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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, Cont., pg. 22-36

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I am white, middle-class, and male -- not exactly a leading
candidate for a communal life. People like me are raised to
live autonomously, not interdependently. I had been trained
to compete and win, and I had developed a taste for the prizes.
But something in me yearned to experience communion, not
competition, and that something might never have made itself
known had burnout not forced me to seek another way.

So I took a yearlong sabbatical from my work in
Washington and went to a place called Pendle Hill outside
of Philadelphia. Founded in 1930, Pendle Hill is a Quaker
living-and-learning community of some seventy people whose
mission is to offer education about the inner journey, nonvio-
lent social change, and the connection between the two.

It is a real-time experiment in Quaker faith and practice where res-
idents move through a daily round of communal life: wor-
shiping in silence each morning; sharing three meals a day;
engaging in study, physical work, decision making, and social
outreach. It is a commune, an ashram, a monastery, a zendo,
a kibbutz -- whatever one calls it, Pendle Hill was a life unlike
anything I had ever known.6

Moving there was like moving to Mars -- utterly alien but
profoundly compelling. I thought I would stay for just a year
and then go back to Washington and resume my work. But
before my sabbatical ended, I was invited to become Pendle
Hill's dean of studies. I stayed on for another decade, living in
community and continuing my experiment with alternative
models of education.

It was a transformative passage for me, personally, profes-
sionally, and spiritually; in retrospect, I know how impover-
ished I would have been without it. But early on in that
passage I began to have deep and painful doubts about the tra-
jectory of my vocation.
Though I felt called to stay at Pendle
Hill, I also feared that I had stepped off the edge of the known
world and was at risk of disappearing professionally.

From high school on, I had been surrounded by expecta-
tions that I would ascend to some sort of major leadership.
When I was twenty-nine, the president of a prestigious college
visited me in Berkeley to recruit me for his board of trustees.

He was doing it, he joked, because no one on that board was under
sixty, let alone thirty; worse still, not one of them had a beard,
which I could supply as part of the Berkeley uniform. Then he
added, "In fact, I'm doing this because some day you'll be a col-
lege president -- of that I'm sure -- and serving as a trustee is an
important part of your apprenticeship." I accepted his invita-
tion because I felt certain that he was right.

So half a dozen years later, what was I doing at Pendle Hill,
a "commune" known to few, run by an offbeat religious com-
munity that most people can identify only by their oatmeal--
which, I hasten to add, is not really made by Quakers?

I'll tell you what I was doing: I was in the craft shop mak-
ing mugs that weighed more and looked worse than the clay
ashtrays I made in grade school, and I was sending these mon-
strosities home as gifts to my family. My father, rest his soul,
was in the fine chinaware business, and I was sending him
mugs so heavy you could fill them with coffee and not feel any
difference in weight!

Family and friends were asking me -- and I was asking
myself -- "Why did you get a Ph.D. if this is what you are going
to do? Aren't you squandering your opportunities and gifts?"
Under that sort of scrutiny, my vocational decision felt waste-
ful and ridiculous; what's more, it was terrifying to an ego like mine that had no desire to disappear and every desire to succeed and become well known.

Did I want to go to Pendle Hill, to be at Pendle Hill, to
stay at Pendle Hill? I cannot say that I did. But I can say with
certainty that Pendle Hill was something that I couldn't not do.

Vocation at its deepest level is not, "Oh, boy, do I want
to go to this strange place where I have to learn a new way to
live and where no one, including me, understands what I'm
doing." Vocation at its deepest level is, "This is something I
can't not do, for reasons I'm unable to explain to anyone else
and don't fully understand myself but that are nonetheless

And yet, even with this level of motivation, my doubts
multiplied. One day I walked from Pendle Hill through the
woods to a nearby college campus, out for a simple stroll but
carrying my anxiety with me. On some forgotten whim, I went
into the college's main administration building. There, in the
foyer, hung several stern portraits of past presidents of that
institution. One of them was the same man who, as president
of another institution, had come out to Berkeley to recruit me
for his board of trustees -- a man who, in my imagination, was
now staring down at me with a deeply disapproving look on his
face: "What do you think you're up to? Why are you wasting
your time? Get back on track before it is too late!"

I ran from that building back into the woods and wept for
a long time. Perhaps this moment precipitated the descent
into darkness that has been so central to my vocational journey,
a descent that hit bottom in the struggle with clinical depression
that I will write about later in this book. But whether that is the
case or not, the moment was large with things I needed to learn
-- and could learn only by going into the dark.

In that moment, all the false bravado about why I had left
academic life collapsed around me, and I was left with noth-
ing more than the reality of my own fear. I had insisted, to
myself as well as others, that I wanted out of the university
because it was unfit for human habitation. It was, I argued, a
place of corruption and arrogance, filled with intellectuals
who evaded their social responsibilities and yet claimed supe-
riority over ordinary folks -- the very folks whose lack of power
and privilege compelled them to shoulder the responsibilities
that kept our society intact.

If those complaints sound unoriginal, it is only because
they are. They were the accepted pieties of Berkeley in the
sixties, which -- for reasons I now understand -- I eagerly
embraced as my own. Whatever half-truths about the univer-
sity my complaints may have contained, they served me pri-
marily as a misleading and self-serving explanation of why I
fled academic life.

The truth is that I fled because I was afraid -- afraid that I
could never succeed as a scholar, afraid that I could never
measure up to the university's standards for research and pub-
lication. And I was right -- though it took many years before I could admit that to myself. Try as I may, try as I might, I have
never had the gifts that make for a good scholar -- and remain-
ing in the university would have been a distorting denial of
that fact.

A scholar is committed to building on knowledge that
others have gathered, correcting it, confirming it, enlarging it.
But I have always wanted to think my own thoughts about a
subject without being overly influenced by what others have
thought before me. If you catch me reading a book in private,
it is most likely to be a novel, some poetry, a mystery, or an
essay that defies classification, rather than a text directly
related to whatever I am writing at the time.

There is some virtue in my proclivities, I think: they help
me keep my thinking fresh and bring me the stimulation that
comes from looking at life through multiple lenses. There is
non-virtue in them as well: laziness of a sort, a certain kind of
impatience, and perhaps even a lack of due respect for others
who have worked these fields.

But be they virtues or faults, these are the simple facts
about my nature, about my limits and my gifts. I am less gifted
at building on other people's discoveries than at tinkering in
my own garage; less gifted at slipping slowly into a subject
than at jumping into the deep end to see if I can swim; less
gifted at making outlines than at writing myself into a corner
and trying to find a way out; less gifted at tracking a tight chain
of logic than at leaping from one metaphor to the next!

Perhaps there is a lesson here about the complexity, even
duplicity, we must embrace on the road to vocation, where we
sometimes find ourselves needing to do the right thing for
the wrong reason. It was right for me to leave the university.
But I needed to do it for the wrong reason -- "the university
is corrupt" -- because the right reason --"I lack the gifts of a
scholar" -- was too frightening for me to face at the time.

My fear of failing as a scholar contained the energy I
needed to catapult myself out of the academy and free myself
for another kind of educational mission. But because I could
not acknowledge my fear, I had to disguise that energy as the
white horse of judgment and self-righteousness. It is an awk-
ward fact, but it is true -- and once I could acknowledge that
truth and understand its role in the dynamics of my life, I
found myself no longer embarrassed by it.

Eventually, I was able to get off that white horse and take
an unblinking look at myself and my liabilities. This was a step
into darkness that I had been trying to avoid
-- the darkness of
seeing myself more honestly than I really wanted to. But I am
grateful for the grace that allowed me to dismount, for the
white horse I was riding back then could never have carried
me to the place where 1 am today: serving, with love, the acad-
emy I once left in fear and loathing.

Today I serve education from outside the institution --
where my pathology is less likely to get triggered -- rather than
from the inside, where I waste energy on anger instead of investing it in hope. This pathology, which took me years to
recognize, is my tendency to get so conflicted with the way
people use power in institutions that I spend more time being
angry at them than I spend on my real work.

Once I understood that the problem was "in here" as well
as "out there," the solution seemed clear: I needed to work
independently, outside of institutions, detached from the stim-
uli that trigger my knee-jerk response. Having done just that
for over a decade now, my pathology no longer troubles me:
I have no one to blame but myself for whatever the trouble
may be and am compelled to devote my energies to the work
I am called to do!

Here, I think, is another clue to finding true self and voca-
tion: we must withdraw the negative projections we make on
people and situations -- projections that serve mainly to mask
our fears about ourselves -- and acknowledge and embrace our
own liabilities and limits.

Once I came to terms with my fears, I was able to look
back and trace an unconscious pattern. For years, I had been
moving away from large institutions like Berkeley and George-
town to small places like Pendle Hill, places of less status and
visibility on the map of social reality. But I moved like a crab,
sideways, too fearful to look head-on at the fact that I was tak-
ing myself from the center to the fringes of institutional life --
and ultimately to a place where all that was left was to move
outside of institutions altogether.

I rationalized my movement with the notion that small
institutions are more moral than large ones. But that is
patently untrue -- both about what was animating me and
about institutions! In fact, I was animated by a soul, a "true
self," that knew me better than my ego did, knew that I
needed to work outside of institutional crosscurrents and

This is not an indictment of institutions; it is a statement
of my limitations. Among my admired friends are people who
do not have my limits, whose gifts allow them to work faith-
fully within institutions and, through those institutions, to
serve the world well. But their gift is not mine, as I learned
after much Sturm und Drang--and that is not an indictment
of me. It is simply a truth about who I am and how I am right-
fully related to the world, an ecological truth of the sort that
can point toward true vocation.

By surviving passages of doubt and depression on the voca-
tional journey, I have become clear about at least one thing:
self-care is never a selfish act -- it is simply good stewardship of
the only gift I have, the gift I was put on earth to offer to oth-
ers. Anytime we can listen to true self and give it the care it requires, we do so not only for ourselves but for the many oth-
ers whose lives we touch.

There are at least two ways to understand the link between
selfhood and service.
One is offered by the poet Rumi in his
piercing observation: "If you are here unfaithfully with us,
you're causing terrible damage."7 If we are unfaithful to true
self, we will extract a price from others. We will make promises
we cannot keep, build houses from flimsy stuff, conjure dreams
that devolve into nightmares, and other people will suffer -- if
we are unfaithful to true self.

I will examine that sort of unfaithfulness, and its conse-
quences, later in this book. But a more inspiring way of under-
standing the link between selfhood and service is to study the
lives of people who have been here faithfully with us. Look,
for example, at the great liberation movements that have
served humanity so well -- in eastern Europe, Latin America,
and South Africa, among women, African Americans, and our
gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. What we see is simple but
often ignored: the movements that transform us, our relations,
and our world emerge from the lives of people who decide to
care for their authentic selfhood.

The social systems in which these people must survive
often try to force them to live in a way untrue to who they are.

If you are poor, you are supposed to accept, with gratitude,
half a loaf or less; if you are black, you are supposed to suffer
racism without protest; if you are gay, you are supposed to pretend that you are not. You and I may not know, but we can
at least imagine, how tempting it would be to mask one's truth
in situations of this sort -- because the system threatens pun-
ishment if one does not.

But in spite of that threat, or because of it, the people who
plant the seeds of movements make a critical decision: they
decide to live "divided no more." They decide no longer to act
on the outside in a way that contradicts some truth about them-
selves that they hold deeply on the inside.
They decide to claim
authentic selfhood and act it out -- and their decisions ripple
out to transform the society in which they live, serving the self-
hood of millions of others.

I call this the "Rosa Parks decision" because that remark-
able woman is so emblematic of what the undivided life
can mean. Most of us know her story, the story of an African
American woman who, at the time she made her decision, was
a seamstress in her early forties. On December 1, 1955, in
Montgomery, Alabama, Rosa Parks did something she was not
supposed to do: she sat down at the front of a bus in one of the
seats reserved for whites -- a dangerous, daring, and provoca-
tive act in a racist society.

Legend has it that years later a graduate student came to
Rosa Parks and asked, "Why did you sit down at the front of the
bus that day?" Rosa Parks did not say that she sat down to
launch a movement, because her motives were more elemen-
tal than that. She said, "I sat down because I was tired." But she
did not mean that her feet were tired. She meant that her soul was tired,
her heart was tired, her whole being was tired of
playing by racist rules, of denying her soul's claim to selfhood.8

Of course, there were many forces aiding and abetting
Rosa Parks's decision to live divided no more. She had studied
the theory and tactics of nonviolence at the Highlander Folk
School, where Martin Luther King Jr. was also a student. She
was secretary of the Montgomery chapter of the National
Association for the Advancement of Colored People, whose
members had been discussing civil disobedience.

But in the moment she sat down at the front of the bus on
that December day, she had no guarantee that the theory of
nonviolence would work or that her community would back
her up. It was a moment of existential truth, of claiming
authentic selfhood, of reclaiming birthright giftedness -- and
in that moment she set in motion a process that changed both
the lay and the law of the land.

Rosa Parks sat down because she had reached a point
where it was essential to embrace her true vocation
-- not as
someone who would reshape our society but as someone who
would live out her full self in the world. She decided, "I will
no longer act on the outside in a way that contradicts the truth
that I hold deeply on the inside. I will no longer act as if I were
less than the whole person I know myself inwardly to be."

Where does one get the courage to "sit down at the front
of the bus" in a society that punishes anyone who decides to
live divided no more? After all, conventional wisdom recom-
mends the divided life as the safe and sane way to go: "Don't wear your heart on your sleeve." "Don't make a federal case
out of it." "Don't show them the whites of your eyes." These
are all the cliched ways we tell each other to keep personal
truth apart from public life, lest we make ourselves vulnerable
in that rough-and-tumble realm.

Where do people find the courage to live divided no more
when they know they will be punished for it?
The answer I
have seen in the lives of people like Rosa Parks is simple: these
people have transformed the notion of punishment itself. They
have come to understand that no punishment anyone might in-
flict on them could possibly be worse than the punishment they
inflict on themselves by conspiring in their own diminishment.

In the Rosa Parks story, that insight emerges in a wonder-
ful way. After she had sat at the front of the bus for a while, the
police came aboard and said, "You know, if you continue to sit
there, we're going to have to throw you in jail."

Rosa Parks replied, "You may do that. . .," which is a very
polite way of saying, "What could your jail of stone and steel
possibly mean to me, compared to the self-imposed imprison-
ment I've suffered for forty years -- the prison I've just walked
out of by refusing to conspire any longer with this racist

The punishment imposed on us for claiming true self can
never be worse than the punishment we impose on ourselves
by failing to make that claim.
And the converse is true as well:
no reward anyone might give us could possibly be greater than
the reward that comes from living by our own best lights.

You and I may not have Rosa Parks's particular battle to
fight, the battle with institutional racism. The universal ele-
ment in her story is not the substance of her fight but the self-
hood in which she stood while she fought it -- for each of us
holds the challenge and the promise of naming and claiming
true self.

But if the Rosa Parks story is to help us discern our own
vocations, we must see her as the ordinary person she is. That
will be difficult to do because we have made her into super-
woman -- and we have done it to protect ourselves. If we can
keep Rosa Parks in a museum as an untouchable icon of truth,
we will remain untouchable as well: we can put her up on a
pedestal and praise her, world without end, never finding our-
selves challenged by her life.

Since my own life runs no risk of being displayed in a
museum case, I want to return briefly to the story I know
best -- my own. Unlike Rosa Parks, I never took a singular, dra-
matic action that might create the energy of transformation
around the institutions I care about. Instead, I tried to aban-
don those institutions through an evasive, crablike movement
that I did not want to acknowledge, even to myself.

But a funny thing happened on the way to my vocation.
Today, twenty-five years after I left education in anger and
fear, my work is deeply related to the renewal of educational
institutions. I believe that this is possible only because my true
self dragged me, kicking and screaming, toward honoring its
nature and needs, forcing me to find my rightful place in the
ecosystem of life, to find a right relation to institutions with
which I have a lifelong lover's quarrel. Had I denied my true
self, remaining "at my post" simply because I was paralyzed
with fear, I would almost certainly be lost in bitterness today
instead of serving a cause I care about.

Rosa Parks took her stand with clarity and courage. I took
mine by diversion and default. Some journeys are direct, and
some are circuitous; some are heroic, and some are fearful and
muddled. But every journey, honestly undertaken, stands a
chance of taking us toward the place where our deep gladness
meets the world's deep need.

As May Sarton reminds us, the pilgrimage toward true
self will take "time, many years and places."
The world needs
people with the patience and the passion to make that pil-
grimage not only for their own sake but also as a social and
political act. The world still waits for the truth that will set us
free -- my truth, your truth, our truth -- the truth that was
seeded in the earth when each of us arrived here formed in
the image of God. Cultivating that truth, I believe, is the
authentic vocation of every human being.


1. May Sarton, "Now I Become Myself," in Collected Poems, 1930-1973
(New York: Norton, 1974), p. 156.
2. Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim: The Early Masters
(New York: Schocken Books, 1975), p. 251.
3. Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Seeker's ABC
(San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993), p. 119.
4. Phil Cosineau, The Art of Pilgrimage (Berkeley: Conari Press, 1998), p. xxiii.
5. Parker J. Palmer, The Company of Strangers: Christians and the
Renewal of America's Public Life
(New York: Crossroads, 1981).
6. See Howard H. Brinton, The Pendle Hill Idea: A Quaker Exper-
iment in Work, Worship, Study
(Wallingford, Pa.: Pendle Hill,
1950), and Eleanor Price Mather, Pendle Hill: A Quaker Exper-
iment in Education and Community
(Wallingford, Pa.: Pendle Hill, 1980).
7. Rumi, "Forget Your Life,"' in The Enlightened Heart, ed.
Stephen Mitchell (New York: HarperCollins, 1989), p. 56.
8. Rosa Parks, Rosa Parks: My Story (New York: Dial Books, 1992), p. 116.

<Prev (pg. 9-22)

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

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