AUTHOR: Parker J. Palmer
PUBLISHER: San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2000, (120 pages).
Chapter 1 starts appropriately with listening. Against a silence-averse culture that takes comfort (even pride) in speaking first, Palmer helps us calibrate our inner lives with what is happening outside of us. Vocation comes from a Latin word for "voice" which gives us a clue that listening is key to understanding calling. Far too often, we go for conferences, seminars, and various teaching courses to try and learn something from external sources, without recognizing that we too can learn from within ourselves. The tragedy is that we listen so much to the outside that we fail to legitimately listen to what is inside us. We need to learn to listen. We need to discern. We need to respect the beauty of silence.
Chapter 2 moves forward to a vision for vocation in which we learn to appreciate our original giftedness. Given that many of us despise individualism and selfishness, sometimes we do misunderstand the need for self-care. Palmer's belief is:
"Only when I know both seed and system, self and community, can I embody the great commandment to love both my neighbor and myself." (17)
The author shares about his own journey into darkness where he discovers to his own shock about his pride. Before we learn selflessness and service, we must learn to tackle our own inner challenges.The trouble is, when we fail to even understand our own selves, how can we serve and help others?
Chapter 3 is about learning our limits and the reality of self with the help of a community of trust. In this community we can learn about our own gifts through the perceptions of others. Sometimes, we may not even be aware of the gifts we possess. At the same time, others can help us discover the limitations and constraints of ours. We need to learn to accept the paradoxes of life, the creative tensions between what we can and what we cannot do, and the humility to recognize them.
Chapter 4 is Palmer's personal journey down the path of depression. He was helped by Henri Nouwen's book, "wounded healer" as he learns to write about his own depression. He admits that his is more situational rather than clinical. At the same time, he ponders about depression as a mystery, and how it cannot be something easily resolved. The slow journey involves a conscious decision to choose what is helpful and to reject what is not. Most people from the outside looking in will not understand, thus they cannot really help. Learning to embrace one's wholeness or brokenness is crucial as we learn to say yes to life, willing to let God embrace us.
Chapter 5 makes a gentle turnaround from depression to engagement with the world. Authentic leadership requires one to learn to deal with one's inner demons. We need to learn counter-intuitive acts that defy our base reactions. Trust is one key point in which we need to learn to rely on God's way of helping instead of stubbornly insisting on our own way of self-help. Palmer mentions five kinds of shadows to be aware of.
- Shadow of Insecurity where we despise ourselves, our identity and self-worth
- Shadow of Seeing the Universe as a hostile battleground to us personally. This may unwittingly lead to prophecies that are self fulfilling
- Shadow of "functional atheism" where we are solely responsible for our own beings. It sounds more humanistic. That is why people cannot stand silence. Even half a minute of silence is too uncomfortable.
- Shadow of Fear
- Shadow of Denying death in which we try to sustain a project, an idea, or a life way past its helpfulness.
Chapter 6 ends with an exhortation for us to be aware of our seasons of life. He begins with Autumn that is a season of great beauty but also a time in which trees and shrubs decline and leaves decay. It can be a time of impending gloom where we are tempted to seek artificial light to run away from the coming darkness. If we try to avoid it, we are just delaying the natural coming of winter. When Winter approaches, there is much parallel to death and dying. It requires lots of restraint amid the demands of the weather. Palmer contrasts the teaching with the teacher metaphor, and when winter arrives, it is like the teacher having left us, exposing us to a temporary trauma of loss, but at the same time a time to reflect on what teaching is all about. Spring presents hope of a better tomorrow. The word for decayed vegetable matter is humus which also comes from the same root of humility. Summer then expresses life's full abundance, which is a metaphor for the abundant grace of the common life.
This is a beautiful book that continues to keep me self-aware and unafraid to embrace myself both during times of darkness and brightness. The metaphor of life is a helpful way to give us hope. We can anticipate a downward emotional journey at some point in life. At the same time, we can maintain hope in which the gloom will never last forever. In Christ, we have every reason to hope. For even in darkness, God will be with us. Psalm 139 is a perfect psalm to remind us of the presence of God and how God will always be with us. Perhaps, as we let our life speak, we may discover in some unique ways that God is speaking to us as well.