PalLetY 03-5-51




Listening for the Voice of Vocation


Parker Palmer

Jossey Bass, 2000, 116 pp. 



Palmer, a Quaker educator and writer, has woven together essays in which by reflection on his life story he sees how to find a vocation true to one’s “inner self.”  His chapter on overcoming depression I found most insightful.  The main point is that we can only live successfully a life that is consistent with whom God has made us, not some other life that we admire.  In general, I prefer more precise, less mystical thinking and writing, and I have more confidence in objective Scripture over “inner light,” but there are helpful and inspiring suggestions in the book. 


“The life I am living is not the same as the life that wants to live in me.”  “I wonder: What am I meant to do?  Who am I meant to be?”  “…it is possible to live a life other than one’s own.”  (2)


“I ran across the old Quaker saying, ‘Let your life speak.’”  (2)


“Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you.  …let your life tell you what truths you embody, what values you represent.”  (3)


“Vocation…comes from listening.  I must listen to my life and try to understand what it is truly about….”  “Vocation does not mean a goal that I pursue.  It means a calling that I hear.”  “I must listen to my life telling me who I am.”  (4)


“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.”  (10)


“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?’” (15)


“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.’  Buechner’s definition starts with the self and moves toward the needs of the world….”  (16)


“…teaching, I was coming 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.”  (21)


“We are led to truth by our weaknesses as well as our strengths.”  (22)


“Vocation at its deepest level is, ‘This is something I can’t not do, for reasons I’m unable to explain…but that are nonetheless compelling.’”  (25)


We must embrace our liabilities and limits.  (29)  “My troubles began, of course, when I started to slam into my limitations, especially in the form of failure.”  (39)  “Each of arrives here with a nature, which means both limits and potentials. 


We can learn as much about our nature by running into our limits as by experiencing our potentials.” Americans resist the idea of limits.  “Our national myth is about the endless defiance of limits.  (42)


“If I try to be or do something noble that has nothing to do with who I am, I may look good to others and to myself for a while.  But the fact that I am exceeding my limits will eventually have consequences.  I will distort myself, the other, and our relationship—and may end up dong more damage….”  (47)


On pages 50-52, the author develops a philosophy that it is better to be “whole” than to be “good,” that God is the source of “reality” vs. “morality,” etc.  I don’t quite follow his thinking; it seems a little gooey. 


“We will become better teachers not by trying to fill the potholes in our souls but by knowing them so well that we can avoid falling into them.”  (52)


“The problem with living at high altitude is simple: when we slip, as we always do, we have a long, long way to fall, and the landing may well kill us.” (66)


Some of his life issues prior to depression:

  1. Living an “ungrounded life.”  (see above)
  2. Embracing a form of Christian faith devoted more to abstractions about God than to the experience of God
  3. Living the images of who I ought to be or do (rather than be dictated by my own reality – what was true and possible for me), driven by my ego that led me to think more of myself than was warranted in order to mask my fear that I was less than I should have been


“Depression was, indeed, the hand of a friend trying to press me down to ground on which it was safe to stand—the ground of my own truth, my own nature, with its complex mix of limits and gifts, liabilities and assets, darkness and light.”  (67)  “I now know that to be whole means to reject none of it but to embrace all of it.”  (70)


“I now know that anything one can do on behalf of true self is done ultimately in the service of others.”  (71)  [This seems wide open to rationalization for self-advantage. Dlm]


“The first shadow-casting monster is insecurity about identity and worth.”  “…we plunge into external activity to prove that we are worthy—or simply to evade the question.”  (86)


“A second shadow inside many of us is the belief that the universe is a battleground, hostile to human interests.”  “Unfortunately, life is full of self-fulfilling prophecies.”  “The gift we receive on the inner journey is the insight that the universe is working together for good.  The structure of reality is not the structure of a battle.”  (87-8)  [Hmmm.  Dlm]


“A third shadow common among leaders is ‘functional atheism,’ the belief that ultimate responsibility for everything rests with us.”  (88)


“A fourth shadow within and among us is fear, especially our fear of the natural chaos of life.”  “We want to organize and orchestrate things so thoroughly that messiness will never bubble up around us and threaten to overwhelm us (for ‘messiness’ read dissent, innovation, challenge, and change).”  “Chaos is the precondition to creativity…”  (89)


The last shadow is “the denial of death itself.”  (We) “often demand that the people around them keep resuscitating things that are no longer alive.  Projects and programs that should have been unplugged long ago….”  (90)


“Within our denial of death lurks…the fear of failure.”  (90)


We can lift up the value of “inner work.” Skills like journaling, reflective reading, spiritual friendship, meditation, and prayer can be developed.  “If people skimp on their inner work, their outer work will suffer as well.”  (91)


“From autumn’s profligate seedings to the great spring giveaway, nature teaches a steady lesson: if we want to save our lives, we cannot cling to them but must spend them with abandon.  When we are obsessed with bottom lines and productivity, with efficiency of time and motion, with the rational relation of means and ends, with projecting reasonable goals and making a beeline toward them, it seems unlikely that our work will ever bear full fruit, unlikely that we will ever know the fullness of spring in our lives.”  (105)