Parker Palmer on How to Let Your Life Speak, by Maria Popova

What it takes to learn to listen to the timid wild animal that is the soul.

“Trying to live someone else’s life, or to live by an abstract norm, will invariably fail — and may even do great damage.” -Parker Palmer

by Maria Popova • Brainpickings

letyourlifespeak_palmer“Someone has a great fire in his soul and nobody ever comes to warm themselves at it, and passers-by see nothing but a little smoke at the top of the chimney,” young Vincent van Gogh wrote in a letter as he floundered to find his purpose. For the century and a half since, and undoubtedly the many centuries before, the question of how to kindle that soul-warming fire by finding one’s purpose and making a living out of meaningful work has continued to frustrate not only the young, not only aspiring artists, but people of all ages, abilities, and walks of life. How to navigate that existential maze with grace is what Parker J. Palmer — founder of the Center for Courage & Renewal and a man of great insight into the elusive art of inner wholeness — explores with compassionate warmth and wisdom in his 1999 book Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation (public library | IndieBound).

In his own youth, Palmer had come to know intimately the soul-splitting rift between being good at one’s work and being fulfilled in one’s purpose. As an aspiring “ad man” in the Mad Men era, lured by “the fast car and other large toys that seemed to be the accessories [of] selfhood” — something supplanted today, perhaps, by the startup-lifestyle fetishism afflicting many young people — he awoke one day to a distinct and chilling realization:

The life I am living is not the same as the life that wants to live in me.

Speaking to the notion that a large part of success is defining it for ourselves, and defining it in terms as close to Thoreau’s as possible, Palmer reflects on his youth:

I lined up the loftiest ideals I could find and set out to achieve them. The results were rarely admirable, often laughable, and sometimes grotesque… I had simply found a “noble” way to live a life that was not my own, a life spent imitating heroes instead of listening to my heart.

[…]

My youthful understanding of “Let your life speak” led me to conjure up the highest values I could imagine and then try to conform my life to them whether they were mine or not. If that sounds like what we are supposed to do with values, it is because that is what we are too often taught. There is a simplistic brand of moralism among us that wants to reduce the ethical life to making a list, checking it twice — against the index in some best-selling book of virtues, perhaps — and then trying very hard to be not naughty but nice.

There may be moments in life when we are so unformed that we need to use values like an exoskeleton to keep us from collapsing. But something is very wrong if such moments recur often in adulthood. Trying to live someone else’s life, or to live by an abstract norm, will invariably fail — and may even do great damage.

Thirty years later, he arrives at a deeper, more ennobling, hard-earned interpretation of the old Quaker phrase…

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Illustration from ‘Herman and Rosie’ by Gus Gordon.