Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation
Parker J. Palmer
San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, Inc. ©2000
No matter how well we think we have it figured out, the question is a perennial one: why am I here and what is my unique contribution to the world? Some people seem to know the answer from the day they're born, while the rest of us struggle, dither, and perpetually bounce around from one thing to another. We're often intent on and encouraged to make something of ourselves, to do something with our lives, to take hold of ourselves and shape up! But perhaps we don't need to be quite so directive in our search. Perhaps we can benefit from another perspective.
In his small and readable gem of a book, Let Your Life Speak, Parker Palmer suggests that different approach. Palmer reinterprets the venerable Quaker admonition of the title, noting that "before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you. Before you tell your life what truths and values you have decided to live up to, let your life tell you what truths you embody, what values you represent." Despite our noblest of intentions, we cannot create an appropriate vocation for ourselves by force. As Palmer demonstrates, "it comes from listening to and accepting 'true self' with its limits as well as its potentials."
To illuminate his premise, Palmer, who has suffered severe bouts of clinical depression, uses examples from his own and other lives, as well as references to great thinkers who have also struggled with this question. In making the connection between selfhood and service to others, he quotes the poet Rumi: "If you are unfaithfully with us, you're causing terrible damage," and says that "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." That's hardly what any of us want to do with our lives.
In a wonderful example from his own journey, Palmer reminds us that we may not find our true calling in a lightning bolt of clarity. We may, instead, find only hints and clues in unexpected places. He writes, "By the time I began my sabbatical at Pendle Hill [a small Quaker living-and-learning community outside Philadelphia] — the year that stretched into a decade — I had been in Washington, D.C., for five years, growing more fearful every day that I was living a life not my own. I was thirty-five years old and had a Ph.D. and decent references, so finding a new job would have been no great problem, not in that place and time. But I wanted more than a job. I wanted a deeper connection between my inner and outer life. If I were ever to discover a new direction, I thought, it would be at Pendle Hill, a community rooted in prayer, study, and a vision of human possibility. But when I arrived and started sharing my vocational quandary, people responded with a traditional Quaker counsel that, despite their good intentions, left me even more discouraged. 'Have faith,' they said, 'and way will open.'
"'I have faith,' I thought to myself. 'What I don't have is time to wait for 'way' to open. I'm approaching middle age at warp speed, and I have to find a vocational path that feels right. The only way that's opened so far is the wrong way.'
"After a few months of deepening frustration, I took my troubles to an older Quaker woman well known for her thoughtfulness and candor. 'Ruth,' I said, 'people keep telling me that 'way will open.' Well, I sit in the silence, I pray, I listen for my calling, but way is not opening. I've been trying to find my vocation for a long time, and I still don't have the foggiest idea of what I'm meant to do. Way may open for other people, but it's sure not opening for me.'
"Ruth's reply was a model of Quaker plain-speaking. 'I'm a birthright Friend,' she said somberly, 'and in sixty-plus years of living, way has never opened in front of me.' She paused, and I started sinking into despair. Was this wise woman telling me that the Quaker concept of God's guidance was a hoax?
"Then she spoke again, this time with a grin. 'But a lot of way has closed behind me, and that's had the same guiding effect.'
"I laughed with her, laughed loud and long, the kind of laughter that comes when a simple truth exposes your heart for the needlessly neurotic mess it has become. Ruth's honesty gave me a new way to look at my vocational journey, and my experience has long since confirmed the lesson she taught me that day: there is as much guidance in what does not and cannot happen in my life as there is in what can and does — maybe more."
As Palmer's anecdote reminds, useful information is all around us, if only we will look for it. Not everything valuable comes in a blinding blaze of glory or the flashing of a neon sign saying, "This is it!" But messages are there, nonetheless, and it's up to us to make the choices and receive the gifts they hold. We don't need to disengage from the world to figure out where our direction lies. In fact, all we need to do is set aside a few brain cells, make space in our hearts, and allow the events and circumstances of the lives we live to percolate a bit and show us what works and what doesn't. By racheting down the continuous chatter from the drunken monkeys in our heads, we can more clearly hear our hearts, our passions, and our true calling, unfolding as it does every day.
Check out Palmer's 1990 book, The Active Life: A Spirituality of Work, Creativity, and Caring (reissued in 1999 with a new preface), to discover more about the relevance of his stay at Pendle Hill to Palmer's life path. From that experience, he "began to understand that activism, not monasticism, was my path in the world," and recognized that activity is a necessary complement to spirituality and contemplation.