A Kolbe Times Conversation with Parker J. Palmer

Parker Palmer, founder of the Center for Courage & Renewal, is a world-renowned writer, speaker and activist. He has reached millions worldwide through his nine books, including Let Your Life Speak, The Courage to Teach, A Hidden Wholeness, and his most recent, Healing the Heart of Democracy.

Dr. Palmer holds a Ph.D. in sociology from the University of California at Berkeley, as well as eleven honorary doctorates. In 2010, he was given the William Rainey Harper Award, whose previous recipients include Margaret Mead, Elie Wiesel, and Paolo Freire. In 2011, he was named an Utne Reader Visionary, one of “25 people who are changing your world.”

A member of the Religious Society of Friends (Quaker), Dr. Palmer and his wife, Sharon Palmer, live in Madison, Wisconsin.

We recently enjoyed a wonderful chat with Dr. Palmer.


First, here are a few audio highlights from our conversation, with music by Sergey Cheremisinov:


Kolbe Times: How did the Center for Courage and Renewal get its start?

Parker Palmer: It started in the early 1990s with a pilot program that I did called “The Courage to Teach”. Then we replicated it around the country in 1994 to 1996. By then it had gotten so big, that we had to establish our own nonprofit organization that became the Center for Courage and Renewal. We continue to work with teachers, but we are touching a number of other professions now – clergy, lawyers, nonprofit leaders, physicians and politicians – the list keeps growing.

Kolbe Times: Tell us about the work of the Center.

Parker Palmer: I often simply say that we are in the business of helping people rejoin soul and role. I still think that’s a pretty good encapsulation of what we do. A longer way to say that is that we try to help people get in closer touch with their identity and integrity, and then bring more of that into their personal, professional and public lives.

We live in a western culture that encourages us to hide out behind masks or fences, and not reveal what Thomas Merton called “true self”. That’s always seemed nonsensical to me, since true self is really the only gift we have to bring to the world. It’s a bundle of gifts and possibilities for serving others and for living well. I think the more of that we can get into our professional and public life, the better off we’re going to be.

So we developed this “Circle of Trust” model that is all about creating a safe space for people to learn from within themselves, in both solitude and community. But it’s a very non-invasive form of community. One of our very basic ground rules is no fixing, no saving, no advising and no correcting each other. When we announce those ground rules there are always people who say, “Well, what in heaven’s name are we going to do, then? You’ve just taken away the only things we know how to do!” But so often when we think we are being helpful by fixing or saving or advising or correcting others, we are in fact shutting them down, and driving their own inner teachers back into hiding.

It’s a wonderful form of work for me – has been for 25 years. By now, we’ve touched hundreds of thousands of people’s lives in all kinds of professions. We have Circle of Trust facilitators across Canada and the U.S., and in Australia, New Zealand, Guatemala, Great Britain and Spain – plus we have a lovely spin-off program in South Korea that they call “Gardening People’s Hearts”.

Kolbe Times: You’ve said that when teachers or doctors truly bring themselves into their relationship with their students or their patients, they’re much more effective at their work. And yet we’re all subtly encouraged as professionals to “keep our distance” in order to be more “objective”.

Parker Palmer: That’s so true. It’s very curious and confusing to me that in western culture we’re taught to leave our identities outside the door of the classroom or the physician’s office. In our scheme of things, subjectivity is seen as the great enemy of objective work. I could go on about that at great length, but I won’t – I’ll just say that it’s wrong. That’s not even the way good science operates. If you ask a scientist, “How do you determine that something is true?” they will end up talking about ‘inter-subjective verifiability’. It’s a core principle of scientific investigation. The subject is always there, but it needs to be held in community where we can compare notes with each other and try to reach some kind of consensus about what ultimately is true.

We have all kinds of clinical evidence in medicine and research in teaching that tell us that trust between a doctor and a patient, or between a teacher and a student, is really the thing that delivers the goods. It makes the fields of medicine or education sing.

When a teacher allows their true self to show up in the classroom, the students feel it. They’re no longer looking at a teacher who is “phoning it in” from a distance. Instead they see someone who is actively engaged with the subject and with the students. So we try to help people rediscover the secrets that are hidden in plain sight – things we all know but that get trained out of us when we go to “professionalize” our work.

Kolbe Times: In the past, doctors were put up on such a pedestal. You’d hardly ever hear doctors or politicians or teachers talking about their personal lives.

Parker Palmer: That reminds me of an experience I had a few years back when I was doing a workshop for the faculty at a college. I happened to have lunch one day with about seven teachers from a variety of disciplines. Somehow we got talking about courses we had done poorly at in college ourselves, or maybe even failed. Every story that was told around that table had a common element – how failing or falling short re-directed that person’s life into the field that he or she finally ended up in and is now passionate about. For instance, a young man fails organic chemistry, but unexpectedly finds out that he loves medieval French literature. Anyways, as people were getting up to leave that lunch table, I asked them if any of them had told that story of their personal failure to any of their students. Not a single hand went up. I told them that I just wanted them to think about how powerful it might be for some of their students who are not doing well in a course and are getting discouraged, to hear from a professor about how a failure had re-directed his or her life in a positive way, and helped them find the right direction.

If we would open up, we could connect so much more deeply with our students, and help them learn all kinds of things in a more profound way.

Kolbe Times: You recently wrote a blog post for the On Being website called “What’s an Angry Quaker to Do?” Such a great title. So how do we move forward in a positive way in this very divisive political atmosphere that we find ourselves currently in? Should we get angry and active – or try to stay loving and peaceful – or both? There is so much that we hear in the news that is stirring up our fear and anxiety. How do we make more life-giving choices?

Parker Palmer: That’s a great question, and is something that I’m wrestling with even as we speak. Here in the U.S. we wake up every morning to headlines that make people like me very angry. But there is some very interesting counter reaction happening to all this, including more citizen activism than we’ve seen for quite a long time.

I think anger is an energy, and the question that I hold about anger is “What kind of alchemy can I perform that will re-direct my anger from death-dealing feelings or activities – in spiritual or psychological ways – into life-giving feelings and activities?”

It’s part of the human experience that “our feelings are our feelings” and no one is going to talk us out of them! But there is inner work we can do to transform negative feelings into positive possibilities. And I think about this not only in psychological and spiritual terms, but also in political terms. The old political strategy of ‘divide and conquer’ involves very consciously doing things that make people so angry at each other that there is no longer that constitutionally-mandated “We the People” to talk to each other, to reach consensus on the common good, and then to hold our leaders accountable to that. And so I have positive incentive to try to reach out across lines of political divide in order to have those more generative conversations and help re-constitute a sense that we’re all in this together. “We the People” must refuse to fall prey to the divide-and-conquer strategy, so that we can exert some collective leverage on our government. There are a number of things we do in our Circle of Trust model that have real translation into civil discourse, which is what we need more of in this country.

I have not given up on “We the People” and I can’t imagine that I ever will. Yes, we mess up. Yes, we make some really bad mistakes. But we have demonstrated a significant capacity to correct our own mistakes, partly because of the machinery of government that the founders gave us. That’s how I’m working through this right now, and so far it’s at least keeping me sane.

Kolbe Times: Sometimes contentious and divisive political issues can actually cause us to ask ourselves questions like “What do I really believe is right? What is bothering me about what I’m seeing and hearing?”

Parker Palmer: And those are very good questions to ask ourselves. In fact, we ought to be asking them more often. In the U.S., I think many of us who were Obama supporters “dialed down” our citizen engagement during his two terms in the White House. Since this brilliant, graceful, centered, composed man was in the White House – though he certainly had policies and practices that some of us radically disagreed with, as every president will – we thought we could take a rest. We were asleep at the switch, and that was a bad mistake because there was citizen work to be done during those years. And while some of us were doing some of that – I wrote a book called Healing the Heart of Democracy during those years – I still wasn’t doing enough, and I was making too many assumptions about being able to sit back and take it easy. That illusion is now gone, and as I’ve often said, “Disillusionment is one of the best things that can happen to a person.” It means that you’ve lost an illusion, which moves you a little closer to reality. Instead of commiserating with each other when someone says, ‘I’m so disillusioned’ we ought to say ‘Congratulations! How can I help you lose some more of your illusions?’

Kolbe Times: So perhaps we all need to reclaim our sense of citizenship, and also our hope, our sense of community, our belief in human possibility – and ‘bear witness’ to others about these things.

Parker Palmer: Absolutely. And I believe there are more and more people coming into that space. We’re certainly seeing that through our work at the Center for Courage and Renewal. It’s very encouraging to see – but no one says that it’s easy.

Kolbe Times: That brings to mind a video you made for the Work of the People multimedia website. The video is called “The Threat of Resurrection” – another great title. In the video you speak very movingly about your experience with depression, and how renewal and resurrection can sometimes feel extremely daunting and very difficult. Can you talk a bit about that?

Parker Palmer: As I’ve written about in several of my books, as an adult I have made three deep dives into clinical depression, of a pretty devastating sort. Anybody who has been there will know what I mean – it’s the kind of depression where, for months, you have days every now and then when you wonder if life is really worth living – and you wonder it pretty seriously.

So, in the middle of one of those depressions, I came across a book by a Guatemalan poet named Julia Esquivel. The title of the book just arrested me – Threatened with Resurrection: Prayers and Poems from an Exiled Guatemalan. I couldn’t even open the book for several days because the title spoke so powerfully to me. This was a notion that had never occurred to me! As a Christian I was taught from a very young age that death was the big threat, but resurrection was the big hope. Suddenly I realized, with this book’s title, that there can be circumstances in our lives when resurrection is the big threat, and death is the hope, because what we’re dealing with seems so hard and so challenging and so difficult to endure. It’s not necessarily that we’re thinking about suicide, but we’re willing to live a half-life, or a life in which the light is dimmed way down, in order to evade the tasks before us. I started realizing in my own case that, as painful as my depression was, there was something about it that was perversely comforting.

I’ve made my living largely independently for 40 years – I write books, I travel around and give talks, and I’m often in situations where the task before me creates some anxiety. I wonder if I can do it well. I wonder if I can serve people as well as I want to, and whether I can serve the ideas and beliefs that I care about as well as they deserve to be served. When I was depressed, no one expected me to do anything even vaguely like that. I didn’t expect it of myself, either! I started to realize that there was a certain solace in that. To put it crudely, if I could stay depressed, then I could evade those challenges, and I wouldn’t have to carry those burdens.

It made me think about other times in life – not necessarily when we’re clinically depressed – when instead of rising to the challenge before us, we kind of collapse under the weight of the thing and find comfort in being squashed. Which seems counter intuitive, but every time I’ve talked with people about it, they’ve said “Yeah. When you put it that way, I can easily think of situations in my own life where that’s been the case.” The whole concept has really been helpful to me. I often ask myself, “Parker, at this moment, when you’re backing away from something that you’ve really felt called to do, are you threatened by resurrection again? Because if so, you need to choose life.”

There’s that Biblical passage in Deuteronomy where God says, “This day I set before you life and death; therefore choose life.” I remember as a kid hearing that read in church and thinking, “Well, that’s a waste of God’s breath. Surely God has more important things to say than ‘choose life’. That’s kind of a ‘well…duh!’ What’s it doing taking up space in the Bible?” But as an older person, I’ve come now to understand that choosing life is sometimes not easy, and there’s a reason for those words being in that text.

Kolbe Times: And if we can let go of some of our damaging expectations of ourselves and not be so fearful of making mistakes, it not only helps us build community with others, but also relieves some of our constant anxiety about whether we’re “good enough”.

Parker Palmer: I agree very much with what you’re saying. Your fellow Canadian, the great Leonard Cohen, gave us these words which have become quite famous: “Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”  There are millions of people who love those words because they invite us to connect with each other in our brokenness, in the cracks in our lives, rather than this foolish business of bragging about how great we are…and expecting anything like community to emerge from that. I can certainly say in my own case – to be really obvious about it – that I connect a lot more profoundly with a lot more people when I talk about my journey with depression, because it’s so endemic and it’s so widespread, than if I were to talk about having a Ph.D or receiving some honorary doctorate. It’s pretty obvious that our “credentials” don’t connect us with each other – they set us apart. It’s our deeply human experiences that bring us together, if we have the courage to open ourselves to them.

You also mentioned that big word: “fear”. As I mention in several of my books, I think fear is one of the big enemies of all things human. Fear shuts down everything from the mind’s capacity to distinguish between true and false (or between facts and alternative facts, as we like to say in this country) all the way to our capacity to care for one another. Fear shuts us down, keeps us apart and turns us off. And so I’ve meditated a lot on another brief biblical passage, where Jesus says, “Be not afraid.” Fear has always been a part of my life, and I remember when I was younger I thought, “Wow, I’ll never be able to live up to that Scripture passage, because I have so much fear.” But then I realized as time went by that the words don’t say that you shouldn’t have fear – the words say that you don’t need to be your fear.

I have this very strong image of the inner landscape of all of our lives, and it has different locations in it. Fear is one location, but there are also places with names like faith, and hope, and commitment to the common good. They are alongside locations that have names like anger and resentment and jealousy and fear – all the stuff that can do us in, if it doesn’t get transformed. And I have a choice about where to stand in my inner landscape as I move toward others in relationship. I can consciously make the decision that I’m not going to stand in my fear, but that I’m going to stand in my hope. I still have fears, but I’m not ‘being’ my fears. That’s a formulation that really works for me.

Kolbe Times: A phrase you sometimes use is “living an undivided life”. I think that’s something that many of us yearn for – to discover who we really are, underneath all the layers, and to not be afraid of living it out.

Parker Palmer: Yes, and that really touches on the work that we’re doing at the Center for Courage and Renewal, and our Circles of Trust. We really try to help people take that journey toward what I call living “divided no more” – that journey toward the undivided life.  I think where I’ve learned the most about living an undivided life is not from psychology or spirituality, but actually from the study of social movements. It turns out that many of the great social movements have been launched and sustained by people who made that very important decision to live “divided no more”.  They came to a point in their lives where it was just too painful to continue to act and speak on the outside in a way that contradicted some fundamental truth that they held about themselves on the inside. If you look at the civil rights movement of the mid 20th century in this country, you’ll discover this great figure named Rosa Parks, who was emblematic of the sparking point of the civil rights movement. One day on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, she refused to give up her seat when a white man demanded his right to sit down. She was tossed in jail for a while for that act of defiance. But for her, it was this moment in mid-life when, as she describes it, “I was tired. But it wasn’t my feet that were tired, it was my soul that was tired – tired of conspiring with the racist regulations and laws of the society in which I lived.” She made this fundamental decision to live “divided no more”.

It was the same decision made by Václav Havel that started the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, when he wrote an open letter in 1975 to Gustáv Husák, the head of the Communist party, saying I’m not going to live by your rules and regulations anymore. They contravene the truth I know, and the truth that is embedded deep in the heart of our history and culture, about the dignity and freedom of all human beings. That open letter became the underground Bible of a movement that brought down communism in Czechoslovakia. It’s the same story that informed Nelson Mandela in South Africa, and countless leaders of other movements around the world.

I’m really fascinated with the undivided life as a source of power. If you think about any of these movements, you’re talking about people from whom all external sources of power have been stripped. They don’t have money, or status, or connections, or clout, or great armies at their disposal. But they have the one power that can never be taken away from us. We can give it away, but it can never be taken away. That’s the power of the human heart. I’m always eager to say to folks in our cynical western culture that this is not a romantic expression. At least half of human history has been written by the powers of the human heart coming up against other conventional forms of power, and actually changing the law of the land and the way we think.

Kolbe Times: And even if we don’t find ourselves in a horribly difficult position, like the people you’ve described, we can all make a choice to act from the heart.

Parker Palmer: Absolutely. Let me take myself as an example. I’m the kind of person that this country was created for, in the sense that I’m a white, straight, middle or upper middle class male who is well educated. I get all of these automatic perks from American culture. It sometimes goes by the name of “white privilege”, and more specifically, “white male privilege”. If I am asleep at the switch, I think all is well. But if I wake up and look around, I see that all is not well, and that what’s happening violates some of my fundamental values. Values such as ‘other people have an absolute, undeniable right to be treated as well as I’m treated’. There’s an injustice and inhumanity about some of us getting the goodies, and others not. And so I have to live “divided no more”, by speaking external words and taking external actions that reflect the offense that I take at the injustices that are perpetrated on other people – and not just sitting back and saying, “Well, I’ve got mine and let the devil take the hindmost.” That seems to me is a degenerate and immoral way to live.

There are way too many people who somehow take offense at the phrase “white privilege”. Their common line is, “Hey, I’ve earned everything that I’ve got.” And I’m not denying that. I’m sure you worked hard. But you’ve never been stopped by police for the crime of “driving while black” or “walking in a white neighbourhood while black”. Even President Obama got attacked for the crime of “being president while black”.

We have so much to learn, if we just turn the prism a little and look at things from another angle.

Kolbe Times: In an interview you once said, “The questions I want to be able to answer on the day I draw my last breath are: Did you live the best life you knew how? In the midst of your brokenness did you keep taking steps towards something good? Did you forgive yourself when you fell down trying to do that? Did you get up to do it again?” Can you talk about that a little?

Parker Palmer: I feel this very deeply. In our western culture, we live by the standard of “effectiveness”, and we’re constantly being asked, or are asking ourselves, are you getting outcomes? And are they measureable outcomes? Because if they’re not measureable, they don’t count. I ask people in my retreats to think of someone who has lived a life devoted to high values like love, truth and justice. With that person in mind, ask yourself: was he or she able to die saying to themselves ‘I’m sure glad that I devoted myself to those high values, because now everyone in the world can check them off their ‘to-do’ list now and forever. Love has been secured, truth has been secured and justice has been secured.’ The answer is, of course, no one has ever died being able to say that, no matter how hard they worked or how much they were devoted to values of real significance. So that raises the question, “How do we stay motivated to do the hard work of love, truth and justice if we can’t get final results?”

My answer to that question is, there has to be a standard that supersedes effectiveness. I’m not against effectiveness – don’t get me wrong. I work hard; you work hard; we all work hard. We all want some results for what we do. But if we’re going to persist and stay in this for the long haul, there has to be another standard. And I think the name for that standard is faithfulness.

At age 78, I believe that on the day I draw my last breath, I’ll be able to check out with a sense of satisfaction if I can say to myself, “To the best of my ability, cutting myself some slack for my basic human frailties, I was faithful to the gifts that I was given; I was faithful to the needs that I saw around me; and I was faithful to those opportunities I had to bring my gifts to those needs in a way that helped someone, somewhere, somehow.” I think if I can say that, I’ll have a sense of satisfaction – knowing I showed up, as my true self, as best as I was able. I can’t think of a sadder way to die than to look back on 70 or 80 years and have to say to yourself, “I never showed up in the world as who I really am. I never focused on the things I really cared about.”

If effectiveness is all we’ve got as the ultimate standard for our work, it’s pretty clear what happens, because it’s happening all the time – we take on smaller and smaller tasks, because those are the only ones you can be effective with. The classic example in our country is education. Too many schools no longer care about educating the whole child, and are instead focused on getting the kids to pass tests. It’s measurable. We can say that we’re getting outcomes.

And there are all kinds of ways to get kids to pass tests. One of the most popular is to dump everything out of the curriculum that isn’t “testable”, like music and art – important subjects for many, many children who have a different form of intelligence. Another thing you can do is spend all your time teaching to the tests, so that kids, in effect, know what the answers are going to be, and can memorize them and feed them back when test day arrives. Or teachers and administrators can go back to the school after dark, and open the locked safe in which the test sheets are kept, and start changing answers to make it look like effectiveness has been achieved. There are actually American educators who are serving prison time right now for having done exactly that.

This is a big conundrum in western culture. I think we need to spread the good word that yes, effectiveness matters, but it can sometimes mess up a lot of important things pretty badly. Let’s be working on an alternative standard called faithfulness. And let’s also recognize and reclaim the immense power of the human heart.

Kolbe Times: Thank you for speaking with us. It’s been such a pleasure.

 Parker Palmer: Delighted to do it. Take good care, and thanks for inviting me.

Visit the Center for Courage and Renewal and enjoy the many resources you will find there.
Also check out Parker Palmer’s Facebook author page and his Amazon author page.

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2 Responses to A Kolbe Times Conversation with Parker J. Palmer

  1. Jeanne MacDonald says:

    Thank you. You inspire me and validate me.

  2. Bonnie Denhaan says:

    The point was well made for me decades ago, when a speaker at a United Church event on taking on leadership of any kind, said the main thing was to SHOW UP. How deeply true in all of life.

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