A Conversation with Parker Palmer
Updated: Nov 10, 2022
This article first appeared in CRUX, Regent College's Journal of Thought and Opinion, Winter 2018, Vol 54, No. 4
As one who has spent his entire career in bookselling and publishing, I’ve seen thousands of authors and their published work come and go. Few authors have had the longevity or accumulated wisdom to be assigned the moniker of “sage.”
Parker J. Palmer is one such person. Palmer has authored ten books over a span of forty years, including Let Your Life Speak: Listening to the Voice of Vocation, A Hidden Wholeness, and The Courage to Teach, the book which, when published in 1998, was arguably what put him frmly on the literary and public speaking map. People from a variety of faith traditions are drawn to Palmer’s work, which is steeped in the Quaker tradition he came to as an adult, but which also draws on a rich tapestry of sources from Thomas Merton to Howard Turman, poets such as Mary Oliver, Billy Collins, and May Sarton, and a host of other literary and spiritual guides from the East and the West.
On a sunny afternoon at his home in Madison, Wisconsin, where he lives with his wife, Sharon, I had the opportunity to speak with Palmer about a wide range of topics including fear, motivation, teaching, poetry, the benefits and diminishments of aging, and his most recent book, On the Brink of Everything: Grace, Gravity and Getting Old.
Crosby: In your book A Hidden Wholeness, published in 2004, you wrote, “I fear becoming a seventy-year-old man who does not know who he is when the books are out of print and the audiences are no longer applauding.” It’s now fourteen years later, and at the age of seventy-nine you’ve just published your tenth book. What have you learned in those intervening fourteen years about the journey of aging?
Palmer: The quote from A Hidden Wholeness I remember well. It’s about an issue that’s been with me for a long time because I think it’s such a generic spiritual issue in most people’s lives. Tat is, are we capable of making a distinction between who we are and what we do? Are we human beings, or are we human doings? And if we’re human doings—if that’s all we are—then we get in big trouble when the time comes that we can no longer do what we’ve done. For me, as with most things in the spiritual life, God isn’t fnished with me yet. Tat’s an ongoing journey, and I don’t know that it’s a question that I can ever say is fully resolved for me. I’m a big fan of the notion that there are certain questions that you just have to live rather than get answers to. So that question is still alive for me.
Crosby: All ten of the books are still in print. And speaking invitations continue to arise, correct?
Palmer: Yes, and I feel very lucky about that. Everything that I’ve written and published since 1979 is still in print. I have cut way back on my public speaking, but I still do speak in front of audiences and I get satisfaction from that, although I’ve always been grateful for the writerly life because I have a great need for solitude. So I haven’t really faced the big test yet, which is the day I become unable to speak, to get out there, to meet people, to write or act, and so forth. And then who am I to myself? I aspire to be someone who knows that he is loved and valued by God and by others for who he is rather than what he does. Tat’s an aspiration, but I’m a work in progress, and I’m very, very aware of that in relation to the whole question of whether or not there are things that I fear. When I was a young boy, my dad, a wonderful man who never said “do this, do that” in terms of career or direction in life, was always either asking me honest, open questions about what I was thinking or was mirroring back to me things that he saw. Every now and then he’d look at me and he’d say, “You’re running scared again, aren’t you?” And you know, I never took that as a judgment. But it was like “check
yourself in the mirror because whether it’s this student council race that you’re involved in or this course you’re worried about, you’re running scared and you need to think about that.” Dad implicitly was saying that I needed to figure out where that [fear] was coming from. And so what I’ve understood is that for a long time fear has been a part of who I am.
Crosby: Can you give an example of the presence of fear in your life as an adult?
Palmer: Somewhere around my mid-forties, when I was already doing a lot of public speaking, I realized that every time I got up behind a podium in front of an audience of any size—and the audiences were getting pretty big in those days—I’d feel an intense level of fear, despite the fact that it always went well. It was a level of fear that could threaten to shut me down if I didn’t come to terms with it. And in fact there was a period in there when I would lose my orientation when I was speaking because I was breathing out more than I was breathing in. It was a physical symptom of this fear, and so I spent a lot of time thinking, “What is that all about?” In my case it was this: “Oh, you think you’re up there to put on a show and to get applause and to entertain and to look good while you’re doing it and to try to be the smartest guy in the room. So of course you’re afraid.” Is there a workaround to that? Yes, and the workaround is to remember the real reason you’re there, and that is to be in service of the people you’re speaking to and of the ideas and values and beliefs that you
care about. If you can remember that you’re not there to put on a show, but that you are there to serve, it’s going to help. There will be fear, because who’s really up to or worthy of some of the ideas and beliefs that I’ve wanted to advance? But that’s a diferent kind of fear
that can lead to humility instead of paralysis. And so for me that orientation shifted over time. But it became a very conscious spiritual discipline before I went on stage to sit in the green room or to stand backstage and remember why I was there.
Crosby: In the prelude to the new book, you write, “Age brings diminishments, but more than a few come with benefts.” What are the areas in which you feel diminished? And what benefts have you seen come your way in this season of life?
Palmer: Some people mistake writing a book as simply getting a head full of ideas that you know are right and then you download them to the page. For me, writing is about finding out what’s going on in my heart and soul. When I wrote that sentence, I thought, “Well, that’s true. So let’s take a closer look [at those diminishments and benefts].” I’m not nearly as good at multitasking at age seventy-nine as I was at age fifty-nine. I could juggle a dozen balls at
once then, but now I’m lucky to keep one or two in the air. But there’s a huge blessing if you’re wise enough to lay those other balls down and say, “That’s not my thing anymore.” I’ve been doing this slowly, systematically. I’ve tried to be conscious about not being as good at multitasking, but a friend of mine has this phrase: “Give yourself the gift of doing one thing.” I’ve never been good at that as an intentional practice, but now I do it because I must. Tat’s a gift or benefit on the other side of the diminishment—or what the world regards as diminishment. I’m also aware of my thought processing, which is a little slower. There are
sometimes words I can’t quite get hold of, names I can’t quite remember, or footnotes
that I ought to be able to provide. But I’m aware at the same time that the quality of my thinking may be richer and deeper. I believe someone else will have to be the ultimate arbiter of that because I’m capable of deceiving myself about it. But I have more to draw on. I just found in the writing of this book, for example, I was aware of all that I’ve learned about writing through the last nine books and especially in the last few years through writing shorter pieces.
Crosby: Pieces such as those you’ve written for Krista Tippett and the broadcast program On Being?
Palmer: Yes. I published Healing the Heart of Democracy (in 2011), which was really heavy lifting. I’m glad I wrote it, because it’s gotten me involved in a lot of fascinating conversations and work around a topic [politics and the human spirit] that is more urgent today than ever. But after that book, I just knew that I wasn’t ready to run a marathon again. So I started writing short pieces for my friend Krista Tippett at On Being, who invited me to become a columnist. And that meant every Wednesday (or at least one Wednesday a month) producing an essay, maybe fve pages, fifteen hundred words, on a topic. And I found that the discipline of short-form writing was making me a better writer, because when you write a
book, there’s a rough-edged sentence in the middle of it, but for goodness’ sake, there’s five to ten thousand sentences in a chapter. So skip over it and move on. But you write a five-page piece, and that rough-edged sentence jumps right out and hurts, and you have to work it through. So in putting this book together, which is a collection of edited essays, short pieces that I’ve done in the last fve or six years, plus some poetry that I’ve never published before, I’ve had to work through those rough edges that would otherwise stand out.
Crosby: Where did the notion of “on the brink of everything” come from?
Palmer: In it, I say that I have no idea how the book is called On the Brink of Everything. And I say I have no idea how I will go over the brink. Will I drop silent like a rock? Will I go down like a screaming banshee, or some third option? I just don’t know. So there are these open questions for me, and I’ve realized that I don’t have a crystal ball about myself. However, some things have become more predictable and steadier as I’ve aged. I have more self-knowledge. I don’t want to stay in the game at all costs.
Crosby: But you are still doing new things, such as The Growing Edge with singer-songwriter and poet Carrie Newcomer.
Palmer: I’ve just created that project with Carrie, who’s a good friend. It’s called The Growing Edge and we’ve put up a website (NewcomerPalmer.com), and we’re inviting people to attend retreats. We’ve put up an online discussion forum around what the growing edge is in your life, because this is a time when a lot of people feel things are dying. There’s a lot of darkness and despair. We use this wonderful quote from Howard Thurman, the great African-American theologian, who says, “When dreams whiten into ash,” when all seems lost, “look
well to the growing edge.” He says, “The birth of a child [is] life’s most dramatic answer to death.” 1 It might be tempting to think, oh, that’s idealistic pap. But when you know that Howard Turman’s grandmother, whom he knew personally, was an enslaved human being, that he comes from a lineage of people who had every reason to not believe in ideas like the growing edge and yet he affirmed that possibility, then you realize that it’s a cheap cop-out for people like me—white people, middle- to-upper-middle-class people, people who are
blessed with all kinds of opportunities and resources that most people don’t have—to turn to cynicism and despair, when we could be looking well to the growing edge and inviting others to it. People like Howard Turman inspire me in that regard.
Crosby: In Let Your Life Speak: Listening to the Voice of Vocation, you identify the fact that all of the world’s wisdom traditions in one way or another unite in the exhortation to “be not afraid.” You go on in that book to say, “‘Be not afraid’ does not mean we cannot have
fear. . . . Instead, the words say we do not need to be the fear we have.” What is the distinction between the two?
Palmer: Well, when I saw that, it was really a revelation to me. I realized that, yes, I have fear, but I have a whole lot of other stuf as well inside of me. The idea of an inner landscape has meant a lot to me, and if you think about a landscape, it has a lot of locales. It has valleys and hills and forests and streams. And so I have within me fear, but I also have hope. I have anger, but I also have a desire for harmony. I have greed, but I also have generosity. I have a lot of places in my inner landscape. Most of us do. We’re complicated. We’re like big, big, huge, complicated cities in there. And I have choices to make about where I stand in my inner landscape when I move out toward the world. I can stand in a place of fear and move from there if that’s my choice or my unconscious default position, which means I have my next task and that is to raise it to a conscious level of choice. But if I step toward the world from that place of fear in my inner landscape, what happens is very simple. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. I generate more fear and more things to be afraid of. I know this as a teacher. If I’m afraid of a group of students, they’ll become afraid of me, and there will be a total lockdown with fear that shuts down learning. But I can choose again, like being in the green room or standing backstage and asking myself, “Why are you here?” If I can make a conscious choice to stand in that place of hope and faith, I’m going to get a lot further
in creating that self-fulfilling prophecy; something that works for all of us rather
than creating more fear.
Crosby: In The Courage to Teach, what is what you call the “diagnostics of the situation”?
Palmer: Yes, I’ve spent many years working with university faculty, and I’ve often heard them talk about how brain-dead their students are; how dull, disinterested, bored, and boring, because they would ask a question and nobody would answer. And I would use a medical analogy that a lot depends on your diagnosis because that dictates the treatment, and if your diagnosis is that these people are coming from some place of ill will or stupidity, then what you’re going to do in relation to them—the “treatment”—is going to be harsh and punitive, and you’ll be proving your own point. But if you do a deeper diagnosis, you might see that what you’re getting from them is their fear of you. And that’s triggering your fear of them.
Crosby: As you have aged, do you feel the judgment of the young?
Palmer: It’s one of the biggest fears that most older people have—not just elderly people, but middle-aged people who are teaching young people. We fear the judgment of the young. It’s like we look at them and they seem to be communicating a silent message: “You’re irrelevant. You’re over the hill. You’re out of it. You don’t hear the music or know the steps.” So if we can see the fear that’s behind their reaction, then we can teach to that fear rather than to that ignorance.
Crosby: How do you do that?
Palmer: Well, there’s a thousand practical ways to do it, like recognizing that it’s hard for young people to speak in front of twenty-nine others, but if you get them into pairs and give them a series of questions that start at the shallow end and then go to the deeper end, and then you keep switching off those pairs or triads with simple ground rules for engagement, something new is going to happen. Then call them back and ask them to talk, and they will.
Something new has happened. You don’t use a pedagogy of the sword unless you’ve diagnosed the situation correctly.
Crosby: Your frst book was published in 1979 when you were forty, and your ninth book when you were seventy-two. You write, “Every book has felt like a marathon, and after I finished number nine, I felt certain that I didn’t have another long-distance race in me.” What made you decide to “run” again?
Palmer: It came to me at some point maybe after book number seven that every book I had written was somehow preparing me for the next stage of my life in a way that was totally unconscious, but it’s precisely the unconscious part of writing that does that. It takes you toward the next stage of life. What I’m doing in my writing is feeling that, well, feeling the growing edge, and unconsciously anticipating where I’m going to go next. My first book [The Promise of Paradox, 1979] was on the inner life, a celebration of contradictions in the Christian life. Henri Nouwen very graciously wrote the foreword to it.
Crosby: Many of your readers, myself included, often liken your work to Nouwen’s, or his to yours.
Palmer: We were working together. He was a mentor to me even though he wasn’t
that many years older. But he was much more established as a writer and very graciously said he’d like to write the foreword. It was a book that placed me on the map with a Catholic audience and a growing number of Protestants.
Crosby: And what came after The Promise of Paradox?
Palmer: I was working at the time as a community organizer in Washington, DC, and so the next book was The Company of Strangers (1981). If the frst book was helping me explore the inner ground we have to stand on, The Company of Strangers was helping me engage the outer world. It was a calling toward deeper social and political engagement. It’s the book that got my oar in the water, and I started meeting very interesting people and getting involved in urban affairs work. And then the next book was a spirituality of education, and it was preparing me or deepening me for a certain phase of my work in education, which at that time was largely around the churches and seminaries and so forth. Although my work then started to dribble out into secular higher education, which eventually led to The Courage to Teach.
Crosby: So the development of your books is, in a way, for your own development?Answering the questions you have? Including questions about aging found in
On the Brink of Everything?
Palmer: Yes, and Sheryl Fullerton [Palmer’s editor] helped me see that there was a thread running through the short-form writing that I’d been doing in recent years. I realized there’s this impulse in me now to explore the territory of aging, to prepare myself for it because this is the way I get ready for the next step. I have to say that I’m really, really glad I wrote this book for my own sake because it’s a book I’m going to pick up fve or six years from now when I’m in a very diferent mood about getting old and getting to be a grumpy old man. It’s a book that will remind me what I was thinking about all this when I was thinking from my better angels rather than my lesser angels.
Crosby: You? Become a grumpy old man? I doubt it!
Palmer: Instead of screaming out the front door “get of my lawn!” to the kids, I need to go out there and say, “How are you? What’s happening in your life?”
Crosby: In A Hidden Wholeness you quote T. S. Eliot from his Nobel Prize for Literature acceptance speech as saying that poetry “may make us . . . a little more aware of the deeper, unnamed feelings which form the substratum of our being, to which we rarely penetrate; for our lives are mostly a constant evasion of ourselves.” 2 How has reading and writing poetry helped you penetrate that substratum of your being?
Palmer: I think the Scriptures rightly understood are a whole lot of really great poetry. When we try to turn it into science, we get into trouble. It was written as one big poem. I suppose the line that illuminates this most is Emily Dickinson’s frequently quoted “Tell all the truth, but tell it slant.”3 And I loved this notion that there are some truths that you can’t run at headlong like I was taught to do as an academic with a PhD from Berkeley. Break down the wall; get to the truth. Mostly you break your nose on the really big truths. If you’re interested in these big ideas, you have to learn to look at them out of the corner of your eye and approach them sideways in order to just get a glimpse of a truth that otherwise is going to elude you and that you’re going to try to elude. I actually think that a lot of the academic model of truth pursuing is about truth eluding, because you chase away all the subtle, critical, important stuf when you charge headlong at it and scare it back into the woods. So poetry has that quality of telling the truth, but telling it slant. The poets have this amazing genius for opening a window or a door on something that you can’t fully see but which, once you’ve read the poem, you can’t forget. And they have this gift for the spare use of language that is mysterious but that doesn’t mystify.
Crosby: Have you always viewed poetry in that way?
Palmer: No. I used to be one of those people who would say, “Look, if these poets have something to say, why don’t they just come right out and say it? Say it straight and put it on the table in good Midwestern style.”
Crosby: The poetry of Mary Oliver appears to be a favourite.
Palmer: She is, because of her appreciation of nature and being connected with the natural world and embedded in the natural world and how we are creatures of nature. That’s where we’re all headed eventually—wherever else we may be headed. And that’s fine and dandy with me because I find such peace and harmony in nature, such respite of soul. If nothing more happens to me at the end and my atoms recombine with the loons and the northern lights up in the boundary waters, I’m just fine. Mary Oliver has this way of observing nature, of viewing nature on the slant that opens my eyes to what’s there.
Crosby: In the new book, you’ve included several of your original poems for the first time.
Palmer: I’m an amateur poet. I write poetry because it helps me express things that I can’t express in prose. And so I have some poems in my book that are very nature based. One is “Why should I ever be sad” which is all about watching, lying on my back and observing. Watching an aspen in the Santa Fe National Forest at ten thousand feet and the wind whispering in the trees and rocks that have come to their angle of repose. Everything fts. But then I look at the forest foor and see the mess there, and it looks absolutely beautiful. It’s organic. It’s gorgeous, and it’s just a mess. So how do I put that together? Well, the poets put that together. They help me appreciate it and also to loosen up my own life.
1 Howard Turman, The Growing Edge (Richmond, IN: Friends United Press, 1956), preliminary pages.
2 Quoted in T. S. Eliot, Te Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1933), 149.
3 Emily Dickinson, “Tell all the truth, but tell is slant—(1263),” The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Reading Edition (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1998).