The Vocation and Soul of an Educator: An Interview with Parker J. Palmer
By Chel (Michel) Avery
I reached Parker Palmer by phone at his Wisconsin home after several false starts trying to schedule an interview. He travels much of the time. And I had been inconsistent about my readiness for our conversation. When Angelina at Quakerbooks first asked me to interview Parker Palmer, I was delighted. I had first encountered his voice in the 1980's, when a colleague recommended To Know As We Are Known (Harper), one of his early books that spoke to my interest in how to create meaningful learning environments for adults. Later, when I worked at Pendle Hill and when I became involved with Quaker schools, I found that his pamphlet Meeting for Learning (Friends Council on Education) was a classic, frequently-quoted guide among those involved in Friends education. I am always interested in accounts of how people's lives and vocations unfold, and I was quick to read and profit from his own personal story when Let Your Life Speak (Jossey-Bass) was published. So it was with high expectations that I purchased The Courage to Teach (Jossey-Bass) when it came out just over a decade ago. The book was stimulating much discussion among Quaker educators and I looked forward to reading it.
But sometimes life moves along, other books push to the front of the line, and that particular title sat unread on my shelf for years. The recent occasion of the 10th anniversary updated issue was the reason for interviewing Parker, and would also be my occasion for finally reading the book. His publisher sent me the new version, along with a couple titles I had not yet read.
The Courage to Teach describes a program designed for (but not limited to) teachers of children, helping them to search for integration with the deep core of their teaching vocation against the many pressures in their professional lives that are pulling them away from the authentic teacher within. After I read the book, I could not talk about it. It touched a deep nerve I had not thought was so raw from own my teaching experiences, and I could not imagine a conversation for publication with its author.
Fortunately for me—because in the end I was very glad to have had this conversation—there were other scheduling complications that gave me time for inward and outward preparation. But the great gift in the delay was that it also gave me time to read A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward An Undivided Life (Jossey-Bass), which approaches many of the same issues addressed by The Courage to Teach, but on a different level, one that gave me a new vocabulary for the questions I wanted to ask.
After our initial hellos, I turned on the tape.
Parker Palmer: You were just saying that you found The Courage to Teach painful because it reminded you of hard experiences as a teacher, and you were saying that maybe you weren't the first person who's had that reaction. I'm sure you're not. But for the past ten years and more, I've been deeply involved in creating long-term retreat programs all over the country for teachers who are struggling with their vocation—so I mainly hear from people who realize that the book touched in them a place of yearning for what they thought teaching was going to be, and they come into this retreat program—which is called "The Courage to Teach"—to reclaim the courage to pursue that original vision.
Over the last ten years we've had twenty-five thousand professionals in these long-term retreat programs, which are not mountaintop experiences but rather go on anywhere from eighteen months to two years through a series of five to eight three-day retreats. People have used this program and the ideas in the book to find their own hearts as teachers again, to reclaim those hearts, and go back to their schools saying, "This is my passion, this is my vocation, and I'm not going to let anyone take it away from me."
MA: The language that helped me clarify why the book went so deep was a phrase that I got out of A Hidden Wholeness about the "division between soul and role."
PP: Ah, "the divided life."
MA: I want to ask you more about that. Would you be willing to start by talking about a particular time in your own professional experience when you can describe how that division felt for you, between soul and role?
PP: Well there have been so many that it's hard to know which one to pick. The moment that stands out for me right now was when I gone to all the trouble of getting a good undergraduate degree from Carleton College, spending a year at Union Theological Seminary, going out to Berkeley, doing a Ph.D. in sociology, and then attempting to become a teacher at Georgetown University—and finding that I was soul-sick every day I was there. This is not about Georgetown, it's about a fundamental misfit between myself and academic culture. It was quite baffling in many ways because I had succeeded at my academic tasks, and I was succeeding as a teacher, in terms of student evaluations and promotions and so forth, but I literally felt sick at heart and sick to my stomach every day I went on campus. I finally came to understand that my soul was calling out for I knew not what—but whatever it was, it wasn't there.
Partly I think it was the fact that university life is so narrowly divided into disciplinary silos, and my own mind and imagination and heart wanted not to work in a tight box and not to work at such remove from the world. So a couple of things happened during that time. I was about thirty years old (I'm 69 now). First of all I got re-engaged with the world through community organizing in Washington, which satisfied my activist goal, my desire to make some sort of difference in the world outside the academy. It was after five years at Washington that I ended up at Pendle Hill. There I was exposed for the first time in my life to Quaker faith and practice....
MA: How did that happen? How did you end up at Pendle Hill?
PP: My then-wife Sally and I, with three young kids, were looking for a place to experience community for a year. Pendle Hill was appealing because it was geared for families. And so we went there not so much for the Quakerism, which we knew very little about—I'd never been to a Quaker meeting for worship, I was raised in the Methodist Church and didn't know anything about Quaker tradition—but [we] quickly found ourselves very drawn to it.
We had a student year there, which was very rich, although for me it was compromised by the fact that halfway through my student year the director came to me and said "How would you like to apply for this opening we have as dean of studies?" I spent five years in that job, and another five years as teacher and writer in residence.
Pendle Hill was influential in my vocation as a teacher. It gave me freedom to think anew and act in a different way about teaching, a freedom that I didn't have in the university. I can tell you the story of writing the first piece I ever wrote on that, called Meeting for Learning. I was at Pendle Hill and I was experiencing this new way of teaching and learning. It was infused, it seemed to me, with Quaker sensibilities. And one of those sensibilities was the richness of this word "meeting," which suddenly took on meanings for me far beyond "committee meeting" or "let's have a meeting," etc. Out in one of the gardens of Pendle Hill was a little plaque with a quote from Martin Buber who said, "All real living is meeting." I just felt surrounded by this sensibility. So I sat down one afternoon to start writing about the way of teaching and learning that we were practicing at Pendle Hill because I'd been asked to do an essay for a bulletin that went out every month or so. I decided I'd title it "meeting for learning," thinking that that must be an old Quaker phrase. But what I discovered after it was published was that it was a new phrase to Friends, and that they found it helpful in terms of linking their thinking about education with their larger spiritual framework. So I've always been grateful that those three words came to me.
Pendle Hill was very influential in my spiritual and personal life as well. Eleven years there rewired me in certain fundamental ways that would not have happened had I stayed in university life.
MA: When you talk about that example of the division of soul and role, is that how you named it at the time, or is it a later understanding?
PP: I think it's a later interpretation, looking back on my life. I think it takes some experience and some continuing struggle with whatever it is that's going on between you and the world and within the various pieces within you to understand that this might be about that very fundamental thing called "soul" finding itself at odds with some of these other forces, be they internal or external. You know, I've written about the fact that I probably learned most about the soul in my several visitations of depression.
MA: I had that on my list of things to ask you about, because you do bring it up in several places. Is there is a way you could say how depression has affected who you are today?
PP: Let me just put a proviso up there, which is that depression comes in many, many forms, a whole continuum or matrix, including situational and biochemical, inherited and accidental. And even after you've looked carefully at that matrix, most good psychiatrists will tell you the brain is a mystery, there's so much we don't know about mental illness, which depression clearly is. So your question was how it affected me?
MA: Yes, having had that experience, how does it affect who you are today?
PP: Let me first return to the point about soul. What I learned during depression is that the faculties I had usually depended upon were useless. My intellect was useless—this was not something you can think your way out of. My emotions were dead. Depression is not feeling really, really bad; it's really feeling nothing at all. That's what's frightening about it: it's a void, an emptiness. My ego was shattered, so there's no ego strength to pull you through. And my will was nonexistent, except for putting one foot in front of the other very slowly to try to start walking into a day. Intellect, emotions, ego and will are the things we normally count on, but I couldn't count on them when I was in deep depression.
And yet every now and then, sort of way back in the woods, I sensed this sort of very primitive life force that I came to think of as a wild animal—very resilient, very wily, but also very shy. It doesn't emerge just because we go into the woods yelling for it to come out—that drives it further away. Incidentally I think that one of the things that Quakers have going for them is that at their best they know how to sit quietly in the woods and wait for that soul to emerge. There's been a lot of Quaker imagery and practice that has held me in good stead in depression.
So that's one thing—depression affected me profoundly, in terms of giving me access to a deeper place in myself. In terms of the larger impact or additional impact of depression, you learn that you have in yourself not only the forces of light and life, but also the forces of darkness and death, and that's an important thing to know. Each of us contains multitudes. And if we walk around thinking "I am only light and life, and it's those [other] folks who are creating the darkness and death," we start engaging in enemy-making, and are drawn inevitably, I think, towards some form of violence. Which is really about our refusal to embrace and acknowledge those forces in ourselves. So that's another piece.
A third piece comes to me. We all face hard situations in life, sometimes involving other people. I'm on the road a lot. Standing up, as I did recently, in front of four thousand public school educators at a huge conference in Texas, where I actually began my speech with sixty seconds of silence, which rather blew people away (I don't think they'd ever met a Quaker before, and didn't know how crazy one could be). After a few bouts of depression you look at a situation like that and you say "I've been in a lot worse places than this and survived, I think this will be just fine." You look at challenges and threats and they don't look so large, and I find that very helpful.
MA: In A Hidden Wholeness you describe the "circles of trust" in your program. And I found it interesting that you invite people into exploring deep parts of themselves not through discussing themselves directly, but by approaching those things obliquely, often by responding to a poem. So I wanted to ask you: what is on your list in terms of pieces of literature that have really, really affected you. What would you pack for the desert island?
PP: A few books. Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet. Probably several things by Thomas Merton. I think The Sign of Jonas, The Way of Chuang Tzu, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander. Probably Zen and the Birds of Appetite. I'd take Jayber Crow—well, I'd take any of the Port Royal novels by Wendell Berry, from The Memory of Old Jack to Hannah Coulter, to Jayber Crow, the most recent one. Then I'd take poets. I'd take Mary Oliver, I would take William Stafford. I would take Rilke. I would take Gerard Manley Hopkins. And I would take Marge Piercy.
MA: So what does this list say about you?
PP: That I don't read sociology. And I don't read education. I've never had a course in education, even though I write about it. I think ever since I got out of graduate school I have not read in my so-called professional field. I do a lot more writing than I do reading, and when I read it's mostly imaginative stuff. I don't read a whole lot of Christian theology, even though I regard myself as a Christian, I claim Christianity as my theological home, or at least a certain stripe of Christianity.
So maybe that book list says that imagination is powerful for me. That my spiritual literature tends to be the continuing revelation that I think is available in poetry and literature in our day, probably much more so than it is in didactic theology and even some spiritual writing.
MA: Can I ask you about another one of those things that sort of knocked my socks off. And I'm asking this particularly as a Quaker, because this sentence so much went against what I'm use to hearing in our culture of heavy duty tolerance. You wrote: You and I may hold different conceptions of truth, but we must mind the difference. Could you expand on that?
PP: I'd be delighted to do that. I've always had tremendous trouble with what I think of as mindless relativism, which takes the form of someone saying "one truth for you, another truth for me, and never mind the difference." And I suspect that the sentence you just quoted comes shortly after quoting something of that sort.
The problem is that we inhabit the same world, and we are related to each other as plants and animals in an ecosystem are related to each other. We have an interactive life. That, I think, is Quakerism 101, it's spirituality 101. It's Thomas Merton's "hidden wholeness," it's the interconnectedness of all things. And if it's true that we're interconnected, that we're in community, in the broadest and deepest sense that way, then we have to mind what each other takes as true. If someone believes that "blood, soil and race" are the ultimate truth of life, and that anyone that doesn't share your blood soil and race really needs to die, that would be called Nazism. I need to do battle with that "truth" in every way available to me. I need to confront it. I need to challenge it. I need to call it for the idolatry and the evil that it is. So I've never been able to settle for tolerance when it's defined in kind of a mindless way. In fact I think that tolerance generally is a weak virtue. "I tolerate you." How does that sound? It doesn't sound very good.
Engagement is the model, I think: taking each other seriously. If we're related, then let's relate. Now obviously in the course of a finite lifetime there are only so many relations of that sort that you can manifest in a concrete way. But I think you have to hold the world in that kind of caring responsiveness. It was H. Richard Niebhur, I believe, who offered this very simple definition of ethical responsibility: he said, "it's the ability to respond." And I think we need to respond to each other in a way that goes far beyond the infamous "I'm OK, you're OK."
MA: From where you stand, what do you see as the strengths and weaknesses of the Society of Friends for bringing out the best in its members, in helping them be whole?
PP: Let me preface my answer by saying that because I have had for twenty-five years such a non-stop traveling life, I have not been able to be a deeply rooted member of a Quaker meeting. I've dipped into meetings as I'm able, when I'm on the road, but I speak now as a person who doesn't have a deep ongoing contemporary experience of a Friends meeting. I hope to correct that in the years ahead, as my traveling life slows down, but that's the reality for right now.
I think that probably my answer is the same today as it was when I was deeply involved back at Pendle Hill. The number one strength, I think, is the Quaker insistence that the dynamic of life has to be on the one hand paying attention to the inner teacher, to that of God in every person—the affirmation that the human self is not an empty vessel to be filled with someone else's authority, but contains a voice of authority or at least gives you access to a voice of authority, variously called the Inner Light, or the Indwelling Christ or "that of God in every person"—and at the same time, the leadings you get from that deeply inner place need to be tested in community. The big thing I learned at Pendle Hill, that I so much value about the Quaker tradition, has to do with holding together the paradox of that Inner Light with the testing of that light in community. That testing goes on in meeting for worship and in meeting for worship on the occasion of business. It's a testing that goes on throughout the fabric of Quaker life rightly lived. I think that's the historic strength of the Society of Friends, in that it offers a way through this very confusing polarity we have in our world between the relativism that we were talking about a moment ago and the absolutism that so many people turn to, not only in Nazi Germany but in the last seven years in our own society—a kind of blind reliance on the authorities, even when the authorities are breaking every rule in the book and trying to do it all behind closed doors. That seems to me to be the great strength, as a path that is available to the many.
I think the weakness comes when we lose one of those two poles, and I think it's most likely to be the communal pole. I do think there's a tendency in Quakerism to embrace relativism or a weak form of tolerance, which ignores the communal engagement that has always been at the heart of Quaker faith and practice.
MA: The kind of work that you're doing now with people really is relevant to just about any profession, and yet you have emphasized teachers. Is there a reason why you've ended up putting the weight—especially since you've never had a course in education—in that direction?
PP: It's probably because I've never had a course in education that I remain interested in these things. First of all, let me say that we [the Center for Courage & Renewal] did begin with teachers, and in some ways they're still our center of gravity. We're doing a tremendous amount of work these days through the CC&R with physicians, with clergy, with lawyers, and with philanthropists—I'm not quite sure what the percentages are right now.
My life started changing in the early nineties when the Fetzer Institute made it possible for me to gather a group of twelve elementary school teachers from the state of Michigan and to journey with them through two years and eight retreats, closely tracked by evaluators and other colleagues. I learned from these people what it was really like to be out there in our public schools caring for our kids in a way that hardly anyone else in the society does, and to be abused the whole time by politicians, the public and the press who are of course always claiming that it's all our teachers fault. I learned that good public school teachers are our culture heroes, our true "first responders," and that it is a privilege to serve and support them.
It was enormously rewarding work for me and that program was so successful that we decided to clone it in four locations around the country to see if it could be done without me and in sites other than the Fetzer Institute's beautiful retreat center. That worked, so we established what was originally called the Center for Teacher Formation. Then we got so many calls from other professions that we had to change the name to the Center for Courage & Renewal.
MA: I want to bring up another profession that's on my mind, because we're on the eve of Super Tuesday, and that is politics. I wonder if you have anything to say to politicians?
PP: Well, I've done several circles of trust with politicians who were struggling with the radical contradictions between the political pressures surrounding them and the vision and values they brought into the work. People who had really gone in, as many of them do, with a real sense of wanting to be of public service and serve the common good, and then finding themselves twisted and crushed in other directions. I did one memorable weekend with members of the Congress from both sides of the aisle, just a year or so ago, and listened to them talk about how some of them had been in the House of Representatives for a long time and they were saying that they've never seen such toxicity in that body as they've seen in the past few years.
So my first movement of the heart towards many of the political leaders in our society is one of deep empathy. I think there are lots of folks who go into this work in a very idealistic way and then find themselves caught up in a force field that is partly created by we, the people.
Let me tell you a story that I'll never forget. It involves a significant woman in politics who came to office initially because her husband held that office and he died very suddenly at too young an age. So she took his job for the brief time remaining in his term and then ran for re-election and won. In the course of that re-election campaign, just a few months after her husband died, a reporter came to her and asked one of those stupid reporter questions: "How did you feel when your husband died?" And she answered it openly and honestly, talking about her ongoing grieving. She said things that anybody who's lost anyone they care about would instantly understand. The story appeared in the paper the next morning, and when her campaign manager saw it he phoned her in a rage and said, "If you want me to stay your campaign manager, don't you ever, ever talk to a reporter that way again because it makes you look weak and your political career will be over." You can blame that on an insensitive campaign manager, but I think you can also blame that on the appetites of the public for raw meat.
I have enormous empathy for people who have to live in that kind of environment and somehow maintain their integrity under a constant bombardment that is so murderous to the soul. What to do about it I don't know—except to offer our public servants safe spaces in which to reconnect with their own souls, which is what we are trying to do at the Center for Courage & Renewal. I do think that democracy is at stake, democracy in my mind being an ongoing experiment, the results for which are far from in, as to whether this is a viable way for a nation to be in the world. Domestically and internationally we've had a failure of democratic principles on many many levels.
I have a profound belief in the power and possibility of what I call soul work, but I think it has to go far beyond the religious communities that traditionally have harbored it or should have been the places it was harbored. I think it has to go into families, I think it has to go into educational institutions, I think it has to go into workplaces. And by now in my own small way I've collected enough examples of places where soul work is happening to believe in its ameliorative effects, its renewing and encouraging effects, and I have hopes that if we could keep at it we might make a difference.
MA: I'm going to go to a lightweight question. There was a movie that I kept thinking about when I was reading A Hidden Wholeness, and that's Jerry Maguire. Has that ever come up in conversation?
PP: You know, I saw Jerry Maguire once, but my memory of it is foggy. What's the connection for you?
MA: It's a romantic comedy, but there's this guy in the beginning of the movie who is very successful in a soulless career, and he has a crisis of conscience. For a few hours, soul wins out, and when he wakes up from this episode of acting on compassion rather than considering professional advancement, he realizes that he's done things that have totally ruined his career. He has to start over from scratch and figure out who he is. It's a lightweight movie, but it seems like an example of what can happen.
PP: You're bringing it back to my memory now and, yeah, I think it is exactly an example. I'm thinking about the movement model of social change that I write about in the last chapter of The Courage to Teach, where I say that no matter what punishments come down on you for living out your own identity and integrity, and punishments do come, you have to understand eventually that no punishment could be worse than the punishment you lay on yourself by conspiring in your own diminishment. I think that it goes ultimately to what Saint Benedict admonished the monks to do, which was "Daily keep your death before your eyes." I really feel that on the day one dies, one is not going to be asking "Am I the richest sports agent on the planet?" as in the case of Jerry Maguire, but rather "Did I do it by my best Lights?" At least that seems clear to me.
MA: One of the things that comes through in at least a couple of your books is a sort of distrust in solutions to problems that are quick fixes. I think we do live in a culture that if there is a problem then somewhere there must be a program, or a formula, or a technique that you can quickly use to solve it and move on. You seem to be very clear that that's not what you're advising, that you're going for something deeper.
PP: One of the things that I've benefited from in the Quaker tradition is that it's not dominated by technique. I've always been grateful for the fact that, having spent the 60s in Berkeley, where everybody had some technique that was going to save them and the world—a human potential technique, or a consciousness raising technique—I went to Pendle Hill where Friends were saying, "Come in here, sit down, and just be quiet for an hour and we'll see what happens."
I like that a lot. It makes sense to me, because technique is what works for somebody else. It's kind of like the Buddha who said to his devotees, "If you want to follow in my path, then what you have to do is to follow no path, find your own." I think that that call to knowing, to understanding, to insight, is right at the heart of the great spiritual traditions and right at the heart of education at its best, and it's what I've tried to follow in my books. It's true that I'm deeply distrustful of technique because it's valuable only in a secondary and tertiary way, after you've dealt with these other powerful inner drivers.
MA: Can you talk a little about yourself as a writer? I don't know if you think of yourself as a writer or if you just have information you want to get out there.
PP: I think of myself as a writer, but that's a vocation that I've been able to own only in the last decade or so. There was a long time when I didn't think of myself that way, but then I noticed that I was spending an inordinate amount of time trying to learn how to write.
It's wonderful now to look back on seven books, starting in 1980, all still in print and selling well enough that I can make my living off of them. But the real reason I think of myself as a writer is that I finally understood that writing is essential to my spiritual, psychological and even physical well-being. Writing is a mode of therapy for me. Writing is how I sort out the tangles of experience. Writing is how I try to stay honest with myself.
I also have noticed that whenever my publisher has come along and said, "Who's the target audience for this book?" I've always said, "I have no idea." I don't write to anybody, I write from a place in myself. If you look at the first line in The Courage to Teach, it's "I am a teacher at heart, and there are days when I can hardly hold the joy." And then a few sentences later I'm talking about days when I feel like a madman for pursing this work that I don't even know how to do. That's a give-away to the fact that that whole book is sorting out my own pains and joys in teaching, and to the fact that writing is how I do that. I spend a lot of my life on the road and I'm really convinced that I'd be permanently depressed if I weren't able to come home and write it out, sort out what happened, find the solitude that so essential to me, away from the madding crowd.
I love to write poetry. I've had a few published, but only sort of accidentally. And I journal—I don't just write for publication. I'm often writing speeches and notes for workshops and seminars that often morph into something larger, and then larger, and then maybe some of it sees the light of day.
MA: Do you have a favorite unanswerable question?
PP: I guess in a lot of ways most of the questions that I've tried to live into are unanswerable, in any conventional sense of that term. What is the soul? Is that even the right word for it? Who am I, and why am I here? How are we related to each other? One of the things that I love to think about is the way friendship and vocation seem to converge. What's that mystery all about? When you find someone that you regard as a true friend, you've probably also found someone who shares your work on earth in one way or another. You're here for the same reason. These are great mysteries.
I mentioned earlier that I would take Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet out to that desert island with me. That's the book where he says: Keep asking your questions but don't expect to get answers to them. Because the questions are too big. Live those questions. The point is to live everything, and one distant day without even knowing it, you may find that you've lived your way into an answer. I love that little passage, because I think the big questions are all questions that don't have answers in any conventional sense of the term, but are trajectories that we can live into, mysteries that we can immerse ourselves in. Maybe some distant day quite by surprise we will turn around and find that we've lived our way into an answer.
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