community, can I embody the great
commandment to love both my neighbor and myself.

Most of us arrive at a sense of self and vocation only after a
long journey through alien lands. But this journey bears no
resemblance to the trouble-free "travel packages" sold by the
tourism industry. It is more akin to the ancient tradition of
pilgrimage -- "a transformative journey to a sacred center" full
of hardships, darkness, and peril.4

In the tradition of pilgrimage, those hardships are seen not
as accidental but as integral to the journey itself.
terrain, bad weather, taking a fall, getting lost -- challenges of
that sort, largely beyond our control, can strip the ego of the
illusion that it is in charge and make space for true self to
emerge. If that happens, the pilgrim has a better chance to
find the sacred center he or she seeks. Disabused of our illu-
sions by much travel and travail, we awaken one day to find
that the sacred center is here and now -- in every moment of
the journey, everywhere in the world around us, and deep
within our own hearts.

But before we come to that center, full of light, we must
travel in the dark.
Darkness is not the whole of the story --
every pilgrimage has passages of loveliness and joy -- but it is
the part of the story most often left untold. When we finally
escape the darkness and stumble into the light, it is tempting
to tell others that our hope never flagged, to deny those long
nights we spent cowering in fear.

The experience of darkness has been essential to my com-
ing into selfhood, and telling the truth about that fact helps
me stay in the light. But I want to tell that truth for another
reason as well: many young people today journey in the dark,
as the young always have, and we elders do them a disservice
when we withhold the shadowy parts of our lives. When I was young,
there were very few elders willing to talk about the
darkness; most of them pretended that success was all they had
ever known. As the darkness began to descend on me in my
early twenties, I thought I had developed a unique and termi-
nal case of failure. I did not realize that I had merely embarked
on a journey toward joining the human race.

The story of my journey is no more or less important
than anyone else's. It is simply the best source of data I have
on a subject where generalizations often fail but truth may be
found in the details. I want to rehearse a few details of my trav-
els, and travails, extracting some insights about vocation as I
go. I do so partly as an offering of honesty to the young and
partly as a reminder to anyone who needs it that the nuances
of personal experience contain much guidance toward self-
hood and vocation.

My journey into darkness began in sunlit places. I grew
up in a Chicago suburb and went to Carleton College in
Minnesota, a splendid place where I found new faces to
wear -- faces more like my own than the ones I donned in high
school, but still the faces of other people. Wearing one of
them, I went from college neither to the navy nor to Madison
Avenue but to Union Theological Seminary in New York City,
as certain that the ministry was now my calling as I had been
a few years earlier about advertising and aviation.

So it came as a great shock when, at the end of my first
year, God spoke to me -- in the form of mediocre grades and
massive misery -- and informed me that under no conditions
was I to become an ordained leader in His or Her church.
Always responsive to authority, as one was if raised in the fifties,
I left Union and went west, to the University of California at
Berkeley. There I spent much of the sixties working on a Ph.D.
in sociology and learning to be not quite so responsive to

Berkeley in the sixties was, of course, an astounding mix
of shadow and light. But contrary to the current myth, many
of us were less seduced by the shadow than drawn by the
light, coming away from that time and place with a lifelong
sense of hope, a feeling for community, a passion for social

Though I taught for two years in the middle of graduate
school, discovering that I loved teaching and was good at it,
my Berkeley experience left me convinced that a university
career would be a cop-out. I felt called instead to work on "the
urban crisis." So when I left Berkeley in the late sixties --
a friend kept asking me, "Why do you want to go back to
America?" -- I also left academic life. Indeed, I left on a white
horse (some might say a high horse), full of righteous indig-
nation about the academy's corruption, holding aloft the flam-
ing sword of truth. I moved to Washington, D.C., where I
became not a professor but a community organizer.

What I learned about the world from that work was the
subject of an earlier book.5 What I learned about vocation
is how one's values can do battle with one's heart. I felt
morally compelled to work on the urban crisis, but doing so
went against a growing sense that teaching might be my voca-
tion. My heart wanted to keep teaching, but my ethics -- laced
liberally with ego - -told me I was supposed to save the city.
How could I reconcile the contradiction between the two?

After two years of community organizing, with all its finan-
cial uncertainties, Georgetown University offered me a faculty
post -- one that did not require me to get off my white horse
altogether: "We don't want you to be on campus all week long,"
said the dean. "We want you to get our students involved in the
community. Here's a tenure-track position involving a mini-
mum of classes and no requirement to serve on committees.
Keep working in the community and take our students out
there with you."

The part about no committees seemed like a gift from
God, so I accepted Georgetown's offer and began involving
undergraduates in community organizing. But I soon found
an even bigger gift hidden in this arrangement. By looking
anew at my community work through the lens of education, I
saw that as an organizer I had never stopped being a teacher --
I was simply teaching in a classroom without walls.

In fact, I could have done no other: teaching, I was com-
ing to understand, is my native way of being in the world.
Make me a cleric or a CEO, a poet or a politico, and teaching
is what I will do. Teaching is at the heart of my vocation and
will manifest itself in any role I play. Georgetown's invitation
allowed me to take my first step toward embracing this truth,
toward a lifelong exploration of "education unplugged."

But even this way of reframing my work could not alter the
fact that there was a fundamental misfit between the rough-
and-tumble of organizing and my own overly sensitive nature.
After five years of conflict and competition, I burned out. I was
too thin-skinned to make a good community organizer -- my
vocational reach had exceeded my grasp. I had been driven
more by the "oughts" of the urban crisis than by a sense of true
self. Lacking insight into my own limits and potentials, I had
allowed ego and ethics to lead me into a situation that my soul
could not abide.

I was disappointed in myself for not being tough enough
to take the flak, disappointed and ashamed. But as pilgrims
must discover if they are to complete their quest, we are led to
truth by our weaknesses as well as our strengths.
I needed to
leave community organizing for a reason I might never have
acknowledged had I not been thin-skinned and burned-out: as
an organizer, I was trying to take people to a place where I had
never been myself -- a place called community. If I wanted to
do community-related work with integrity, I needed a deeper
immersion in community than I had experienced to that point.

Next > (pg. 22-36)

Copyright ©2000 (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Inc.)

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