The voice of vocation

The past three days I worked my way through a book by Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak, a title that is based on an old Quaker saying.

A worthwhile read, to be sure, especially if one finds the topic of vocations an interesting one.

Palmer begins with a poem, Ask Me, by William Stafford. It goes like this:

Some time when the river is ice ask me
mistakes I have made. Ask me whether
what I have done is my life. Others
have come in their slow way into
my thought, and some have tried to help
or to hurt: ask me what difference
their strongest love or hate has made.

I will listen to what you say.
You and I can turn and look
at the silent river and wait. We know
the current is there, hidden; and there
are comings and goings from miles away
that hold the stillness exactly before us.
What the river says, that is what I say.

Palmer says this poem makes him recognize the tension between the life one lives and the life he is meant to live–or, in his words, “that wants to live in me.” Central to his claim is the notion that all too often, we spend our lives imitating those people want to be like, those we consider heroes.

In short, we try to become what we are not meant to be: “Vocation does not come from willfulness.”

Now I don’t know how much I buy into all his arguments, because he seems to be saying throughout the book that all we must do is listen to ourselves–our inner selves. Hmmm. If we believe–and we do–that God is God and we are not, well, ought we listen to Him before ourselves?

The ugly argument then sprouts up that God and “my true self” are the same. (Although not in these explicit terms in this book.) Ridiculous.

But, for the sake of moving on, let’s just say that Parker means we must listen to the Holy Spirit within us. He talks about one’s true vocation as something he “can’t not do” (p 25), as something that we come to learn as that without which, we would not be ourselves.

He talks a lot about the journey into darkness that is involved with his journey into light; he makes the point that to enter into the light, one must confront what lurks in the dark. Lots of information here about his battles with doubt and depression and how he came out of them.

There’s a good treatment of limitations. We are always exposed to this “you can if you think you can” language, which certainly makes for good inspiration when embarking on something we find challenge in. But Parker makes the point that most aren’t bold enough to say: “Each of us arrives here with a nature, which means both limits and potentials….Our problem as Americans is that we resist the very idea of limits.” Yes, there are some things that I cannot do. Same for us all. And that’s okay.

He talks about the living dead, those who live their lives according to the “perverse comfort we sometimes get from choosing death in life, exempting ourselves from the challenge of using our gifts…” Here he includes another poem, this one he wrote:

The plow has savaged this sweet field
Misshapen clods of earth kicked up
Rocks and twisted roots exposed to view
Last year’s growth demolished by the blade.
I have plowed my life this way
Turned over a whole history
Looking for the roots of what went wrong
Until my face is ravaged, furrowed, scarred.

Enough. The job is done.
Whatever’s been uprooted, let it be
Seedbed for the growing that’s to come.
I plowed to unearth last year’s reasons –
The farmer plows to plant a greening season.

I really like this poem. Perhaps it’s a good way to end this post.

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