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Stopping and listening
on 27 December 2005
One thing that our world does not encourage very well is stopping and listening -- stopping and listening to each other, stopping and listening to life around us, or stopping and listening even to ourselves. This is a skill that, given our cultural conditioning, must be cultivated. That is one of the things that this book by Parker Palmer, `Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation', strives to do -- to help the reader, the seeker, to be more attentive to life.
Palmer is a well-known author in the area of vocational care and consideration. I first encountered Palmer's writing in another book, The Courage to Teach, as various of us explored the meanings of our vocations as educators in the fields of theology and ministry.
Palmer states at the outset in his Gratitudes (a wonderful substitution from the typical words Preface or Introduction) that these chapters have in various guises appeared before. However, they have been re-written to fit together as a complete and unified whole for the purpose of exploring vocation.
Chapter 1: Listening to Life, starts as an exploration through poetry and Palmer's own experience in vocation. What is one called to do? What is the source of vocation? Palmer states: `Vocation does not come from willfulness. It comes from listening. I must listen to my life and try to understand what it is truly about -- quite apart from what I would like it to be about -- or my life will never represent anything real in the world, no matter how earnest my intentions.'
The very word vocation implies both voice and calling. Crucial to this understanding is that one must be present and attentive to hear that voice, that call.
Chapter 2: Now I Become Myself, continues, through the words of May Sarton, Palmer's self-exploration and self-discovery of the vocation not as an achievement but rather as a gift. One must be ready to receive the gift.
Many people, and Palmer is no exception, go through a period of darkness, despair, and depression before reaching a clear understanding of the vocation to which they are called. It requires courage. It requires diligence. It requires (and again Palmer uses the words of Sarton) the understanding that this will take 'time, many years and places'. It requires patience.
Chapter 3: When Way Closes explores one of the frequent problems along the vocational trail -- what happens when something stops or closes? Is it as simple as thinking a window opens when a door closes?
Sometimes it is not so simply identifiable. Our vocation sometimes propels into action or inaction because what we are doing rather than what we should be doing. Palmer says we must learn our limits, and sometimes we subconsciously force ourselves into action by closing off the past.
Palmer used the example of having lost a job. Palmer was able to discern, through reflection, that he was not fired from that job because he was bad at the job, but rather because it had little to do with his true vocation, and his heart would never be in it. His vocation required that he lose that job.
In stopping ourselves from dwelling on the past, beating on the closed door, but rather looking at where we are and where we can go from there, that our vocation opens for us.
Chapter 4: All the Way Down, deals with that depression we often face on the way. While it may sound cliche to talk about hitting bottom before being able to progress, there is a truth behind the cliche.
Depression ultimately is an intimately personal experience. Palmer explores the mystery of depression. He frankly admits that, while he can understand why some people ultimately commit suicide in their depression, he cannot full explain why others, including himself, do not, and recover (at least to a degree).
Chapter 5: Leading from Within talks of Palmer's return from depression into a world of action. Quoting from Vaclav Havel, the playwright-president of the Czech Republic, he says, `The power for authentic leadership, Havel tells us, is found not in external arrangements but in the human heart. Authentic leaders in every setting -- from families to nation-states -- aim at liberating the heart, their own and others', so that its powers can liberate the world. `
By unlocking those places in our hearts -- places that include faith, trust, and hope -- we can overcome fear and cynicism, and move to a firm grounding where we can be leader of our own destiny by following our true vocation.
Chapter 6: There is a Season winds through a treatment of the seasons of nature in relation to the seasons of our lives. We in the modern world have forgotten the basic cyclical nature of our ground of being. Decline and death are natural, yet we always flee from these and treat them as tragedies beyond understanding. We see growth as a natural good, but do not trust nature (even our own self-nature) to provide the growth we need for all.
The various chapters are remarkable in their sense of spirit and flow. For a book of only barely more than 100 pages (and small pages, at that), this book opens up a wonder of insight and feeling that helps to discern not one's own vocation, but rather how to think about discerning a vocation. This is, in many ways, a book of method, by showing a personal journey combined with other examples, principles and honest feelings.
This book can, quite simply, make a difference in the life of reader. There is no higher praise or recommendation I am able to give than that.