Let Your Life Speak – A Book Review

There is only one book I have read multiple times (at five and counting), and it is the little gem Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation by Parker Palmer. At just over 100 pages, this pint-size but powerful book asks a most disquieting question:

Are you living your own life?

While most of us would respond with something along the lines of “Of course I am…who else’s life could this be?” – Palmer encourages us to take a closer look. Citing a Hasidic tale to illustrate the point that we often think we need to be more like someone else:

Rabbi Zusya, when he was an old man, said, “In the coming world, they will not ask me: ‘Why were you not Moses?’ They will ask me: ‘Why were you not Zusya?’”

There is always the danger that we are living a life more in accordance with our parents, a more successful/adored sibling, our tribe or some external other than of our own making. According to Palmer, vocation doesn’t come from willfulness but from listening. Rooted in the Latin (vocare – to call) “vocation doesn’t mean a goal that I pursue. It means a calling that I hear.”

The willful pursuit of how we think things should be is a common condition. But Palmer admonishes us:

“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.”

Having lived in a Quaker living-and-learning community for a decade, Palmer honors solitude and introspection. “The soul speaks its truth only under quiet, inviting, and trustworthy conditions,” he says.

When he speaks of his life at Pendle Hill there is some ambivalence. It’s not so much that he wanted to be there, but it was something he knew he couldn’t not do, and he likens this feeling to vocation. “This is something I can’t not do, for reasons I’m unable to explain to anyone else and don’t fully understand myself but that are nonetheless compelling.”

This is exactly the feeling I had when I decided to walk the Camino in 2012. It became something I couldn’t not do.

Palmer is an advocate for self-care and thinks we should introduce it to our kids as well as normalize it among adults. That it should be talked about in the mainstream and actively cultivated. “Self-care is never a selfish act – it is simply good stewardship of the only gift I have, the gift I was put on earth to offer others.”

With a nod to Frederick Buechner, Palmer says:

“Some journeys are direct, and some are circuitous; some are heroic, and some are fearful and muddled. But every journey, honestly undertaken, stands a chance of taking us toward the place where our deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.”

Traditional Quaker counsel instructs its flock to have faith that “way will open.” Palmer introduces us to a Quaker woman who told him she was more aware of way closing than of way opening. She told him she’d learned “there is as much guidance in what does not and cannot happen in my life as there is in what can and does – maybe more.”

This, to me, has the fragrance of the (sometimes) gift of unanswered prayers and also reminds me of “what’s meant to be cannot be stopped.”

Addressing the “shoulds” of life, Palmer courageously attacks the American myth that all things are possible and that we can be and do whatever we desire. “…there are some roles and relationships in which we thrive and others in which we wither and die … There are some things I ‘ought’ to do or be that are simply beyond my reach.”

Letting certain things go, whether people, places or personas, is an important part of the human journey. It can be painful, humbling or otherwise unpleasant. It can also be empowering and generative.

Palmer addresses one of the ubiquitous ailments of our times, burnout. But he looks at it from a different angle, defining it beautifully and with precision:

One sign that I am violating my own nature in the name of nobility is a condition called burnout. Though usually regarded as the result of trying to give too much, burnout in my experience results from trying to give what I do not possess – the ultimate in giving too little! Burnout is a state of emptiness, to be sure, but it does not result from giving all I have: it merely reveals the nothingness from which I was trying to give in the first place.

Feel free to read that paragraph again.

In speaking openly about his battle with depression, he makes the distinction between comforting someone (difficult response) and trying to fix them (default response). “One of the hardest things we must do sometimes is to be present to another person’s pain without trying to ‘fix’ it, to simply stand respectfully at the edge of that person’s mystery and misery.”

I think this is a call to be more the human beings we are meant to be and less the human doings that we tend to be. To listen more and talk less. To notice what’s in our heart when all the clamoring of life stops…often at 3 o’clock in the morning.

Palmer believes we are here to transform the world and also ourselves. And he believes that transformation is difficult. This book is premium bread for the journey.

Questions to ponder:

  • What is your native way of being in the world?
  • How often have you answered (or ignored) a call to do something you felt you couldn’t not do?
  • Where in your life are you experiencing burnout, and what is your best self-caring response to that?
  • What “should” are you willing to give up?
  • How are you modeling vocation to the children or young people in your life?

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