Book summary: Let Your Life Speak, by Palmer J. Parker

Let Your Life Speak, by Parker J. Palmer

I woke up and the message hit me before my eyes were even open:

Let Your Life Speak.”

Odd, since I last read Parker J. Palmer’s book five years ago. Hadn’t thought about it since. But when intuition hits that hard, I listen. 

I reread it, and put together my interpretation of the book’s key ideas. 

“Let Your Life Speak” is theoretical and autobiographical. Palmer shares his winding career journey, which includes wrong turns to fit into roles not meant for him. He shares his search for his ideal vocation, which turns into the ultimate existential crisis: “Who am I?”

We must seek the answer “Who am I?” to know what to do. Ultimately, that answer comes from inside us. From spirit, and intuition. Not from the outside world.

Palmer also chronicles his descent into—and the climbing out of—depression. 

Palmer uses the term “soul” when discussing his inner voice. But I prefer the term spirit

While the two words are often used interchangeably, the primary distinction between soul and spirit in man is that the soul is the animate life, or the seat of the senses, desires, affections, and appetites. The spirit is that part of us that connects, or refuses to connect, to God.

Our deepest truths come not from soul, but from spirit. That is where intuition percolates and resonates, because spirit’s source is deeper than ourselves. 

A word of warning: This summary is framed through my lens of life experience. I ignore ideas from the book that don’t resonate with me. And those ideas might resonate strongly with you. I strongly suggest you read this book to interpret it through your life experiences and your spirit.

Quotes from the book appear in bullets, my comments and summations are in normal sentences and paragraphs. 

Let Your Life Speak: Key ideas by chapter

Listening to life 

Parker opens by exploring the idea of vocation:

  • "Ask me whether what I have done is my life." For some, those words will be nonsense, nothing more than a poet's loose way with language and logic.

  • They remind me of moments when it is clear-if I have eyes to see-that the life I am living is not the same as the life that wants to live in me.

The idea of dictating vocation to our lives is misguided. Vocation is received, not created. It is discovered within by listening, not by seeking validation or information from the outside world:

  • "Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you. Before you tell your life what truths and values you have decided to live up to, let your life tell you what truths you embody, what values you represent."

  • Trying to live someone else's life, or to live by an abstract norm, will invariably fail-and may even do great damage.

  • Vocation does not come from willfulness. It comes from listening. I must listen to my life and try to understand what it is truly about-quite apart from what I would like it to be about-or my life will never represent anything real in the world, no matter how earnest my intentions.

  • Vocation is not a goal to be pursued. It means a calling that I hear.

  • We listen for guidance everywhere but within

  • Verbalizing is not the only way our lives speak, of course. They speak through our actions and reactions, our intuitions and instincts, our feelings and bodily states of being, perhaps more profoundly than through our words.

  • We are like plants, full of tropisms that draw us toward certain experiences and repel us from others. If we can learn to read our own responses to our own experience-a text we are writing unconsciously every day we spend on earth-we will receive the guidance we need to live more authentic lives.

Not everything our spirit tells us is happy and positive: 

  • I must also let it speak things I do not want to hear and would never tell anyone else!

  • To truly discover who we are and what we should do, we have to take dark journeys, into confusion, disquiet, and even sometimes depression. 

We must make quiet space for the spirit to speak. Our intuition will not force its way onto us. It won’t shout over the din of our outside lives or inner chatter: 

  • The soul speaks its truth only under quiet, inviting, and trustworthy conditions. The soul is like a wild animal-tough, resilient, savvy, self-sufficient, and yet exceedingly shy.

  • Vocation is not a goal to be achieved but a gift to be received 

  • Vocation is not found in the external, but comes from an internal voice, a self-knowing 

Now I become myself

The journey to self-discover can be long. We spend lots of time applying masks to ourselves that don’t fit:

  • What a long time it can take to become the person one has always been! How often in the process we mask ourselves in faces that are not our own. How much dissolving and shaking of ego we must endure before we discover our deep identity-the true self within every human being that is the seed of authentic vocation.

Life leaves a trail of breadcrumbs as to our ideal vocation. Particularly our early lives. But the hints left behind aren’t often explicit. We have to use interpretation:

  • Life begins putting into slots very early, yet our childhoods offer many clues as to our true vocation. Often these clues are coded and must be examined and explored to be truly understood. A career desire or interest we had as kids might actually reveal a deeper truth. But we have to examine it. For example:

  • Hidden in my desire to become an "ad man" was a lifelong long fascination with language and its power to persuade, the same fascination that has kept me writing incessantly for decades.

Finding vocation means asking the right questions:

  • “Who am I,” is a more important question to ask than “What should I do with my life?”

Vocational choice is not always rational: 

  • Vocation at its deepest level is, "This is something I can't not do, for reasons I'm unable to explain to anyone else and don't fully understand myself but that are nonetheless compelling."

Knowing our own limitations is key to unlocking our greatest strengths:

  • We must withdraw the negative projections we make on people and situations-projections that serve mainly to mask our fears about ourselves-and acknowledge and embrace our own liabilities and limits.

Self-care is imperative to self-discovery: 

  • self-care is never a selfish act-it is simply good stewardship of the only gift I have, the gift I was put on earth to offer to others. ers. Anytime we can listen to true self and give it the care it requires, we do so not only for ourselves but for the many others whose lives we touch.

We create positive change for ourselves and others when we commit to authenticity: 

  • They decide no longer to act on the outside in a way that contradicts some truth about themselves selves that they hold deeply on the inside. They decide to claim authentic selfhood and act it out-and their decisions ripple out to transform the society in which they live, serving the selfhood hood of millions of others.

When way closes 

Negative guidance--closing an errant path we were on--is as important as clarity about the way forward:

  • As doors close, a clear path may not emerge. But paths closed to us offer similar guidance: 

  • "... in sixty-plus years of living, way has never opened in front of me. But a lot of way has closed behind me, and that's had the same guiding effect."

  • stop pounding on the door that just closed, turn around-which puts the door behind us-and welcome the largeness of life that now lies open to our souls.

  • there is as much guidance in what does not and cannot not happen in my life as there is in what can and does-maybe maybe more.

  • The opening may reveal our potentials while the closing may reveal our limits-two sides of the same coin, the coin called identity.

We are told we can be and do anything. This is simply not true. To make our greatest impact, we must be clear and honest about what we cannot do. We must also learn our limits in order to grow:

  • It would be nice if our limits did not reveal themselves in such embarrassing ways as getting fired from a job. But if you are like me and don't readily admit your limits, embarrassment may be the only way to get your attention.

  • Ignoring or trying to push through our limits causes harm to ourselves and others

  • Exceeding our limits for too long has consequences.

  • God asks us only to honor our created nature, which means our limits as well as potentials. When we fail to do so, reality happens-God happens-and way closes behind us.

To cross our true nature is to cross God:

  • If, as I believe, we are all made in God's image, we could all give the same answer when asked who we are: "I Am who I Ain." One dwells with God by being faithful to one's nature. One crosses God by trying to be something one is not. Reality-including one's own-is divine, to be not defied but honored.

Our strongest gifts are those which come most naturally to us:

  • Our strongest gifts are usually those we are barely aware of possessing. They are a part of our God-given given nature, with us from the moment we drew first breath, and we are no more conscious of having them than we are of breathing.

All the way down 

Depression, despite all our clinical and pharmaceutical attempts otherwise, remains a mystery:

  • Depression demands that we reject simplistic answers, both "religious" and "scientific," and learn to embrace mystery, something our culture resists. Mystery surrounds every deep experience of the human heart: the deeper we go into the heart's darkness or its light, the closer we get to the ultimate mystery of God.

Helping a depressed person often means just being present, as God does for us:

  • One of the hardest things we must do sometimes is to be present to another person's pain without trying to "fix" it, to simply stand respectfully at the edge of that person's mystery and misery. Standing there, we feel useless and powerless, which is exactly how a depressed person feels-and our unconscious need as Job's comforters is to reassure ourselves that we are not like the sad soul before us.

  • God gives us strength by suffering with us 

Living grounded can prevent an emotional and intellectual crash: 

  • First, I had been trained as an intellectual not only to think-an activity I greatly value-but also to live largely in my head, the place in the human body farthest from the ground.

  • Second, I had embraced a form of Christian faith devoted less to the experience of God than to abstractions about God,

  • Third, my altitude had been achieved by my ego, an inflated ego that led me to think more of myself than was warranted ranted in order to mask my fear that I was less than I should have been.

Ignoring the True Self for too long can induce depression: 

  • The figure calling to me all those years was, I believe, what Thomas Merton calls "true self." This is not the ego self that wants to inflate us (or deflate us, another form of self-distortion), distortion), not the intellectual self that wants to hover above the mess of life in clear but ungrounded ideas, not the ethical self that wants to live by some abstract moral code. It is the self planted in us by the God who made us in God's own image-the the self that wants nothing more, or less, than for us to be who we were created to be. True self is true friend. One ignores or rejects such friendship ship only at one's peril.

Sometimes, the way to God is down: 

  • When I was finally able to turn around and ask, "What do you want?" the answer was clear: I want you to embrace this descent into hell as a journey toward selfhood-and a journey toward God.

  • two crucial features of any spiritual journey. One is that it will take us inward and downward, toward the hardest realities of our lives, rather than outward and upward toward abstraction, idealization, and exhortation. The spiritual journey runs counter to the power of positive thinking.

  • But, says Annie Dillard, if we ride those monsters all the way down, we break through to something precious-to "the unified field, our complex and inexplicable caring for each other,"

We have to embrace and explore all facets of ourselves--light and dark: 

  • the self is not set apart or special or superior but is a common mix of good and evil, darkness and light; a place where we can finally embrace the humanity we share with others.

The descent down to God and true self can be painful: 

  • But this person did not tell me that the path to humility, for some of us at least, goes through humiliation, where we are brought low, rendered powerless, stripped of pretenses tenses and defenses, and left feeling fraudulent, empty, and useless-a humiliation that allows us to regrow our lives from the ground up, from the humus of common ground.

Serving the true self will serve others: 

  • When I started attending to my own truth, more of that truth became available in my work and my relationships. I now know that anything one can do on behalf of true self is done ultimately in the service of others.

Living authentically is God’s instruction: 

  • I had missed the deep meaning of a biblical teaching that I had always regarded as a no-brainer: "I set before you life or death, blessing or curse. Therefore, choose life" (Deuteronomy 30:19). Why, I wondered, would God waste precious breath on saying something so obvious? I had failed to understand the perverse comfort we sometimes get from choosing death in life, exempting ourselves from the challenge of using our gifts, of living our lives in authentic relationship with others.

Leading from within

Consciousness is what ignites change and action. Thought before form. Thought begets form:

  • "Consciousness precedes Being" and "the salvation of this human world lies nowhere else than in the human heart." Material reality, Havel claims, is not the fundamental damental factor in the movement of human history. Consciousness is. Awareness is. Thought is. Spirit is. These are not the ephemera of dreams. They are the inner Archimedean points from which oppressed people have gained the leverage to lift immense boulders and release transformative change.

The inner life is where we should focus and learn: 

  • We like to talk about the outer world as if it were infinitely complex and demanding, but it is a cakewalk compared to the labyrinth of our inner lives!

Facing our challenges head on is the only way to grow:

  • But then she shouted ten words I hope never to forget, words whose impact and meaning I can still feel: "If you can't get out of it, get into it!"

There are “five monsters” of our shadow selves that hold us back and hold us down:

  • Insecurity about identity and worth When we are insecure about our own identities, we create ate settings that deprive other people of their identities as a way of buttressing our own.

  • Belief that the universe is a battleground, hostile to human interests

  • Functional atheism: the belief that ultimate responsibility for everything rests with us. It leads us to impose our will on others, stressing our relationships, ships, sometimes to the point of breaking. It often eventuates in burnout, depression, and despair, as we learn that the world will not bend to our will and we become embittered about that fact.

  • Fear of the natural chaos of life 

  • The denial of death itself. Though we sometimes times kill things off well before their time, we also live in denial of the fact that all things must die in due course.

While our truth lies within, we still need others to help us interpret and live out what we learn:

  • that inner work, though it is a deeply personal matter, is not necessarily a private matter: inner work can be helped along in community. Indeed, doing inner work together is a vital counterpoint to doing it alone. Left to our own devices, we may delude ourselves selves in ways that others can help us correct.

There is a season 

Society operates in a manufacturing-oriented mindset. We don’t have a spirit of discovery. Instead, we believe we must force and will everything into creation:

  • We do not believe that we "grow" our lives-we believe that we "make" them. Just listen to how we use the word in everyday speech: we make time, make friends, snake meaning, make money, make a living, make love.

Parker uses the seasons on earth to draw powerful parallels to our lives.

Autumn is when we need to appreciate beauty, realize change is inevitable, and sow the seeds of future growth. Autumn isn’t just summer’s end. It is it’s first precursor, laying the groundwork for the next summer:

  • A time of beauty and decline, but when nature spreads seeds for new growth in the future.

  • In retrospect, I can see in my own life what I could not see at the time-how the job I lost helped me find work I needed to do, how the "road closed" sign turned me toward terrain I needed to travel, how losses that felt irredeemable forced me to discern meanings I needed to know.

  • On the surface, face, it seemed that life was lessening, but silently and lavishly the seeds of new life were always being sown.

  • if we want to save our lives, we cannot cling to them but must spend them with abandon.

Winter seems harsh, but there is beauty and growth in embracing it, and in realizing change is occurring even when all seems dead and still.

  • It is a season when death's victory can seem supreme: few creatures stir, plants do not visibly grow, and nature feels like our enemy. And yet the rigors of winter, like the diminishments of autumn, are accompanied by amazing gifts. One gift is beauty, different from the beauty of autumn but somehow lovelier still: I am not sure that any sight or sound on earth is as exquisite as the hushed descent of a sky full of snow. Another gift is the reminder that times of dormancy mancy and deep rest are essential to all living things.

  • I am not sure that any sight or sound on earth is as exquisite as the hushed descent of a sky full of snow.

  • "The winters will drive you crazy until you learn to get out into them." Until we enter boldly into the fears we most want to avoid, those fears will dominate our lives. But when we walk directly into them-protected from frostbite by the warm garb of friendship or inner discipline pline or spiritual guidance-we can learn what they have to teach us.

Spring starts out slow and messy before bursting forth with the promise of summer.

  • Before spring becomes beautiful, it is plug ugly, nothing but mud and muck.

  • I love the fact that the word humus-the decayed vegetable etable matter that feeds the roots of plants-comes from the same root that gives rise to the word humility. It is a blessed etymology. It helps me understand that the humiliating events of life, the events that leave "mud on my face" or that "make my name mud," may create the fertile soil in which something new can grow.

  • Spring teaches me to look more carefully for the green stems of possibility: for the intuitive hunch that may turn into a larger insight, for the glance or touch that may thaw a frozen relationship, for the stranger's act of kindness that makes the world seem hospitable again.

Summer is a time of easy gratitude and abundance. When we reap the harvest of the work done in the other seasons. 

  • summer's keynote is abundance.

  • abundance is a communal act, the joint creation of an incredibly complex ecology in which each part functions on behalf of the whole and, in return, is sustained by the whole. Community doesn't just create abundance-community is abundance.

  • Daily I am astonished at how readily I believe that something I need is in short supply. If I hoard possessions, it is because I believe that there are not enough to go around. If I struggle with others over power, it is because I believe that power is limited.

  • It is difficult to trust that the pool of possibilities is bottomless, that one can keep diving in and finding more.