This blog features an excerpt from “Parker J. Palmer Reflects on a Lifetime of Learning with Executive Editor, Frank Shushok Jr.” in the journal About Campus.
In his Editor’s Note, Frank unpacked the issue’s theme – Learning to Struggle. With Frank’s permission, we’ve excerpted a portion from his note as an introduction to his interview with Parker:
The old adage “where you stumble and fall, there you will find pure gold” seems true to me these days. If you’re like me, you have some rough patches. I wish it had not taken me decades to understand that our pain, our struggles, our mistakes, and our insecurities are mine shafts where pure gold resides. This priceless, raw material—available nowhere else in life—is the material of one’s real potential and the source of dazzling hope that others desperately need to see.
It’s probable your struggles and pain are not the same as mine, but you’ve got some pure gold inside you … hiding in mine shafts you may have sealed off. And, given a little attention, a few good people, and a fistful of courage, your pain has the raw material of a miracle story. I know what you’re thinking. Everyone else looks so right, together, so perfect. But that is a lie. Every human being we encounter has rough edges, but most of us have learned to hide our struggles and bury our gold. I looked pretty perfect to my middle school and high school friends, yet I was dying inside. And I was so committed to hiding my rough edges that I didn’t tell my story until I was 40 years old, despite a boatload of evidence that my identity as “the dumb kid” was long gone. And who lost in that secret? This “not so dumb” kid and the students struggling all around him who needed to hear this story.
Shushok: Thank you for visiting with me today, Parker. One of the privileges of serving as Executive Editor of About Campus is the opportunity it gives me to interview some of my heroes. Although we had never met before today, your work, and thus your life, has been challenging and encouraging me for decades. I’m certain many About Campus readers will feel the same way. I thought the timing of our interview is terrific, given you just celebrated your 77th birthday this past Sunday. I’d love to begin our time by asking you to reflect on how the 30-year-old Parker Palmer is different from the 50-year-old Parker Palmer and now the 77-year-old Parker Palmer. What are some of the most salient lessons growing older has taught you?
Palmer: Thank you, Frank. I’m delighted to take a little stroll down memory lane with you—although at my age, that could be a very long walk, and we may have to stop at a couple of B&B’s! Over the long haul, there are several lasting lessons. One that I’m always eager to communicate with young people is that there’s really no way to predict how your path is going to unfold. What my life has turned out to be is very different than what I thought it would be when I was 30. I always tell young people, “When your elders say you have to decide at age 18, 20, or 22 what you are going to do with your life, tell them as politely as possible to ‘get a life!’ Or at least to think back on their own path.”
Becoming a Community Organizer
When I was 30 years old, I had just finished a PhD in sociology at the University of California, Berkeley. I spent most of the 60s in Berkeley, having come there with the thought that I would go into an academic career. But the cities were burning and my heroes had been assassinated, and it seemed to me that it would be better to use my sociology on the streets than in the classroom. So, I became a community organizer, working on diversity issues in Washington, D.C. Things unfolded from there in an unpredictable way.
I guess you could say that at 30, I started experimenting with my life. I’ve always loved the title that Gandhi gave his autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth. I think you can invest your life in experimenting with truth—your own truth, the world’s truth, and the truth about where the most fruitful intersections between you and the world might be. Looking back, those are the questions I began exploring and was getting a few answers to at that time.
When I was 30, what I was doing felt daunting and scary to me. People asked why I was taking such a different path when I “had been prepared for an academic career.” In many ways, I had been groomed by my mentors to be first a professor, then a young dean, then the young president of a liberal arts college like Carleton where I was an undergraduate. People asked me, “Why are you throwing your life away by becoming a community organizer?” That’s a question I was asking myself! The only answer I could find was a double negative: “What I’m doing is something I can’t not do.” Was I crazy-wild about being on this unpredictable career path, without a steady paycheck, and all the risks inherent in that, while I’m helping to raise three kids? Was I eager to wake up each morning to face a day of deeper uncertainty? Was I glad to risk falling off the radar of higher education? No, I wasn’t running enthusiastically toward any of that! Still, there was something in me that said, “You can’t not do this.”
Around this time, I started writing and talking about what I saw as the need for “humanism”—or to use an even more dangerous word, “spirituality”—in higher education. At the time, spirituality in education was not a popular topic: it required getting out on a number of limbs and taking risks that weren’t well supported. Yet, I felt so strongly that higher education was increasingly offering students thin soup, when their hungers and the needs of the world are so great, and the great tradition of higher learning has more nourishing things to offer.
I learned pretty early on that “spirituality” wasn’t a word that I could utter in most secular academic settings without getting ridden out of town on a rail—which is an honor, of course, just not one you want. But I soon learned that I could talk about “epistemology” and take people to the same place that I wanted to go with the word spirituality. I think the challenge when I was 30—one I have been working on ever since—is how to translate the things that are really important to us into the lingua franca of whatever community we are working in. How do we use language to build bridges instead of walls?
When I actually did get around to talking about spirituality, I would say to people, “Before you stop listening, let me explain what that word means to me: spirituality is any way you have of responding to the eternal human yearning to be connected with something larger than your own ego.” I think that’s a pretty good operational definition of spirituality. It’s open and neutral (as a good definition should be) in the sense that the question of how to get connected with something larger than one’s own ego has been answered historically in a wide variety of ways, for better and for worse, a lot worse. The Third Reich, for example, was an answer to that question. That answer was inherently evil, but it swept up a lot of Germans who were in a spiritual identity crisis that was both personal and national. Their sense was, “If I can embrace this notion of Aryan superiority, then I’m joined with something transpersonal, which is going to bring meaning to my life.” What it brought, of course, was an enormous amount of death in the most tragic ways. And, to say the obvious, there are other ways of answering the question that are more life-giving.
Higher education needs to give students opportunities to sort out these questions of meaning and purpose, to learn to distinguish the wheat from the chaff. Just look at the current presidential campaign. We have at least one candidate out there who is calling people to a kind of crypto-fascism in response to the problems they, and we, have. A key characteristic of a would-be leader of a fascist movement is that he doesn’t really need a solution to anyone’s problems—all he needs is a scapegoat to blame and a blustering promise to eliminate that scapegoat. There are lots of people who uncritically fall in line and cheer and say, “Oh great, as soon as those people are gone, then our lives will be fine.”
These are essentially spiritual questions, as well as political and economic questions. Higher education makes a terrible mistake by being so afraid of them that we exclude them from the curriculum, making it possible to help students learn to winnow truth from falsehood in this arena.
This concern for the depth dimension of higher education—humanism, spirituality, whatever you want to call it—has actually become a larger movement itself over the last 45 years of my life. One of my first pieces of evidence was almost 20 years ago when Harvard and Wellesley sponsored a conference on spirituality in higher education that was attended by 800 people from around the country. Who’d think, back in the late 60s, that Harvard and Wellesley would do such a thing? What I began exploring nervously in the late 60s is now being explored by lots of people, and that’s personally gratifying. But my main point is that it’s imperative for educators to dive into these deeper dimensions of what it means to be human in a world that challenges our humanity on a daily basis.
The Crystallization of a Career
My career didn’t really come together until I was almost 50 years old. I’m one of those lucky people who can identify a particular moment in time when my career began to crystallize. It happened when I was invited to address the annual gathering of the National Association of Higher Education in Chicago in 1987. For reasons I will never fully understand, a 1000 deans and presidents gave me a standing ovation, one that went on and on, for a talk about “Community, Conflict and Ways of Knowing”—which was really a talk about the love of learning and of learners. That talk, and the audience response, was documented in the September/October 1987 issue of Change Magazine.
What’s particularly interesting for me personally is that when I gave that talk I was in the middle of one of the clinical depressions that I’ve written and talked about. I have often thought that the reason the talk was successful was that “I wasn’t there”—in the sense that my ego wasn’t there. In depression, your ego is dead and gone. I had enough of myself left to write the talk and deliver it, but I was in one of those places where you don’t have any choice but to get out of your own way. That’s an important thing to do generally, but it’s hard to do when you’re feeling full of yourself. Well, I was at a point in life when there was not much of “me” left, and I think that’s why what I said had a certain purity to it that resonated with people.
That was the moment in my professional life when everything changed. I started getting invitations to talk all over the country and to give workshops. That talk just opened the floodgates to the independent career that I’ve been pursing as a writer and traveling teacher for the last 30 years.
In the early 1990s, I planted the seeds for what is now called the Center for Courage & Renewal. To get a look at the scope of our work, folks can visit the site. Right now, I’m devoting a lot of time and energy to Courage & Renewal retreats for young leaders and activists—people under the age of 40 who are doing important things, people from whom I’m learning so much. In addition to my writing, the last 25 years of my life have been devoted to developing Courage & Renewal work in this country and around the world. This has given me a huge community of discourse—of teaching, and action—because the folks we work with are not only in K-12 education and higher education, but also in the nonprofit world, in health care, philanthropy, ministry, and the law. These folks are doing heavy lifting in our society that needs to be supported from the inside out.
As I argue in my book, The Courage to Teach, it’s not about tips, tricks, and techniques—it’s about having your identity and integrity firmly in hand as you go about whatever work you’re doing. So my work through the Center is about creating “safe space” in retreat settings where people in the helping professions can “rejoin soul and role” and find forms of community that support them in bringing identity and integrity into the workplace. Wendell Berry is one of my favorite poets, and he has a poem that ends with lines that I live by. In “The Wild Geese,” he says, “What we need is here.” I deeply believe that to be the case: what we need to deal with the world’s madness is within us (in the soul) and between us (in community) and it’s always available. I’d love to see higher education devote more time and energy to putting students on this path.
At age 77, I think finding your vocation is all about finding out what you can’t not do! That’s a slow, incremental process, and experiment in being as faithful as you know to the gifts you have, taking risks along the way—even when others don’t understand you—and trusting life’s resourcefulness, which includes not only the resourcefulness that’s within you, but the kind that can be generated between you and other people in community.