Interview: Parker J. Palmer

Parker J. Palmer is Founder and Senior Partner at the Center for Courage & Renewal, which helps people lead from within by cultivating their integrity and the courage to act on it. He is a writer, traveling teacher, and voracious reader of outrageously fictional crime stories.

How do you describe yourself? Your work?

A writer, an activist, and a traveling teacher. For a long time, half of my life was writing and half of it was traveling around giving talks and workshops and retreats. People wanted to tag me with the word 'consultant,' which I never particularly liked. So, traveling teacher seemed about right.

I always like to make a distinction between a writer and an author. When I wanted to become a writer, I had it all confused with getting books published. One day, I read a wonderful sentence: A writer is distinguished by the fact that he writes.

I [had] thought if I was going to call myself a writer, that would mean that I’d been published. Of course, that’s a snare and a delusion. A writer is distinguished by the fact that he or she writes.

That’s been good guidance for me over the years. I can look back now with nine books and several hundred articles and say to myself, "Well, that’s how you got there at age 76. You just kept writing." It was many years before I ever got published in any meaningful way. It was probably 15 years before my first book came out.

How were you able to stick with writing for 15 years before it reached a broader audience?

People used to ask me, "Why are you slamming your head up against this wall that seems so unyielding?" The only answer that I could ever give about the strange vocational path I was on - which involved getting a Ph.D. at Berkeley, immediately deciding that academia was not for me, becoming a community organizer in Washington, D.C., and making other out-of-the-box decisions - is a double negative: I can’t not do it.

There’s no way to say, "Well, I just adore the frustration of it. I just love getting rejected. I love having zero evidence that what I’ve set out to do is something I can do." That would be the height of silliness to make those claims. It was really that I couldn’t not do it.

Looking back, I can say about writing, it’s really a fundamental way of being in the world. It’s a form of self-therapy, by which I mean processing my experiences and trying to make sense, or better yet, make meaning out of it.

I think human beings are meaning-making creatures and people do that in wonderfully different ways. Some people make meaning by being very good parents [or] very good gardeners or caretakers of the natural world. I make meaning by writing, at least that’s one of my ways of making meaning.

An important part of being human is to feel that you have a voice. I know so many people whose wound is that nobody’s paying attention. They’re voiceless. That’s been something I’ve cared a lot about in my work. But if you’re a writer, that’s a way of gaining a voice.

It tends to also move you toward another thing that I think is important for all of us, which is a sense of agency, a sense that you’re capable of making something happen in the world. It takes different forms for different people. It just happens that writing is one of my major ways of doing all that.

When you’re stuck, what’s your process for getting unstuck?

I did a piece [for On Being with Krista Tippett] on, “Begin again” as one answer to getting unstuck.

When you’re stuck, it ain’t going to last forever. When you know that, then you know that the first thing that’s required is patience and an ability to wait out the process of stuckness. Because stuckness is as much an experience as action is, [so] be observant about what’s going on in your stuckness. Pay attention. That’s probably one of the most basic teachings of Buddhism: pay attention to whatever is going on with you and you’ll learn a lot.

I love the quote from the Zen master who said, "In the expert’s mind, there’s only one possibility. In the beginner’s mind, there are many." When you get back to beginner’s mind, doors tend to open. In that particular patch of stuckness, where a couple of books had died at my keyboard over the last couple of years, I was able - by writing about it - [to] get back to the "begin again" point.

Now, in fact, I have a book in mind, the basic foundation for which is to collect all of the short-form pieces that I’ve done, look for some of the common themes among them - I’ve already found a big one around aging looked at from different angles - and put together a collection. [It] wouldn’t be a linear argument, it wouldn’t be 300 pages of tracking a thesis from Step 1 to Step 28. It would be more like a poetry collection that does have an arc to it, but the arc is very intuitive. Just by writing that column [for On Being], I got myself unstuck to the point where I could imagine this possibility.

I’m 76 years old now. I find that at my age, I don’t have the energy or maybe the attention span or maybe even the interest in long-form prose. Short-form writing is very much to my liking. So, why not make a book out of that?

My first book, which was an accidental book, was suggested by an editor who happened to come across some essays I had written during those 15 years that I [wasn't getting] published. The editor said, "Have you got any more of those [essays] at home?" I said, "I have file cabinets full of them! That’s what I’ve been doing for 15 years."

He said, "See if you have any more on the theme." It was the theme of paradox, which has become a very important lens on life for me. So, I went through and put a bunch of [essays] together and rewrote a bit to provide some sort of continuity and out of that came my first book, The Promise of Paradox. Which truly was an accidental book the way it happened.

The day that the first copy arrived from the publisher, I was holding it in my hands, saying to myself, "Well, look at that! You can write a book. Isn’t that amazing?" That unstuck something in me and the next two books came in pretty quick succession after that. So, getting unstuck, that’s something I think you have to do a lot of in life.

How do you think we can cultivate self-compassion?

What I’ve noticed for myself is that I don’t have a lot of trouble extending compassion to other people. But I have had trouble extending compassion to myself. I was pretty hard on myself when I was a young man. I’ve always had high standards about my work. I’ve never published anything that wasn’t ninth or tenth draft stuff. I’m not so much a writer as a rewriter.

I have a lot of compassion for people who’ve come to me with various sorts of life struggles. So, when I’m in a place of lacking compassion for myself, I ask the question, "Why can’t you offer yourself the same thing that you would offer someone else in this circumstance?" Do unto yourself as you do unto others.

At a deeper level still, you ultimately can’t offer other people what you can’t offer yourself. I teach that notion in the retreats that I do. We invite people to do things for themselves in those retreats. Some people feel it [would] be selfish to spend that much time working on that. I’ll simply say, "I imagine you want to be in the world as someone who helps other people do this very same thing. How can you do that for others if you can’t do it for yourself?" You can’t really know what compassion is like, you can’t deepen the wells of compassion in yourself, if you can’t offer it to yourself.

The experience of having gone through three major episodes of adult depression in my life has really given me more compassion for myself. I’ve realized that some of that depression came from a lack of self-care. Out of those experiences, I wrote a line once that goes something like: "Anything we can do to care for ourselves is ultimately being done on behalf of other people."

When you don’t care for yourself, you allow yourself to go to a place where you’re so lost that you have nothing to offer the world except you as a problem for people to worry about. That’s how I make sense of self-compassion being a gift to others as well as to myself.

Are there ways we can make gratitude more a part of our daily life?

At the most basic level, I loop back to, "Pay attention." Because when you pay attention, there’s so much to be grateful for. The more reaching out you do in life to people who need support, the more aware you become of the amount of suffering around you [and] the more likely you are to be grateful for even the smallest gifts in your own life.

My wife and I recently prepared some Ziplock bags full of basic stuff - soap, toothbrush, toothpaste, $20 bill - and took them down to the square around Madison’s [Wisconsin] capitol, which is where a lot of homeless people hangout. We walked up to people and wished them Merry Christmas, and handed them [the Ziplocks].

After you’ve spent half a day doing that, you go back to your car to drive home and the heater goes on, and you’re grateful. There's so much you notice just getting into your car: The fact that you have one, that it’s warm, that you have a home to drive to.

It's not only paying attention to your life, but reaching out to folks in other circumstances. It’s important to feel gratitude for all that I have that other people don’t. Then use that gratitude as an engine of compassion for others. Gratitude isn't an end in itself. We are given the chance to feel grateful in order to take one more step towards service of some sort. It calls out something in us that doesn’t get called out otherwise.

For some reason this story comes to mind: I went to a poetry reading by Mary Oliver. We heard a lot of Mary Oliver poetry reflecting [on] the beauty of the natural world. Somebody in the audience said, "What’s the role of beauty in our lives?" And [Mary Oliver] said, "Beauty is out there in order to make us want to be worthy of it." I thought that was a beautiful answer. To be worthy of all the things for which we’re grateful means, I think, to reach out to others in witness and in service.

How do you handle grief?

Grief is a journey. At first, it simply knocks you down. It takes time to get to the point where you can say, "I’m handling this." It's a process that, unfortunately in this culture, we want to shortcut.

When my dad died in ‘94, I was a visiting professor and he died over Christmas break. When I came back to campus, I told people about this real blow. For the first day or two, everybody was okay with hearing about that. But by the time a week or 10 days had gone by, it was clear that a number of people thought I should be moving along with this, like back to business as usual. I was very close to my dad. I’m not still grieving, but it’s never been business as usual.

When I was in my early 40s, I went on an Outward Bound course on Hurricane Island off the coast of Maine. It was an amazing experience, an enormous challenge, as Outward Bound is meant to be. In the middle of it, you’re thinking, "I must have been temporarily insane to pay good money to be told to do things that I would refuse to do at gunpoint."

One of those things was rappelling down a 110-foot cliff. I love the outdoors, but I’m not a great athlete. [Rappelling] was something I had never done before and it scared the crap out of me. Halfway down this cliff, I just froze. This big hole had opened up in the rock beneath where I was about to take a step. I didn’t know what to do. One of the instructors hollered up at me, “Is anything wrong, Parker?”

I, in this very squeaky voice that sounded like me at age 13, said, "I don’t want to talk about it." And she said, "I think it’s time for you to learn the Outward Bound motto." And I thought, "Oh, keen. I'm about to die, and she’s going to teach me a motto." So, she says, “The Outward Bound motto is, 'If you can’t get out of it, get into it.’" Those words bypassed my argumentative mind, bypassed my frozen emotions. They went right into my body and I started moving my feet. It made such profound sense that the only way out of this thing was into it.

That’s how I feel about grief or any other form of darkness. You can’t get out of it, so just get into it and walk right into the middle of it. Don’t blink the fact that it’s scary there and that you hate it, but just keep walking, and pay attention. When you come out the other side - this is something you only know in retrospect - we find ourselves to be bigger people. Bigger hearts, bigger minds, more compassionate, more grateful.

What does it mean to you to be vulnerable?

Being vulnerable means being as transparent as I feel able to be about my experience. With the people closest to you, that transparency has self-evident importance. If you don’t feel able to be transparent with the people that you’re most intimate with, then there’s been a breakdown of trust or whatever that needs to be corrected.

But in my public life as a writer and speaker, I’ve always felt the need to be what I call 'appropriately vulnerable.' I want to connect with people. It’s only through our vulnerabilities that those connections happen at the deepest possible level. It’s [like] the Leonard Cohen line: Ring the bells that still can ring/Forget your perfect offering/There’s a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in.

We don’t connect in our successes and strengths nearly as much as we connect in our vulnerabilities. If I get up in front of [an] audience and talk about how many awards I’ve won, it’s going to be extremely alienating.

But if I get up and honestly say, "I’m going to be talking about stuff that I struggle with. A lot of what I’m saying is a memo to myself. It’s not coming from somebody who is trying to con you into believing that he’s got all of these issues solved. It’s coming from somebody who is motivated to talk about these things, to dive as deeply as he knows how into them precisely because they still baffle him. I’m not going to try to baffle you. What I’m going to try to do is share my own bafflement in a way that can help us find ways of holding it together in community."

My greatest gift as a writer is that I was born baffled. I’ve never written a book about something that I’ve mastered. Once I’ve mastered something, it bores me and writing a book around something that I’m bored by is just way too hard.

But if I’m writing a book about something that continues to baffle me and the writing itself is a slow unfolding of bafflement, then I have the motivation to keep going. That’s how it was with Healing the Heart of Democracy. I was trying to work my way through a lot of stuff.

What I meant by 'appropriate vulnerability' is [that] there are some issues in everybody’s life that aren’t fit for public consumption. I can give you two examples.

For one thing, I have an ethical prohibition in myself against writing about other people in anything vaguely resembling a critical way. I’ve read tell-all autobiographies, which really make me angry. Because whoever’s writing them has the public’s ear, but whoever they’re talking about doesn’t. That’s inherently unfair.

But another example is this: it took me 10 years to start writing about my first adult experience of depression. For a long time, I thought, "You [are] just being a coward about this. You know how many people suffer from depression. Why not put it out there in a way that would reassure others that they’re not alone?" Whenever we have a difficult problem in our lives, we make it double difficult by convincing ourselves that we’re the only person in the world that has that problem. The simple discovery that "I’m not alone in this" is half the answer.

But it took me 10 years to write about depression because it took me that long to fully integrate my experience of depression into my sense of myself. It took me 10 years to get to the point where I can say with ease, "Yes, this darkness is part of who I am. It’s just as much a part and just as important a part as whatever light I carry in the world, whatever strengths I have."

Once you get there, it’s a huge gift because it says, "We’re all in this together." To put it in other words, which I've always said are the most reassuring words I’ve ever heard: "Welcome to the human race." That’s what we’re all longing to hear.

People come up to me and say, "It’s so courageous [for] a 'successful' person to write about struggles with depression." My response [is], "There’s nothing courageous about it. It’s one way I have of being honest about myself and helps keep me from getting depressed again." It’s really not a heroic act. It’s a human act.

When the world’s moving fast, how do you slow down?

Get off. That’s partly in jest. But I also get off that fast-moving train by going out into the natural world as much as I can.

I also stop watching the news, which is part of where we get this notion that the world is moving at a million miles. There's always a new crisis, a new thing to be afraid of, a new thing to be angry about. I like to say, "It’s not fact, it’s artifact."

Thoreau said you really don’t need to read today’s political headlines, because they’ll be the same ones as 20 years ago. There's a lot of truth in that. I don’t feel a need to keep up with the fast-moving world because the process of trying to keep up is also the process that encourages me to give up. You can only run so fast before you run out of breath and then you just fall down and it all passes you by.

If I want to be engaged, I have to slow down, not just for the sake of self-protection, but for the sake of being involved in the world in the best way I can.

Do you make time for fun and play?

I do. I like to read really bad novels. I’m a Quaker and we all have to work out the shadow side in one way or another. So, I read murder mysteries. I don’t read true crime, I read outrageously fictional crime.

Paddling a canoe or hiking a mountain trail or sitting by a lake, that is fun and play for me. I have a 24-year-old granddaughter here in town whom I’m very close with. My wife and I laugh a lot. I think a sense of humor is a critical element of life.

John Kennedy was fond of an old Irish saying which went something like, "There are only three things that are real: God, human folly, and laughter. The first two are beyond our comprehension, so we must do what we can with the third."

When was the last time you saw lightning?

Every August, my wife and I go up to the Boundary Waters of northern Minnesota. It’s a million acres along the US-Canada border of federally protected wilderness. No motor boats are allowed, it’s all canoes and cabins and fishing and hiking. For me, it’s God’s country.

Last August, we were up there and we were down on the shore of the lake, probably 9, 10 o’clock one night, very dark. We were looking north, hoping to see some Northern Lights. There was a lot of thick cloud cover, but the cloud cover began to break up at the same time that this distant lightning storm came in.

At first, we thought it was Northern Lights. Then we realized it doesn’t have any color to it, it’s got to be lightning. It was mostly sheet lightning and it was lighting up huge swatches of the sky that were broken by this thick latticework of clouds. It was a real light show, a gorgeous, gorgeous thing to see.

What’s the best kept secret of adulthood?

That it’s fun. I don’t know where we get this notion that youth is fun-time. There are so many years of my youth that I wouldn’t return to for a million dollars despite the aches and pains that come with being 76.

Adulthood is fun for so many reasons: You get to keep learning and to build on what you’re learning. You get to make all kinds of things, including meaning and good work in the world. In that sense, you have powers and opportunities that you don’t have in your younger years. It's just a lot of fun.

Which is not for a moment to deny the grief, the struggle, whatever you want to call it, that also comes with the territory. If there is a secret to life, it’s embracing it all and saying, "I am all of the above. We are all of the above. Welcome to the human race."

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