Book Review: Let Your Life Speak

Sometimes I find a rare treasure of a book on the library shelf. Parker J. Palmer asked himself a question of the inner search: “Is the life I am living the same as the life that wants to live in me?” The result was his book, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation. This book is a moving, written meditation as to how his own life answered his calling. He says that vocation does not come from willfulness, but from truly listening to and accepting the “true self” with all of its limitations and all of its potentials.

“I lined up the loftiest ideals I could find and set out to achieve them. The results were rarely admirable, often laughable, and sometimes grotesque. But always they were unreal, a distortion of my true self – as must be the case when one lives from the outside in, not the inside out.”

~ Parker J. Palmer

We are born with our own birthright, unique form and uniqueness of soul. As we grow up, caretakers and significant authorities in life disabuse us of our own uniqueness. In accepting other people’s ideas of who we are and how we are expected to be, we take on “wearing other people’s faces.” Recovering our authenticity, remembering what our nature is, is information that can be gotten through our limitations and failures as well as our potentials and successes. Parker Palmer discovered himself moving away from teaching at larger universities and gravitating toward smaller ones until he recognized that his own nature was more inclined toward thinking and developing his own thoughts than in living up to anyone else’s ideals of scholarship. He began to face his own limitations, which became a “descent into darkness” during which he gave up his projections of blaming other people and accepting accountability for living his own life.

He began to work outside of educational institutions where he said his “pathology” was less likely to be triggered. He said he could get so angry with the way people handle power in educational institutions that he would waste more time on anger than on his real work. After he had worked outside of that field for over ten years, his “pathology” no longer troubled him, and he was able to devote his energies to the work he was called to do.

“Here, I think, is another clue to finding true self and vocation: 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…”

~ Parker J. Palmer

Like many of us, Parker Palmer wondered when the “Way” was going to open before him. He brought his frustration to a Quaker friend named Ruth, who told him that in sixty-plus years of living, the “Way” had never opened in front of her, but a lot of “Way” had closed behind her and that had the same guiding effect. We can learn a lot about our own nature by what has not worked for us.

Palmer quotes Rumi’s observation that “If you are here unfaithfully with us, you’re causing terrible damage.” If we are unfaithful to our true self, Palmer notes, we will extract a price from others, we will make promises we cannot keep, build houses from flimsy stuff, conjure dreams that turn into nightmares, and other people will suffer, IF WE ARE UNFAITHFUL TO TRUE SELF.

Parker Palmer eloquently expresses the understanding that came to him when one of his personal heroes, Dorothy Day, Founder of the Catholic Worker movement, who had made a long-term commitment to living among the poor on New York’s Lower East Side and sharing their condition, was giving a talk and made the comment, “the ungrateful poor.”

At first he was shocked, but then he realized a truth that her statement held. “Do not give to the poor expecting to get their gratitude so that you can feel good about yourself. If you do, your giving will be thin and short-lived, and that is not what the poor need; it will only impoverish them further. Give only if you have something you must give; give only if you are someone for whom giving is its own reward.”


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