Through the Prism with Parker J. Palmer
Parker J. Palmer is a writer, speaker and activist who focuses on issues in education, community, leadership, spirituality and social change. He is founder and Senior Partner Emeritus of the Center for Courage & Renewal, which offers long-term retreat programs for people in the serving professions, including teachers, administrators, physicians, philanthropists, non-profit leaders and clergy. We invited him to share how human connection and the past year has shaped his life's work.
What is one of your earliest memories of the power of human connection?
I was raised in a warm, stable, trustworthy family. So human connection was woven into my youth—and it gave me a basic trust in life. Of course, adult experience has sometimes shaken my trust, but I’ve always been able to reclaim it because my early formation was so strong. Without basic trust, human connection can’t happen.
When I was 22, my understanding of how connection works was deepened by one of those “shaking” experiences. I was at Union Theological Seminary in NYC. My field work assignment was with junior high boys from Spanish Harlem in a weekend recreation/education program. Because of my white, privileged insularity, ignorance, and arrogance, I was sure that what I had to teach them would help them find a better life. So I prepared lesson after earnest lesson that kept widening the disconnect between me and my students, for an obvious reason: we lived on different planet
For the first six week, these kids waged guerilla warfare against my pretensions, and they were good at it! On the seventh weekend, my ego defenses collapsed, and I broke down and cried in front of them, the first time I’d ever wept in public. That’s when things started to turn. Bit by bit, we became more connected with each other, and I became a better teacher, listener, and learner.
My students didn’t need my “great ideas.” They needed a sign of my humanity that connected me to their lives. These children, whose experience had given them little reason to trust life, trusted me in my brokenness, and we found ways to be there for one another, teaching and learning together.
That was my first lesson in the power of vulnerability to foster human connection. Leonard Cohen got it right: “Ring the bells that still can ring/forget your perfect offering./There’s a crack in everything,/that’s how the light gets in.” Having known the radical disconnection of the profound clinical depression that visited me in mid-life, I’m grateful for the knowledge that we connect most powerfully in our brokenness.
What are you working on right now?
As always, I’m working on myself! At age 82, I’m trying to keep “beginner’s mind” alive. That’s the most fruitful way I know to approach the many mysteries of self and world, including the mystery of death.
When people ask me why I became a writer, I say, “Because I was born baffled!” Writing, for me, is a way to peel back one layer of mystery until I get to the next one. I have yet to get to the last layer, but I figure it’s on its way! Bafflement can be vexing, but it helps keep me alive by allowing me to live in the spirit of Gandhi, who titled his autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth. I can’t imagine how boring it would be to live a life of certainty. Boring and dangerous to self and world.
Part of what keeps my curiosity alive is partnering with young activists around the world who help me understand what’s coming across a horizon that I can no longer see as clearly as they can. I guess they are the adult equivalents of those Jr. High kids from Spanish Harlem. I’m doing a lot of online sessions with people who’ve worked at social change long enough to know they need to do inner as well as outer work—partly to aim their efforts well, and partly to remain resilient. I’m grateful to have some things to offer them, but I learn more from them than they learn from me.
Intergenerational connections are so critical to life well-lived at every age. The young and the old alike should be doing a lot more to encourage and facilitate them.
What values guide your work?
From my mid-twenties onward, I’ve tried to understand the imperatives of my own heart and soul, and find work that allows me to act on those imperatives—work that allows me to put whatever gifts I have in service of others. So I’ve served as a teacher, a community organizer, a leader of a Quaker living-learning community of some eighty people that practiced radical economic equality, the founder of the Center for Courage & Renewal, and an “independent” writer, teacher, and activist.
I don’t much like that word “independent,” even though I’ve been self-employed most of my adult life. No one is “independent”—we’re all “interdependent.” One of the many American illusions is “I’ve achieved all this myself.” But, no. Everything requires a village. At my age, people ask me to me talk about “my legacy.” It’s not “mine,” it’s “ours.” Where would a writer be if he or she didn’t have readers who take their ideas, mix them their own, and evolve ways of thinking and acting that are life-giving for themselves and others? That’s about “us,” not “me.”
With any given decision, I ask myself, which choice would be, on balance, more life-giving than death-dealing for me and others? What do I want to give myself to for the sake of new life? I could talk about my values in terms of love, truth, and justice, all of which are aspirations for me. But my operational norm is to do whatever will be life-giving for all concerned. The question “Who am I?” should always be accompanied by “Whose am I?” As Marge Piercy says in her poem, “Low Road,” speaking of social change: “...it starts when you say We / and know who you mean, and each / day you mean one more.”
How has the experience of the last year affected you and your work?
For years I’ve written about “the divided life,” and how we start choosing to live “divided no more” when we experience “the pain of disconnection” that comes from the deep divides within us and between us. The pandemic has plunged me into the pain that comes from the collapse of community. If anyone ever doubted the importance of face-to-face interactions in everything from maintaining mental health to doing meaningful work, I hope this deadly experience has opened their eyes, minds, and hearts.
At the same time, the pandemic has given me a new sense of unity with others—life is full of paradoxes! Early in the pandemic, I realized that my age and underlying health put me in the “high-risk” category. For a minute or two, that fact frightened me. But I soon began feeling a closer sense of connection with people around the planet who live high-risk lives nonstop because of race, religion, economic conditions, gender identity or sexual orientation, etc.. For people who live in pandemics of oppression, there is no “waiting for the vaccine,” as has been the case with my “high risk” status.
I hope never to lose the deepened sense of connection the pandemic gave me with my brothers and sisters whose risk is unending.
What's giving you joy right now? What are you hopeful about?
I find joy and hope almost every day in the natural world, which is continually renewing itself against all odds, and in the lives of the young, who are or soon will be helping to shape a new world.
In nature and in the succession of the generations, we see what Howard Thurman (MLK Jr.’s closest spiritual guide) called “the growing edge,” which he saw as “the basis of hope in moments of despair, the incentive to carry on when times are out of joint and men have lost their reason, the source of confidence when worlds crash and dreams whiten into ash.” That’s why Thurman always said, “Look well to the growing edge!”
For me, hope is more than an attitude. It’s an action. My personal definition is simple: Hope is holding a creative tension between what is and what could and should be, each day doing something to narrow the distance between the two. Figuring out what that “something” might be requires creativity, which is, in itself, another source of hope and joy for me.
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