Tension, Heartbreak, and Vocation: Parker J. Palmer

An interview with Parker Palmer

“Let your life speak,” Quaker wisdom says. It took several years for Parker Palmer – teacher, writer, retreat leader, mentor – to grasp the meaning of that. Rather than making noble but futile attempts to emulate one’s heroes and their virtues, he says, better to be attentive to one’s own soul, to the “deeper and truer life waiting to be acknowledged.” Palmer’s writings have explored the importance of “leading from within,” the aims of education, the dynamics of community and social change, and his own vocational struggles and breakthroughs. Palmer is founder of the Center for Courage & Renewal, which promotes vocational vitality and professional and public integrity. His latest book is Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit (Wiley, 2011).

REFLECTIONS: Your own vocational arc has an unconventional shape. What were you learning along the way?

PALMER:  I learned that you can make countercultural vocational decisions without disappearing from the face of the earth! I started doing that at a fairly young age. My mentors in college and grad school groomed me to be an academic, a professor, or a young college dean or president. But I had other ideas, ideas shaped by my own inner imperatives and by the rapid social change going on in the 1960s. In 1970, after I got my Ph.D. in sociology from Berkeley, I decided not to go after a professorship but to become a community organizer and work on race relations and community stability in Washington, D.C. I did that work for five years, until I burned out. I didn’t really understand my own limitations and potentials when I took on that job.

So I went on sabbatical at Pendle Hill, a Quaker living-learning community near Philadelphia, thinking I’d be there for a year of rest, reflection, and renewal. But I was invited to stay on as dean of studies, so I stayed for another decade, a transformational decade for me.* At Pendle Hill, I learned about the Quaker tradition that joins the inner and the outer, as in spirituality and social change. I started understanding the importance of holding tensions of that sort in every aspect of my life. I think human creativity comes in part from the energy – and the demand – generated by creative tension-holding.

REFLECTIONS: You’ve written much about these tensions and contradictions, the urgency of admitting them, living with them.

PALMER: These days I’m particularly focused on what it means to be an actor in a tragic world – “tragic” in the classical sense of being permanently flawed. How do we learn how to stand and act in the eternal “tragic gap” – the gap between the way things are and the way we know they could and should be? How do we stand and act there without flipping out either on the side of too much of “what is” – which leads to corrosive cynicism – or too much “what might be” – which leads to irrelevant idealism? If we want to live nonviolent lives, we must learn to live in the tragic gap, faithfully holding the tension between reality and possibility, without letting cynicism or idealism take us out of the action.

Idealism is important, but it needs to be tempered by acceptance of life’s tragic dimension. Look at all the messianic hopes around the election of President Obama. After he’d been in office for just a few months, and revealed his feet of clay, some of his supporters started saying, “I’m getting off this train.” I regard that as an educational failure. We don’t educate the heart to embrace the limits of history and the human self – to say nothing of the limitations on the power of the President of the United States.

REFLECTIONS: What is the educated heart?

PALMER: We can educate the heart by exposing it to tension-inducing ideas, relationships, and experiences – expose it in situations where we can reflect together and mentor each other on how best to hold these tensions, and on what happens within us and around us when we do not hold them well. In this way, we can help make the heart supple rather than brittle, so it breaks open instead of apart under the stresses of life. When the heart breaks apart, it breaks into a thousand pieces. But it can also break open onto larger capacity, become more open to holding the pain of the world. Many of us have experienced this in our personal lives when someone dear to us dies, and we slowly awaken to the fact that this heartbreaking loss has not destroyed us, but opened us to greater compassion and a larger understanding of life. Creative tension-holding is a human capacity that can be transferred from personal to public life. But we need forms of education that cultivate supple hearts as well as supple minds.

REFLECTIONS: How does a tension-holding education affect the work of vocational discernment?

PALMER: When I was in my teens, white males especially had a well-marked societal path for choice-making and identity formation – which meant that people who were not white and male had “paths” as well, largely marked by roadblocks. It was racist, sexist, and classist, but everyone had a “map,” and not very many deviated from its well-trod paths.

But as this society has opened up to diversity and lost its cultural consensus around “who goes where” – all of which I regard as a good thing – it’s become harder for people, especially young people, to know where they “belong.” Today the answer to that question must come from within, not without. Answering it requires a lot of skill at discernment – which means holding the tensions of confusion and ambiguity until they open us to something new.

In my judgment, our educational and religious institutions have not done a good job of keeping up with this sort of cultural change and giving young people the tools for discernment. Education keeps up with technological change pretty well, and it certainly knows how to play the “job training” card in a shaky economy. But, except for the best liberal arts programs, which are increasingly rare, it rarely takes students to those deep places where discernment can be taught and learned. As for religious institutions, the churches I know best (those in the mainline Protestant tradition in which I grew up) have been so busy trying to survive, or sometimes self-destructing around marginal theological issues, that they have not had the time, energy, or capacity to serve these needs in young people either.

REFLECTIONS: Can you build that into a curriculum?

PALMER: Absolutely. I know this because I’ve seen it done. Let me refer again to the liberal arts tradition – called “liberal” because it was seen as the kind of education suited for a free or liberated people. The aim was to teach people to think on their feet in the midst of confusing situations, bringing both mind and heart to bear on the convoluted challenges of real life. A liberal education helps people embrace complexity, contradiction, and paradox for the sake of opening their hearts and minds to a better way. It helps them enter unmapped, alien territory – where fearful people say, “Warning! Do not enter! There be dragons!” – and find the courage to explore “otherness” without being paralyzed by fear. Fear of that which is “other” than us is one of our biggest problems today. At every level of life – from personal to  political – our creativity is being shut down because we are so vulnerable to fear. And there are so many forces out there working hard to manipulate our fear to keep us shut down, in line, and under control.

REFLECTIONS: Your new book turns to politics, to your worries and hopes about democracy. How does it relate to individual “habits of the heart”?

PALMER: We need to remember that American democracy was called into existence by “We the People.” Politics is not something that happens “out there,” totally under the control of people with power and money who are beyond our reach. Politics begins “right here,” between me and my friends, me and my neighbors, me and my colleagues, me and my fellow parishioners. But every time we refuse to talk to each other across our lines of difference in ways that make creative use of those tensions, “We the People” squander our power, creating a void that non-democratic powers (like corporate money) are eager to fill.

REFLECTIONS: National polls say we trust each other less and less. Is that your impression?

PALMER: Unfortunately, a lot of the political “news” we get is more like caricatures of reality than what’s really going on in our lives – caricatures that portray our problems on such a vast scale and at such a fast pace that we end up with a sense that there’s nothing we can do. The media does a great job of disempowering people. When I visit with people about these things and ask them questions that are national in scope, I get gloomy answers which include low levels of mutual trust. But when I ask people what’s going on in their neighborhoods, the picture I get is much more positive. Now it’s a human-scale picture, which makes it possible to think “We the People” again.

American democracy was designed by the Founders on the premise that tension is a good thing – an engine of social order, not the enemy of social order. The Founders, for example, gave us three branches of government designed to hold issues in tension over a long period of time. It’s vexing and slow, but it gives us chance after chance to evolve better answers over time.

But that system doesn’t work unless individuals have that same tension-holding capacity in themselves. Fortunately, we do – but we need to find ways to expand and extend it. Anyone who has raised a teenager knows about tension-holding! The parent who has known a child since birth has a sense of that child’s potential, even while watching the teenage version of that child make bad choices and sometimes go off the rails. A good parent learns to hold these poles in tension with each other, knowing that something creative might emerge if we embrace rather than fear the tension.

A good citizen needs the same habit of the heart. We know the potentials of this country, and we know how far we have fallen short. “We the People” have the constant task of helping this country grow into its highest aspirations. We can do that only if we understand that the tension between what is and what could and should be – and the tensions between us – are not to be feared but embraced as sources of vital energy for new life. 

* Pendle Hill is a Quaker adult study center in Wallingford, PA, founded in 1930 by such Quaker luminaries as Douglas Steere and Rufus Jones. Palmer was there from 1974-85 as a student, dean, teacher, and writer-in-residence.