Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation by Parker J. Palmer

Somehow I am only just discovering Parker J. Palmer, the wonderful writer, thinker, educator, and activist who writes and speaks eloquently about spirituality, leadership, and social change. Every time I mention him to a friend, it seems they have known of him for years and have found him a worthy companion to their own growth and development. No matter that I’m late to the party; I have found him now, and I’ll be reading more of his work as soon as possible.

I have urged readers—as I have to keep urging myself—to place connection with self as a top priority in life, not for selfish reasons but because it’s the only way to a life of true meaning. Understanding and knowing oneself is essential, I believe, to being authentic and grounded, and it is in this place of authenticity and groundedness that we find the internal resources and spiritual fortitude to reach out to others and become a conduit for the flow of love and power from God at our holy center.

What shall I do with my life?

My prayer journal is filled with pleadings to God to make it clear to me what I’m supposed to do with my life, and I know I’m not alone in asking that question. Parker J. Palmer asked it himself and explores his journey of self-discovery in this wonderful book Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation. The title is based on an old Quaker saying,”Let your life speak,” and it resonated with him (and with me). Yet in applying a misguided interpretation of that saying, he spent years of his life “imitating heroes instead of listening to my heart.” It’s all well and good to study and admire others, but, as Palmer says so beautifully,

Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you. Before you tell your life what truths and values you have decided to live up to, let your life tell you what truths you embody, what values you represent…Vocation does not mean a goal that I pursue. It means a calling that I hear.

The author has thought deeply about education, and he makes the discouraging observation that from our earliest days in school, we’re taught to pay attention and listen to everyone and everything except ourselves. Think about the notes you take at a retreat or seminar. They are all about what someone else is saying and nothing about what you might think or say yourself. Palmer urges us to realize the words we speak “often contain counsel we are trying to give ourselves,” so we should listen to them!

Redefining the meaning of vocation

Palmer concludes that it takes a long time to become the person we’ve always been. The more I thought about this, the more it settled deep into my soul, and I recognized it as truth. We need to discover that person who is our true self, flaws and good traits alike, and in so doing, we begin to join Palmer as he concludes,

Today I understand vocation quite differently—not as a goal to be achieved but as a gift to be received. Discovering vocation does not mean scrambling toward some prize just beyond my reach but accepting the treasure of true self I already possess. Vocation does not come from a voice “out there” calling me to become something I am not. It comes from a voice “in here” calling me to be the person I was born to be, to fulfill the original selfhood given me at birth by God.

Do these words thrill you as much as they do me?

Sometimes giving is the wrong thing to do

One particularly interesting part of the book spoke of the tendency we have to do noble things and give selflessly to others, but he reminds us that this isn't always what we’re called to do by our higher power. “It took me a long time to understand that although everyone needs to be loved, I cannot be the source of that gift to everyone who asks me for it…Give only if you have something you must give…When I give something I do not possess, I give a false and dangerous gift, a gift that looks like love but is, in reality a loveless gift more from my need to prove myself than from the other’s need to be cared for.”

Wow…that certainly elicited a wince from me.

Lean into the dark times

Palmer develops his themes beautifully, sharing honestly from his own missteps and periods of deep unhappiness and depression. He speaks movingly about the demons of fear, insecurity, and competitiveness. He explores ways to handle those times in our life when we feel paralyzed, thwarted, or frozen in place. The book is filled with wonderful insights, shared wisdom from philosophers and theologians, and gentle challenges to our cultural norms. His challenges are not judgmental, however, and that itself is a lovely lesson from the book. Here’s another moving passage:

Seasons is a wise metaphor for the movement of life, I think. It suggests that life is neither a battlefield nor a game of chance, but something infinitely richer, more promising, more real. The notion that our lives are like the eternal cycle of the seasons does not deny the struggle or the joy, the loss or the gain, the darkness or the light, but encourages us to embrace it all—and to find in all of it opportunities for growth.

I highly recommend reading Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation by Parker J. Palmer. It won't tell you what you should do with your life, but it will give you clues and tools to discover the answers for yourself, and you will find enormous joy and satisfaction in the process of self-discovery.

Add it to your library today.

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