Parker Palmer: Interviews with Spiritual Heroes

Parker PalmerParker J. Palmer is an author, educator, and activist who focuses on issues in education, community, leadership, spirituality and social change, with nearly 10 books and countless articles to his credit.  He is also the founder of the Seattle, WA-based Center for Courage and Renewal, whose mission “is to create a more just, compassionate and healthy world by nurturing personal and professional integrity and the courage to act on it.”

Parker graciously spent an hour and half with me on the phone on February 27, 2015.  (In the interest of time and subject matter, some parts of the interview have been omitted below.)

Personal Connection

I first discovered Parker Palmer through my extensive reading of the works of the late Fr. Henri Nouwen, with whom he enjoyed a close relationship (a subject we discuss below) until Nouwen died in 1996.  It was Palmer’s book, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation that first clued me in to the idea of the spirituality or soul of vocation — the notion that in spite of whatever we might think we’re called to do and no matter how hard we might struggle and fight to get there, there is something deeper and more closely aligned with our truest selves that is already speaking, already moving in the direction we should go, if we will but stop and listen.  I read it during a time where I’d taken a brief hiatus from mental health work and was profoundly depressed.

In the years that have come since, I have followed him and his writings with devotion, and been impressed and encouraged by the work of the Center for Courage and Renewal.  What’s more, nearly every time I found an author that deeply moved me, they listed Palmer has an influencing force on their lives and thought.  Many publications I followed, such as the United Methodist publication, Weavings (edited by the late John Mogabgab, a student of Henri Nouwen’s), were likewise influenced by him or regularly published his articles.  Most recently, I was encouraged to hear Palmer as a guest on one of my favorite NPR programs, On Being, where he is also a regular guest author.

For those looking for an introduction to him, I would suggest the aforementioned book, Let Your Life Speak, the NPR recording, or his books, A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Lifeand more recently, The Promise of Paradox: A Celebration of Contradictions in the Christian Life.

Thoughts About the Interview:

Key words: Clarity, Humility, Depth, Kinship

In a day and age where the volume of information and divergent opinions on important matters is dizzying, I was struck during our interview at the level of clarity with which Palmer spoke.  This wasn’t a fool-hearty or naive clarity, but one informed by a life lived wrestling with difficult issues and refusing to be boxed in with simple solutions that cause as many problems as they claim to remedy.  In fact, his words were so laced with humility that I surmise he might even feel a bit embarrassed at the level of praise I’m lavishing upon him here.  But indeed, it is rare to find a person who speaks with such depth about difficult issues without all of the evasiveness and high-horsed-ness I’ve come to expect from our nation’s politicians and leaders.

Finally, it was hard not to exit the interview without a sense of kinship.  Anytime I’ve been in the presence of men and women who have commanded such a formidable influence on my life that I label them “hero,” I’m always slightly nervous they’ll see me as some peon on whom they are wasting their time.  Instead, I felt like I left our interaction with a new, true friend.

The Interview:

ccrRTN: Talk to me a bit about the Center for Courage and Renewal (CCR). What is it, and what is your vision for it?

PP: The Center began in the early 90’s at Michigan foundation called the Fetzer Institute, where I was invited in to create a program for K-12 teachers. These are the wonderful people I regard as our culture heroes, the true first responders of our society, who are dealing everyday with the overflow of terrible social problems in the lives of kids. These are problems we grown-ups don’t seem to have the wit or the will to solve. When you’ve got twenty-five percent of American school children showing up hungry every morning because they live in food insufficient households behind the poverty line, the problems that they have learning really aren’t the teachers’ fault, but the fault of systemic poverty.

So, these people are close to my heart and need our support, so we created a pilot experiment in a two-year program of eight three-day retreats called, The Courage to Teach. We gathered a group of twenty-five K-12 teachers from around Kalamazoo, MI, and we took them on a journey, the basic purpose of which was to rejoin “soul” and “role” – to reclaim the heart of the teacher and the imperatives which took them into teaching in the first place. And then, standing in that power and strength, to help them deal with the problems that were bringing down their schools and the kids in their care.

That pilot program was evaluated in half a dozen different ways and came out with flying colors, so the decision was made to establish a small non-profit that would be able to continue to spread this work among teachers 

As the work grew and spread, we heard from persons in other professions who were interested in the same concepts for physicians, clergy, non-profit leaders, philanthropists and other social change people. Today we have about 230 facilitators around the US, Canada, Great Britain, Australia, and New Zealand, as well as a small spin-off in South Korea, and we’ve probably served upwards of 100,000 people in the last fifteen years since we really started to gain momentum.

So, the CCR is about rejoining our inner and outer lives – finding ways to help people in the serving professions reclaim their identity and integrity, and to bring those more fully into their professional and public lives. We know that on the basis of what’s know more than 20 years of experience, doing so is not only rewarding in terms of the teachers’ wholeness, but it makes them better teachers, colleagues, school leaders, and more effective at the work they’re doing. 

being-461780_640RTN: It makes sense. I can’t help but note that the concepts of restoration of the soul, inner and outer life reconnection – they stand in such juxtaposition to the kinds of rhetoric you hear at the national political level, where we’re responding to learning difficulties by chastising teachers.

PP: One of the things we know about good teaching is that it has to come from a whole person. You can’t have people who are inwardly divided – kids pick up on that very quickly. In human terms, the divided person is a dangerous person. If you can’t trust that what you see is what you’re going to get, you naturally start withdrawing. That’s one of our contributions. 

The other is that we know on the basis of research that the most powerful factor in driving school mission success on behalf of kids is a factor called relational trust between teachers, teachers and administrators, and teachers and parents. Because our program is rooted in a community that hangs together for a couple of years, it teaches people a lot about how to create community among colleagues and other stake holders in public education, the health care system, or in a congregation. As relational trust and community builds, mission success builds as well.

Some of this is what I call “secrets hidden in plain sight.” In this society, we always tend to think things like, “You’ve got a troubled public school. Let’s throw a million dollars at them and that will solve the problem.”   Well, here’s a very simple mental experiment – what happens if you throw a million dollars at a building full of people who don’t trust one another?

RTN: Oh, yes! It will disintegrate.

PP: Yes — they spend the next ten years fighting over who gets the lion’s share of the pie. But if you have a building full of people who trust each other, they can use that money well on behalf of kids rather than their self-interest. The research even shows that they can go without the million dollars and do better with relational trust, than a school with the money but no trust.

RTN: In psychotherapy, research consistently shows that beyond technique or even strictly hours logged, “therapeutic bond” or “rapport” is the single biggest predictor of success, and all the more so when it extends to family who trust me and the work I’m doing with their loved one. You’re right – it seems so painfully obvious.

What do you suppose that is – why is this not our spontaneous response? Why do we go toward money or in other directions?

sky puzzlePP: That’s a great question. We live in a culture that is so materialistic and so fixated on the external world that we always think that the solution is “out there” somewhere rather than “in here.” But relational trust is built on what’s “in here,” so if you and I can’t get our egos, our anger, resentment, or jealousy under control, if we can’t forgive ourselves and one another – if we can’t do that inner work, there is no relational trust between us. So, we turn to these external factors.

In the case of public schools its things like money, state of the art curriculum, textbooks. And then here comes congress or the state legislature with the external fix called “high-stakes testing,” and then this whole thing starts to read like a Joseph Heller novel – a catch-22. The impact of high-stakes testing is to create distrust between administrators and teachers, because it becomes a punitive system for firing people, or for putting people into deadly competition with each other where some get merits and some get demerits.

Researcher Tony Bryk says that one of the clear implications of his years of research is that we ought never to pass a piece of legislation without asking what its impact on relational trust will be. He’s absolutely right, but it’s the last thing in the world lawmakers turn to because they major in external fixes, just as when they turn their attention overseas. They never think about how can we increase cultural understanding and reduce animosity – they always think about boots on the ground or bombs from the air. We’ve got some very major problems because of this huge blind spot in our culture.

RTN: Probably the single-largest spiritual influence on me through reading has been the works of the late Father Henri Nouwen.  In his book, The Way of the Heart, he says,

“Let us not underestimate how hard it is to be compassionate. Compassion is hard because it requires the inner disposition to go with others to the place where they are weak, vulnerable, lonely, and broken. But this is not our spontaneous response to suffering. What we desire most is to do away with suffering by fleeing from it or finding a quick cure for it.” 

I can’t help but note that there’s such a parallel there, whether one is doing clergy work or pastoral care, psychotherapy, teaching – the first task is to stop being relevant and doing something that’s shown you’ve made a difference, and to just do the hard “soul work” of being present in others’ suffering.

PP: Yes, that’s what we’re doing. I journeyed with Henri for twenty years or so and learned a lot from him along those lines. You’re right about our work – we do it what we call Circles of Trust, which I talked about in a book called, “The Hidden Wholeness.” One of the basic ground rules in a Circle of Trust is “No fixing, no saving, no advising, and no correcting each other.” So, we spent two years sitting in circles where all of that is forbidden. At first people say, in a sort of self-mocking way, “What in heaven’s name are we going to do for two years?! That’s all we know how to do!” They know that this is the better part of what we tend to do with one another. 

But instead, we learn to listen very deeply to what people are saying, to give people a chance to learn to listen to themselves, and then to learn the high art of asking honest, open questions that help “hear” people into deeper and deeper speech. It’s amazing what happens when people learn that art, and it turns out that asking a question that isn’t a little speech or advice in disguise is really demanding. My favorite example in teaching this is by reminding people that asking the question, “Have you thought about seeing a therapist lately?” is not an honest, open question. [Laughs] 

RTN: [Laughs] Yes, I’d agree. It’s funny because it is our collective failure as a culture to do this that gives me a job. What you’re describing is what people pay me to do.

PP: Exactly — they pay you to listen, and to ask honest, open questions.

RTN: Well, while we’re on it, will you talk with me for a moment about your relationship with Henri Nouwen? What was that like?

Henri NouwenPP: My relationship with Henri began in the seventies when I was at a Quaker Community, called Pendle Hill, where I lived for eleven years. Pendle Hill is another story altogether – a very important part of my life. The quickest way to describe it is to say that it is organized kind of like an ashram, or a kibbutz, or a monastery – it is an intentional Quaker community.

I was there with my wife and our three children, and Henri and I met quite by accident because a big foundation called the Lily Endowment had been giving grants in the area of spirituality in higher education, having the humility to realize that they didn’t know much about that. They invited a dozen people to spend three days locked into a hotel in New York City reading grant applications from all over the country. Two of those people were Henri and myself. When you’re doing something like that, you have down times where you drink coffee together when you’re not reading and evaluating proposals, and we got to know each other and liked one another a lot and struck up a friendship.

Henri was very intrigued that I lived in this intentional community, because one of his great yearnings in life was to live in community. This was a yearning never fulfilled until he went to L’Arche. He was in many ways a very lonely person – he was a Diocesan priest from Holland who had no real community here in the United States, unlike what it would’ve been had he been a Benedictine or a Franciscan who could’ve checked into a local branch of that community here. He started visiting me at Pendle Hill and really liked Quaker values and community life, and he enjoyed my family and we him. 

RTN: Wow.

PP: One of my theories about friendship is that when you find a friend, you’ve usually found someone who shares a “vocation” with you – you’re friends because you’re here on Earth for the same reasons. I was just beginning my writing career, and Henri had very generously written a foreword to my first book, The Promise of Paradox. He was a very well-known writer at that time and I was virtually unknown, so having his name on the cover and his kind words in the foreword really helped my first book along. 

We spent two whole years where he traveled to be with me at Pendle Hill, or I traveled to him at Yale where he was then-teaching, every other week for a full day of conversation.   The general topic was education, spirituality, and community, and we were just looking for all of the ways in which those three dimensions crisscross each other. The real stroke of genius, which I’m sure was Henri’s, not mine – 

RTN: [Laughs] You’re being modest. But okay!

PP: [Laughs] No, I wasn’t smart enough at the time to have come up with this. Each of us would go home and write a couple pages of reflections on what we had talked about, send them to one another by mail, and then we’d build our next bi-weekly conversation on the basis of those notes.

RTN: And the purpose of all of this?

PP: It was partly to develop a relationship, but we were exploring a force field in which we wanted to do some writing – I think we were explicit about this. We were building up a granary of writing ideas and possibilities for future books or articles. It was partly an end in itself, and partially for other motives.   As you can imagine, we collected quite a rich harvest of ideas from that process that definitely influenced subsequent books from both of us.

RTN: Wow. Well, I’ve read nearly everything Henri Nouwen has ever written, and now I have the pleasure of knowing several people who knew him intimately. When I was talking with Richard Rohr recently, he said that Henri was a difficult guy to be around, and that he was neurotic and needy. This is a pretty well-known characterization of him and wasn’t said unkindly. What was your experience of that on a very human level?

PP: Richard Rohr was absolutely right. Henri was famous among his friends for being very, very hard on friendship, because he was so needy, because this yearning in him for community was never fully satisfied. Even at L’Arche, he was always looking for that special friendship that would give him solid ground on which to stand.

Vanier & NouwenJean Vanier was interviewed not long ago about his friendship with Henri, and the author asked what it was like to be his friend. Jean Vanier has got to have the biggest heart on the planet at the moment, and yet, he laughed and said, “Well, Henri’s notion of friendship and mine were very different.” When the interviewer asked what he meant, he said, “Henri felt that if you were his friend, you should be available any time of the day or night, 7 days a week for as long as necessary.” [Laughs] He said, “I kept trying to explain to Henri that I had other friends and other things to do.” I laughed when I read that because I recognized it in him too.

The anguish he wrote about – it was very, very real for him. He wasn’t just imagining someone else’s anguish or taking his own and multiplying it – he was living in that anguish all the time. His writing therefore is even more real than people imagine. There are a lot of Henri Nouwen readers who don’t get this – I wish that they did, because I find what he had to say richer as a result. There are many ways in which Henri’s prayers were never answered, and that makes it all the more remarkable that he was such a faithful person. He was often in the mode of “My god, my god, why hast thou forsaken me?”, you know, but he kept praying.

This is what we do to all of our religious icons, and we certainly do it to Jesus. We project these kinds of images of perfection, and we screen out the struggle and the anguish. We like to picture Jesus has this blue-eyed, blonde guy in a pristine, white robe with a peaceful look on his face and a kid in his lap – that picture that’s on church walls everywhere. But we don’t like to picture the anguish that anyone who lives at depth has to deal with. And Henri certainly lived at depth.

There’s always been a sadness in me that he was unable to find in life the kind of relationships he needed, that all of us need, to be whole. Relationships are a struggle for almost everyone, but Henri labored mightily.

RTN: I appreciate what you’re saying and very much identify with it. It’s always been the thing that has given me a great deal of comfort about the anguish that I carry. Certainly as I have done some work, some of it has subsided over the years. Or maybe I have gotten more accustomed to it, or better at responding to it in ways that aren’t pathological or self-destructive. But there is certainly something there that is difficult to miss, especially if you’ve been party to it yourself.   Every time I’ve listened to his talks or watched recordings of him speaking, I am literally always moved to tears seemingly out of nowhere – you can feel that what he’s saying is being pushed out of that place of anguish.

PP: Yes, absolutely! That was the basis for the powerful way in which he connected with his audiences. When you were in Henri’s presence you could feel some of that, even if you didn’t want to acknowledge it.

RTN: You’ve mentioned the idea of core vocation, which brings to mind the book you wrote that had the largest impact on me – Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation. In it, you say, “willful pursuit of vocation is an act of violence toward ourselves – violence in the name of a vision that, however lofty, is forced on the self from without rather than grown from within.”

You’re contrasting this in a rather large way from something else you describe, that we “must listen for the truths and values at the heart of my own identity, not the standards by which I must live – but the standards by which I cannot help but live if I am living my own life.”

Can you unpack all of that a bit more for folks who may not be familiar with what you’re driving at?

LetYourLifeSpeakCoverPP: When I say, “willful pursuit,” I think it’s based on a pretty common experience. It’s the classic story of a young person who grows up in a family where it is expected that you will become this or that. Sometimes there are high expectations – you should become a doctor or a lawyer. Sometimes there are low expectations.

I spent a year teaching at a college in Appalachia, where I learned a statement that had been given to many of my students by their parents or pastors – “Don’t get above your raising.” This meant that your if daddy was a coal miner, and your mom worked at the local convenience store – there’s nothing wrong with either of these two jobs, or any kind of honest work – but these kids took that to mean, “Don’t reach for something higher than that.”

So, one way or another, we grow up with external expectations. In the case of a lot of African American kids, for example, they are surrounded by a culture of low expectations. And I’m talking about the larger, predominantly white culture, that just looks at a young African American and says, “She’s not going to be a Nobel-prize winning scientist,” or “He’s not going to be a CEO.” So, we spend a lot of time playing out those externally-imposed expectations, and trying to force ourselves into a mould that doesn’t fit who we are. 

In other ways, some of us grow up with religious idealism as a very core component of our personalities. The external expectation there is that we’ll be Mother Teresa, or a martyr on behalf of God’s work, tied to a stake full of arrows. People pathologically twist themselves into shapes that have nothing to do with who they are, but are about the expectations held by other people or the culture at-large.

When I was in the classroom, I saw so many college students who were playing out a script handed to them by someone else. They were clearly miserable, and not doing very well at it, but nobody was saying to them, “Hey, what’s the word arising within you? If you were to lay down that script, and give yourself some space and time, what would come up inside of you? Would you rather be an artist or a thoracic surgeon? Maybe your gifts are more artistic than medical.”

I once did a faculty workshop where I was at the lunch table with seven men. Somehow the conversation turned toward courses that we had taken in college at which we had done poorly – courses we had only taken because we went to college thinking we were going to become something in that field. One of them told the story that his parents told him he was going to become a doctor, and he was taking organic chemistry as a college student. He got a D in it, but said that D saved his life, because he went on to a course in 19th Century English literature, which is what he now taught and loved and was very passionate about. Everyone at the table had that kind of story.

But when we were done, I asked, “How many of you have ever told those stories to your students?” None of them had. I said, “Please, in the name of God, tell your students these stories. There are kids in your classrooms suffering under the impression that if they’re not doing well here, then they’re total failures in life. They need to know that failure at something that you’re not destined to do is really a good thing! It can redirect you to what you are destined to do.”

The reason I’m telling that story is that part of the problem young people face as they’re on this journey of vocational discernment is that we older folks are not telling them about all of the ways in which we tripped and fell and screwed up that turned out to save our bacon. They turned out to redirect us along more fruitful paths.

RTN: Of course! 

PP: I do believe that very early in life we start getting clues, though we’re not aware of them at the time, about what it is we’re good at and drawn toward. The self has tropisms like a plant – we’re drawn toward the light in which we can grow. When I was a kid I was fascinated with aviation. All the way through high school I thought I I’d join the naval air reserves and become a pilot. I spent a lot of my years making model airplanes and putting together booklets about how planes fly. For example, I did a booklet on the phenomenon of lift on a curved wing, and how ailerons and rudders work. I spent all this time thinking that aviation was it for me. But what I was really interested in was writing books! But that got hidden under the romance of wanting to follow in the path of a couple of older men I knew and admired who were in fact trained aviators.

Everybody has some version of this story. The lucky ones are those who can get out from underneath sooner rather than later, and find out what their gifts and callings really are.

RTN: That’s so good. I’ve noticed in my own life that when I’m sensitive to what’s already there and what doors are already opening, if I don’t fight it too much, or even as a result of my fighting (and typically losing), I can have a really good sense of peace and direction about where I’m going vocationally.

But, how do you suppose we go about fostering this sort of interaction with others who we are in intimate relationships with? You’ve talked about giving this to students, but arguably our relationships with students are less intimate than say, my relationship with my wife. I might be able to organically “let my life speak,” but I might have trouble transferring that benefit to her, because it may mean she fails to meet my needs or live up to my expectations as a result. What’s the relationship between what you’re saying and allowing that to be okay for others too?

Rainer Maria RilkePP: I’ve always been fond of a definition of “love” that comes from the poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, who says, “Love is this – that two solitudes border, salute, and protect one another.” So, intimacy doesn’t mean entanglement where we’re sort of insisting that the other person meet our needs and vice versa, but this very respectful way of standing at the border of a person’s solitude, and giving them the space and providing whatever resources we can to help them be on a journey of discernment of their own hearts and leadings and callings.

A Nobel-prize winning geneticist, Barbara McClintock, said, “The highest form of love is intimacy that does not annihilate difference.” So, intimacy gets sticky when we want a certain kind of conformity, and that conformity often takes the shape of whatever suits our needs. One of the most powerful examples of this is in parents’ relationships with their children. One of my biggest learnings in life, a painful one, is that I might see my children making vocational mistakes, or what look to me like mistakes in the paths they’re choosing in life. I have stuck my nose into that. When I’m in a good space, I ask honest, open questions to help them think about themselves, but when I’m in a bad space, I’ve asked things like, “Don’t you see what a trainwreck you’re about to have?”

What I’ve had to do, and I think there is much of this in life, is go to a place which says, “My relationship with this person may be so intimate that I am the last person who can be a good teacher for him or her.”

RTN: [Laughs] Man!!! That’s tough!

PP: [Laughs] It is tough!

RTN: Because we like to think the opposite, right? We like to think, “I’m so close, I’m the only one who can give input.” But it makes sense. In psychotherapy, again, that’s why people pay me. I’m close, but outside.

PP: Yes! Exactly! You’re outside the system. They don’t have to have dinner every night and breakfast every morning with you. They can go and do whatever they please, and they don’t have to hear from you about it because you’re not there to suffer the consequences. You can be grateful for that! [Laughs]

RTN: I am! Frequently! [Laughs]

PP: Because I’ve suffered three times in my adult life from severe clinical depression, I’ve been in therapy a number of times, very helpfully so. With my third depression, which came after I was pretty well-established as a writer and public figure, I went around looking for a therapist. Two-times in a row, I had an introductory meeting with somebody who not only let me know that they knew my work, but who, without saying it, was manifesting a certain kind of glee at the idea that they’d be the one who’d have the chance to save my bacon.

RTN: [Tsk] Oooh. Not good.

PP: In other words, they had stakes in the outcome. What I did in both of those cases was to say, “Thank you, I’m going to keep shopping.”

RTN: You’re wise. Good job!

PP: The therapist that I ended up with was not only smart enough not to say that he knew me and my work, he conveyed to me in a genuine way – when you’re in depression you have a built-in baloney detector, would be the polite way to put it –

RTN: [Laughs] Yes, I understand. I’ve used the not-so-polite way to say that a few times.

PP: [Laughs] I knew that this was a very genuine posture that he was taking – he said, “It’s in your hands, Parker, as to whether you go this way or that. One way is death – psychological death or literal suicide. The other is new life.” But he made it clear that this was about my life, not his. While of course he cared, he wasn’t staking his career on it. I wasn’t going to be a feather in his cap, if I got well.

RTN: So healthy!

PP: So, he was the guy who gave me that combination of intimacy and the allowing of radical difference, that made the therapeutic process work. So, that’s what we strive for in our intimate relationships. There are some hard learnings along the way, such as the notion that it’s precisely because we’re so close that I may be the last person in the world that can help you with this.

michaelbrownRTN: I live in St. Louis, MO. Since the shooting death of unarmed African-American teenager, Michael Brown, St. Louis has somewhat become an epicenter of social unrest and racial tension between black and white persons. Certainly, it’s highlighted a lot of what’s already there. I guess I wanted to ask, what words of life would you offer surrounding this issue? What are we to do, and what do we do with our discouragement at racial injustice and the slow pace that people wake up to it?

PP: First of all, I don’t really have the wisdom to cope with the enormity of this issue. I am one voice among many.  But, for what I could say, we Americans need to come to grips with the fact that racism is part of our DNA. It was bred into us from the very beginning of this country. People will argue that some form of racism or tribalism was bred into every human being farther back than 1776.

But we were founded by people who were geniuses, but were also bigoted. They had a very narrow definition of who “We the People” are. It was white, male, landed, gentry. Period. Amen. If you were a woman, Native American, a person of color, a white man who didn’t own land – you just didn’t count. And, they embraced slavery, some of them overtly and enthusiastically, and some of them in a highly ethically compromised way – but they embraced it. And we had to kill hundreds of thousands of each other off as Americans during the Civil War to even take a modest step forward on that – the Emancipation Proclamation.   I say a “modest step” because it was followed by Jim Crow and now, by what author Michelle Alexander has called, “The New Jim Crow.” This includes the fact that we have more people incarcerated in this country by percentage and by number than any other nation in the world, and a huge preponderance of them are people of color there for relatively minor drug offenses that research shows are committed at least as often by whites, but whites are neither pursued nor prosecuted nor imprisoned for those offenses. There is a tremendous amount of research to back this up. So, to get technically theological with you, we’re just in one hell of a mess.

So, here’s the only thing I can say, and I don’t know what else could be said: We have to care about this. We have to continue to act on this. But those of us who have to care and act have to realize that we are going to spend our whole lives, until the day we die, standing and acting in a tragic gap that will never be closed, where the harsh realities around us and what we know to be possible and desirable will never come together.

There’s a very simple test for those who are somehow clinging to the idea if we can’t make measurable progress than it isn’t worth doing anything: Name any hero of yours who has devoted his or her life to high values – love, truth, and justice, for example. On the day that person died (or will die), was he or she able to say, “Boy, I’m sure glad that I devoted my life to that piece of the love, truth, and justice agenda.   Now, everybody can check it off their to-do list because it’s been accomplished once and for all”? The truth is that none of my heroes were able to die saying that – Nelson Mandela, Rosa Parks, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, Jr., on and on.

The point is that as long as we cling to this notion of progress and effectiveness, we’ll die in despair. And even worse, as long as we cling to these very narrow standards of effectiveness, which our culture is enamored with, we’ll take on smaller and smaller tasks – they’re the only ones we can be effective in. That’s the logic. We’re no longer educating children – we’re just getting kids to pass tests, because that’s a small and measurable task that you can “succeed” on, including changing scores, teaching to the test, etc. Educating a child is a huge task that really has very little to do with test-taking capacities.

So, the final question is, “What is the ultimate standard of my life?”  I’m not tossing effectiveness out – I want to be as effective as much as the next person. I want my books to have an impact. I want the work of the Center for Courage and Renewal to be effective. But when I look at this from sub specie aeternitatis, “under the aspect of eternity,” as Spinoza said, then I have to find a standard that trumps effectiveness.

For me, the name of that standard is “faithfulness.” If on the day I die, I can take my last breath saying to myself that within the limits of human fallibility, and God knows I have those limits and imperfections, I was as faithful as I knew how to be to my gifts, to the needs of those around me, and to the places where my gifts might meet some of those needs, I can die with a sense of satisfaction, and that my time on Earth wasn’t wasted. But if I’m waiting around to check love, truth, and justice off the “to-do” list for myself or anyone else, I’m going to die as a very unhappy camper.

We’re not charged with succeeding, but we are not allowed to let these issues go.

RTN: Alright, I have one last question. And I like to ask it last because I get my interviewees nice and exhausted, so they have to plumb their depths to answer it. That way I get a raw, gut-reaction. [Laughs] It’s actually a simple question, but it is loaded. Who is Jesus Christ, and what is his Gospel?

PP: [Laughs] Okay, I’m censoring myself.

RTN: [Laughs] What do you mean?

PP: [Laughs] Go jump in a lake. Not Jesus, you. [Laughs heartily]

RTN: [Laughs] See?! That’s why I ask it last, so you don’t have to be mad at me the entire interview.

Prayer ©CreationSwap/Jennifer Powell (cropped from original)PP: [Laughs] I’m just messing with you. I’ve actually been thinking a lot about all of the questions you’ve asked me, especially the last two. Tomorrow, I will be one of two speakers alongside an African American leader at a gathering on the subject of Kingdom Justice. It will be held at a large, evangelical church. So I’ve been thinking about these questions already, and as always, I find the hard questions the best ones – they make me think. The ones I know the answers to don’t challenge me or keep me up at night.

Jesus Christ is the Son of God, who lived his life in a way that showed all of us what it means to be a child of God, and who calls all of us to live into that image. To put a sharp edge on that, I think we betray the life and calling of Jesus when we say, “Well, he was one of a kind,” which therefore excuses me from being anything vaguely like him. To me, that’s a handy cop-out. The follow-up to “What would Jesus do?” isn’t to do it yourself, but simply to say, “Well, Jesus did that, so I don’t have to.” I’m not saying that’s how all Christians interpret him, but I think too many do.

This goes right to the crucifixion and the resurrection. We all have to “walk that lonesome valley.” We have to die to certain things – to our egos, our ambitions, some of our plans. We have to die to things we’ve talked about in this interview – wanting to get people closest to me to conform to my needs – in order to find new life on the other side. 

I will tell you as one who has been three times in the pit of hell in clinical depression, and who during those times spent many, many hours wondering if this was the time to take my own life because it was so miserable – I the crucifixion and resurrection are not abstract, theological terms to me. They are lived realities. And I have a very strong sense of what it means to walk that path myself, and to find new life on the other side of the darkness. 

So, Jesus is this exemplar of a life we’re all called to live. We are all called to incarnate, to embody, to enflesh, the God-life within us. We’re all made in the image of God, and I can’t make any sense out of any understanding of Jesus that lets us off the hook. Will we do it perfectly?  No, but perfection is not the Gospel.

The Gospel includes forgiveness of self and others. There is grace which sees us through. I deeply believe that I’m alive by the grace of God. People go around saying, “I don’t understand why so and so took his own life.” And I say, “Well, I understand! He was exhausted by life itself, and needed rest.” Some people find that a very unsatisfactory answer, but to me it’s about as close to the truth of depression and suicide as I’ve ever been able to get.

To me, this is stuff that is lived out in our everyday lives. The Gospel of Jesus is not a Gospel that has to do with saying it’s been done for us. It has everything to do with saying you have to find your own path to walk, in the title of a classic of spiritual book, you have to be your own Imitation of Christ. I think the Gospel is full of hard news and full of good news, but above all, I think it’s full of real news. 

It ain’t Fox News. It’s real news…about what it means to live a life.

This post is part of the ongoing series, Interviews with Spiritual Heroes.


Header image used under creative commons license courtesy the UC Observer

Parker Palmer and CCR Image used courtesy of the Center for Courage and Renewal

“BE” Image used under creative commons license courtesy of Pixabay

Sky Puzzle used under creative commons license courtesy of Flickr user Jared Tarbell

Henri Nouwen and Rainer Maria Wilke images used under creative commons license image courtesy of Wikimedia

Henri Nouwen and Jean Vanier image used under creative commons license courtesy of Kolbe Times

Let Your Life Speak image used under creative commons license courtesy of WholeHearted

Michael Brown image used under creative commons license courtesy of Facebook

Jesus image is Prayer ©CreationSwap/Jennifer Powell (cropped from original)

Ryan Thomas Neace is a counselor, professor, husband, and daddy. Please contact him for counseling via skype or in-person at

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