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Let Your Life Speak

Listening for the Voice of Vocation

by Parker J. Palmer

Perhaps one of the most universal questions asked of people from early childhood on is, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” The question changes somewhat as the child ages, and the answers change too. Children who wanted to be cowboys and mermaids begin, over time, to think more realistically, and family members, friends, and educators all join in the discussion, commenting on the child’s natural abilities and special interests. Suggestions for schools, courses of study, and careers abound. It is an exciting topic, and a confusing one. Very few young people know exactly what they are meant to be as adults, and for most of us, the journey toward finding the answer to “What do you want to be when you grow up?” is more complicated than we first imagined.

There are any number of books, questionnaires, tests, quizzes, and surveys available for guidance when one is considering a profession. A quick check on Google brings up about 237,000,000 results to the question, “How do I choose a career in life?” But if you enter “How to find my vocation in life,” the number of results drops to about 5,760,000, and the emphasis switches from secular to religious, often Christian, websites. In light of this, I found it very interesting to read Let Your Life Speak – Listening for the Voice of Vocation by Parker J. Palmer, which was first published in 1999 by Jossey-Bass. Palmer is a writer, teacher, and activist, and was for fifteen years, the senior associate of the now defunct American Association for Higher Education. He is also a Quaker, whose beliefs support the idea that whether you have a calling in the secular world or the religious world, what you do with your life is an important aspect of self expression and deserves serious attention.

The title of the book, Let Your Life Speak, is an old Quaker saying which was important to Palmer at a time in his life when he began to seriously question his choice of vocation. He states that when he was in his early thirties, he began, “literally, to wake up to questions about vocation… By all appearances, things were going well, but the soul does not put much stock in appearances. Seeking a path more purposeful than accumulating wealth, holding power, winning at competition, or securing a career, I had started to understand that it is indeed possible to live a life other than one’s own. Fearful that I was doing just that–but uncertain about the deeper, truer life I sensed hidden inside me, uncertain whether it was real or trustworthy or within reach–I would snap awake in the middle of the night and stare for long hours at the ceiling.”

In Let Your Life Speak, Palmer goes into great depth writing of his bouts of clinical depression, as he struggled with conflicts surrounding his life’s work. During his depression, he came to learn that although he was doing what he thought he should do in his life, he was acting in a way that was in deep conflict with his true self. “I had found a ‘noble’ way to live a life that was not my own, a life spent imitating heroes instead of listening to my heart.”

One of the difficulties in choosing a vocation, says Palmer, is learning how to live an undivided life. To live an undivided life is to know oneself, and this is of great importance since, “Our deepest calling is to grow into our authentic selfhood, whether or not it conforms to some image of who we ought to be. As we do so, we will not only find the joy that every human being seeks — we will also find our path of authentic service in the world. 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.’ “

Palmer goes on to share some practical ways to discover whether or not what one sees as a vocation fits with the reality of one’s selfhood. The most intriguing of these suggestions is also an example of the Quaker way of life. It is called a Quaker clearness committee. Palmer explains:

“You take a personal issue to this small group of people who are prohibited from suggesting ” fixes” or giving you advice, but who for three hours pose honest, open questions to help you discover your inner truth. Communal processes of this sort are supportive but not invasive. They help us probe questions and possibilities but forbid us from rendering judgment, allowing us to serve as midwives to a birth of consciousness that can only come from within.”

In Let Your Life Speak, Palmer offers a personal example of how a Quaker clearness committee works. Palmer writes that he had called together a half dozen trusted friends to help him think through whether or not the presidency of a small educational institution, a position which had been offered to him, was the right vocation for him. Palmer relates that at first the questions posed to him by the group were easy to answer, but then a friend asked, “Parker, what would you like most about being a president?” The question took him by surprise, and elicited a response of numerous situations that Palmer said he would dislike about being a president of an institution. The person who asked him the question gently but firmly reminded him that the query was about what Palmer would like about being president. Palmer answered that he understood the question, and then went on to name several more things he would dislike about the position. Eventually, after the original question had been stated again, Palmer admitted that the only thing he really would like about the position was his picture in the paper with the word president underneath it. A Quaker silence then ensued in which, Palmer writes, “I could only sweat and inwardly groan. Finally, my questioner broke the silence with a question that cracked us all up — and cracked me open: ‘Parker,’ he said, ‘can you think of an easier way to get your picture in the paper?’ “

Palmer concluded:”By then it was obvious, even to me, that my desire to be president had much more to do with my ego than with the ecology of my life — so obvious that when the clearness committee ended, I called the school and withdrew my name from consideration. Had I taken that job, it would’ve been very bad for me and a disaster for the school.”

Palmer makes two other suggestions for ways in which our inner issues of true selfhood and vocation can be developed in community:

  1. Make it known that “inner work” has value. Skills such as journaling, reflective reading, spiritual friendships, meditation, and prayer are as real as “outer work,” and are worthy of being encouraged in children, both at home and at school. Inner work can be a great aid to achieving an undivided life.
  2. Remind each other that fear is often our greatest enemy, and that the words “Be not afraid,” which we read time and again in the stories of scripture and other traditional literature, have great power for good.

Here is a final word of advice from Parker J. Palmer’s noteworthy and beneficial book, Let Your Life Speak:

“By surviving passages of doubt and depression on my vocational journey, I have become clear about at least one thing: 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 it requires, we do so not only for ourselves but for the many others whose lives we touch.”

There is great wisdom to draw from this lovely little book. I believe Let Your Life Speak is a worthy addition to any library, but perhaps it would be especially suited to those who are involved in the lives of children – parents, grandparents, teachers, pastors, youth leaders, and mentors.

My thanks to Julie Baas DeHaan, MSN RN, who suggested Let Your Life Speak — Listening for the Voice of Vocation as a book to review for “The Open Table.”