On the Brink of Everything: Grace, Gravity, and Getting Old
by Parker J. Palmer
Reviewed by Elizabeth H. Cottrell
240 pages (Hardcover edition)
5 stars out of 5
Parker J. Palmer is among my favorite authors because he writes beautifully and honestly about the questions, challenges, and paradoxes of life. His writing explores, from a variety of angles—the building blocks for living a wholehearted life of meaning and purpose. He is the founder and Senior Partner of the Center for Courage & Renewal, which oversees long-term retreat programs that are deeply rooted in Quaker principles and practices. A social activist and teacher, he is articulate, compassionate, and deep-thinking. He is a half generation older than I (he was 79, and I was 68 when this book was published), so when I heard the title of his book, I preordered it, trusting him to impart wisdom on how to age gracefully.
He did not disappoint.
Parker (I believe we’re on a first name basis because he speaks my heart language) makes clear that this is not a “how-to” manual or guide to getting old. “Instead,” he says, ” It’s me turning the prism on my experience of aging as a way of encouraging readers to do the same with theirs.”
Seven themes, seven sections
Each of the seven sections of the small book has a different theme, each representing a turn of that prism. Here they are:
I. The View from the Brink: What I Can See from Here
II. Young and Old: The Dance of the Generations
III. Getting Real: From Illusion to Reality
IV. Work and Vocation: Writing a Life
V. Keep Reaching Out: Staying Engaged with the World
VI. Keep Reaching In: Staying Engaged with Your Soul
VII. Over the Edge: Where We Go When We Die
While his wisdom is gleaned from almost eight decades of living, it transcends age and speaks to anyone seriously grappling with life’s questions. As a bonus for me and other writers, he also talks about the writing life and shares his love of the natural world and its role in nurturing his writing and creativity.As a bonus for me and other writers, he also talks about the writing life...Click To Tweet
There’s power in three: questions and ideas
In his introduction, Parker thanks his wife Sharon for editing his work “with an artist’s eyes.” When he asked her how she approaches this task, she said, “I ask three questions: Is it worth saying? Is it said clearly? Is it said beautifully?” I’ve never read a better set of criteria for good nonfiction writing. In this spirit-nourishing book, he passes her test with flying colors.
Three ideas form the foundation of all Parker Palmer’s work: love, hope, and healing. He has devoted his life to fostering dialogue between young and old, black and white, liberal and conservative.Three ideas form the foundation of all Parker Palmer's work: love, hope, and healing. Click To Tweet
With honesty, grit, humor—and sometimes with poetry—he explores in this book the issues we should think about at any age, but that tend to force themselves on us as we get older:
• How can I live with courage and meaning and integrity?
• How can I make sense of the world’s darkness and keep it from overwhelming me?
• How can we cultivate both a robust outer life and a robust inner life, especially as we age?
Parker Palmer does not try to tell the reader what to do. He takes us by the hand and—with his signature warmth and intellectual and spiritual curiosity—shares his own experience of living and aging in a way that encourages the reader to do the same. He shares what he’s learned from life, from others, and from his own extensive reading of the writings of spiritual giants. “We need to reframe aging as a passage of discovery and engagement,” he says, “not decline and inaction.”
Here are just a few of the lines I highlighted:
“Looking back, I’m awed by the way that embracing everything—from what I got right to what I got wrong—invites the grace of wholeness.”
“The spiritual journey is an endless process of engaging life as it is, stripping away our illusions about ourselves, our world, and the relationship of the two, moving closer to reality as we do.”
“Imparting hope to others has nothing to do with exhorting or cheering them on. It has everything to do with relationships that honor the soul, encourage the heart, inspire the mind, quicken the step, and heal the wounds we suffer along the way.”
“One one has eyes to see it, wholeness can always be found, hidden beneath the broken surface of things.”
“As long as we’re wedded to results, we’ll take on smaller and smaller tasks, the only ones that yield results. If we want to live by values like love, truth, and justice—values that will never be fully achieved—’faithfulness’ is the only standard that will do.”
I loved this reflection on the writing life: “Here’s a place where faith and writing converge: no matter which path you’re on, it’s often hard to tell whether you’re wrestling with angels or demons.”
Parker’s message in this and other books is that the journey towards wholeness and radical self-acceptance is the only journey worth taking. His mantra is “Wholeness is the goal; but wholeness does not mean perfection. It means embracing brokenness as an integral part of life.” We must show up as our true selves every single day.Parker's message: the journey towards wholeness and radical self-acceptance is the only journey worth taking. Click To Tweet
Is it any wonder I felt he was describing the #HeartspokenLife?
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