Parker Palmer’s book, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation (2000) is an incredible self-reflection on the concept of vocation. Drawing on his own experiences, Palmer offers an intimate and honest analysis of his personal story in finding fulfillment, which will aid the reader in determining his or her own course in life. With the sage advice that only comes from a traveler who has trekked the way before, Palmer acts as a guide to vocation by showing the way with the wisdom gained from the walk on his own path.
Instead of the traditional understanding of vocation as some outward call, Palmer advocates that vocation is really a voice and a vision that comes from within. He writes that “Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you” (p. 3). This idea of listening to self, care of self, and inner self is not only illustrated through the life of the author but also in quotes and vignettes of spiritual and social leaders like Henri Nouwen, Fredrick Buechner, Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, and Rosa Parks. Likewise, Palmer draws on his education and community organizer background as well as his Quaker faith and poetry to highlight these lessons. With complete transparency, vulnerability, and humility, Palmer explains how living in the “true self” is ultimately not some sort of desire for self-preservation, but actually a means to individual and communal renewal. The self is always connected to the social, and when the element of vocation is introduced, they come together in service. It is in the intertwining of personal awareness, spiritual formation, and community consciousness that one’s life may speak the loudest and with greatest impact.
Parker Palmer’s proclamation in Let Your Life Speak will help identify several critical elements needed for someone trying to define their Focused Life. The first of which is that of identity. A common question of self-reflection is to ask ‘who am I?’ Palmer however contends that a better question to ask is ‘Whose am I?’ While the first can resemble some narcissistic tendencies and inflation of ego, the latter recognizes the supremacy of God and His ownership in our lives. Since vocational callings come from within, we often find purpose out of the passions and gifts granted to us from the Creator. Secondly, Palmer differentiates the need for living out of authenticity rather than what others think ought to be. Addressing the pressures that are often placed on us by well-meaning outsiders, Palmer explains how these masks of expectation tend to be in conflict with the authentic self.
Finally, anyone studying the concepts of a Focused Life will surely come across literature emphasizing the need to build upon strengths. While this practice is certainly true for someone to become highly productive, Palmer states that, “life is not only about strengths and virtues; it is also about my liabilities and my limits, my trespasses and my shadow. An inevitable though often ignored dimension of the quest for ‘wholeness’ is that we must embrace what we dislike or find shameful about ourselves as well as what we are confident and proud of”(p. 6-7). This holistic approach to self-awareness will yield a deeper understanding of not only capabilities but also act as the criteria needed for decision making and weighing opportunities.
This book resonated with me on several levels. Parker Palmer is certainly a change agent for the Kingdom that has helped thousands of people find meaning in vocation. A surprisingly connecting topic was Palmer’s honest contemplation of his battle with depression. While I have never experienced depression myself, I have had several friends and family members struggle through the despair depression brings. Palmer’s two insights for handling depression, first to speak to its importance and second, the rejection of simple “religious” and “scientific” answers, will benefit any future counseling I do in this manner. In addition, Palmer’s last chapter, “There is a Season: From Language to Life” combined the metaphors of life as a journey and seedbed, to the natural cycle of seasons. In discussing autumn, Palmer compares growth with the paradox of the hidden wholeness that accompanies death. In order for new life to begin, the old must first pass away. In terms of winter, Palmer writes that the cold and snowy season is gift, reminding us for the need of rest and dormancy in order to have a healthy life. The dialogue around humus and humility for vibrant life in spring was incredibly encouraging. Palmer writes that “spring teaches me to look more careful for the green stems of possibility: for the intuitive hunch that may turn into larger insight” (p. 104).
Still yet, the section that struck me most in Let Your Life Speak, was chapter four “Leading from Within”. Palmer essential states that leadership is example. Considering the interdependence in community, Palmer writes “if it is true that we are made for community, then leadership is everyone’s vocation, and it can be an evasion to insist that it is not” (p. 74). In addition, Palmer promotes authentic leadership that comes from the heart as well as an understanding of spirituality along with technical abilities. In the final portion of the chapter on leadership and vocation, Palmer cautions about the five bestiary monsters to avoid or conquer by “getting into”. It is these five monsters that wish to address in my personal integration of life and ministry. The first shadow-casting monster is that of insecurity. One of the biggest lies the Enemy attacks us with is the question of identity and by playing to our insecurities. The serpent tempted Adam and Eve in the Garden with a question of both. Therefore as mentioned already, the identity of a ministry leader and anyone living with a Focused Life must define their reality and personality in Jesus Christ. The second monster is that of a battleground. Instead of caving to the competitive nature of flawed humans, I seek to advance a cooperative, creative and collaborative style of leadership. Rather than competing with one another, my team members will complete each other. The third monster to slay is that of “functional atheism” or the false belief that ultimate responsibility rests with the leader. I was warned young in my ministry calling from a wise mentor that ‘if I take the blame for failures in ministry I may one day take credit for the success in ministry”. This of course is contrary to the servant model Jesus emphasized. Even the Son said he can do nothing apart from the Father and that he only does what he sees the Father doing (cf. John 5:19). The fourth monster is the fear of chaos. I feel that as an apostolic inclined ministry leader, I tend to be more entrepreneurial in nature and therefore more accepting of chaos. I know that for anyone or any organization to grow, change is required. This often assumes some sort of innovation and chaos. Finally, the fifth monster is the paradox in the denial of death. Again, as was covered in the discussion on fall and winter seasons, death is required for new life, as seen in the resurrection of Jesus.