Let Your Life Speak

By Parker Palmer


“Vocation does not come from willfulness.  It comes from listening….Vocation does not mean a goal that I pursue.  It means a calling that I hear” (p. 4).

“[There] is a great gulf between the way my ego wants to identify me, with its protective masks and self-serving fictions, and my true self….The difficulty [of sensing the difference between the two” is compounded by the fact that from our first days of school, we are taught to listen to everything and everyone but ourselves, to take all our about living from the people and powers around us” (p. 5).

“Today I understand vocation quite differently — not as a goal to be achieved but as a gift to be received.  Discovering vocation does not mean scrambling toward some prize just beyond my reach but accepting the treasure of true self I already possess.  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” (p. 10).

“Biblical faith calls it the image of God in which we are all created.  Thomas Merton calls it true self.  Quakers call it the inner light, or ‘that of God’ in every person.  The humanist tradition calls it identity and integrity.  No matter what you call it, it is a pearl of great price” (p. 11).

True Vocation

“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’” (p. 16).

“The Quaker teacher Douglas Steere was fond of saying that the ancient human question ‘Who am I?’ leads inevitably to the equally important question ‘Whose am I?’ — for there is no selfhood outside of relationship” (p. 17).

“Most of us arrive at a sense of self and vocation only after a long journey through alien lands….It is more akin to the ancient tradition of pilgrimage — ‘a transformative journey to a sacred center’ full of hardships, darkness, and peril.  In the tradition of pilgrimage, those hardships are seen not as accidental but as integral to the journey itself.  Treacherous terrain, bad weather, taking a fall, getting lost — challenges of that sort, largely beyond our control, can strip the ego of the illusion that it is in charge and make space for the true self to emerge” (pp. 17, 18).

“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 compelling” (p. 25).

Self-care vs. Projections

“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” (p. 29).

“[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 others.  Anytime we can listen to true self and give it the care if requires, we do so not only for ourselves but for the many others whose lives we touch” (pp. 30, 31).

“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 inflict on them could possibly be worse than the punishment the inflict on themselves by conspiring in their own diminishment” (p. 34).

Implications of Our Nature

“Each of us 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” (pp. 41, 42).

“When the gift I give to the other is integral to my own nature, when it comes from a place of organic reality within me, it will renew itself — and me — even as I give it away” (p. 49).

“[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.  When we live in the close-knit ecosystem called community, everyone follows and everyone leads” (p. 74).

Authentic Leadership

“The power for authentic leadership…is found not in external arrangements but in the human heart.  Authentic leaders in every setting — from families to nation-states — aim at liberating the heart, their own and others’, so that its powers can liberate the world” (p. 76).

Good Leadership

“Good leadership comes from people who have penetrated their own inner darkness and arrived at the place where we are at one with one another, people who can lead the rest of us to a place of ‘hidden wholeness’ because they have been there and know the way” (pp. 80, 81).

“It is so much easier to deal with the external world, to spend our lives manipulating material and institutions and other people instead of dealing with our own souls” (p. 82).

Shadows of Our Souls

“The first shadow-casting monster is insecurity about identity and worth….The second shadow inside many of us is the belief that the universe is a battleground, hostile to human interests….A third shadow common among leaders is ‘functional atheism,’ the belief that ultimate responsibility for everything rests with us….A fourth shadow within and among us is fear, especially our fear of the natural chaos of life” (pp. 86-89).