The View From The Brink: Parker Palmer on Grace, Gravity, and Getting Old

by Zoe Mackey

June 25, 2018

Adventure, creativity, and gratitude.

These were the three words author Parker Palmer chose when asked by fellow author and Shelf Awareness editor Kathleen Gerard to sum up his life now, at age 79. In his new book, On the Brink of Everything: Grace, Gravity, and Getting Old, Palmer says that his biggest surprise "is that I really like being old...the view from the brink is stunning. It allows me to look back, around, and ahead, and see how everything belongs, how what I got right and what I got wrong are all part of the tapestry of my life.” 

Palmer recently sat down with Gerard to talk his new book, On the Brink of Everything, a thoughtful and moving collection of essays reflecting on eight decades of his life. Publishers Weekly said of it "Warm, generous, and funny, this impassioned book invites readers into the deep end of life where authentic soul work and human transformation become pressing concerns." Their conversation ranged far and wide, from politics to religion to battling depression and why, as Parker puts it, "Old is just another word for nothing left to lose, a time to take bigger risks on behalf of the common good." The following is an excerpt from their conversation.

On inspiration

Kathleen: Who are your greatest teachers/mentors? When you were younger, what "elders" inspired you in your own life—and how did they inspire you?

Parker: My first great mentor was my father. He grew up in a blue collar family in Iowa and never went to college, but came to Chicago during the Great Depression and had a very successful business career based on hard work, honesty, and caring for others. He inspired me primarily by the way he lived: He was the best man I’ve ever known, and when I was young, I wanted to be like him. But he wanted me to be myself, and always encouraged me to follow my own path. He supplemented that encouragement with teachings such as, “Don’t become one of those people who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.” I was also blessed with several brilliant academic mentors in whom faith and reason happily cohabited. So when I hear people claim that religion and science are always irreconcilable, they strike me as one bulb short of a full chandelier.

On struggling with depression

Kathleen: You've published a dozen poems, more than one hundred essays and now 10 books. You're been recognized with 13 honorary doctorates, two Distinguished Achievement Awards from the National Educational Press Association, an Award of Excellence from the Associated Church Press, and grants from the Danforth Foundation, the Lilly Endowment and the Fetzer Institute. And you've founded the Center for Courage & Renewal, among other accomplishments, as well. What achievement(s) are you most proud of—and why? 

Parker: When Carleton College, my Alma Mater, gave me an Alumni Distinguished Achievement Award at my 50th Class Reunion, a pre-ceremony questionnaire asked me to name my greatest accomplishment—saying that my answer would be printed in the program. I wrote, “Surviving three serious bouts with clinical depression.” That’s still my answer. Nothing I’ve ever done has required more fortitude and persistence than surviving that assault on my selfhood and sense of meaning and purpose in life. In that achievement, of course, I join the ranks of millions of people who have done the same. 

KathleenHow do you stave off depression, especially amid the tumult of our world at present?

Parker: For staving off depression in a world with a lot of darkness, I do whatever I can: write and talk openly about it, trying to serve others as a “wounded healer,” thus making meaning of a devastating experience; being watchful about what I ingest and getting enough exercise to care for the body-mind connection; spending time with good friends with whom I can share problems before they overwhelm me; and getting out into the natural world where I always find consolation and encouragement—partly because of its beauty, partly because I feel accepted there, and partly because all life in the natural world depends on a steady cycle of darkness and light.

On politics

Kathleen: Sociology, social justice/causes and activism are central to your life and work. Where did this fervent interest and passion come from?

Parker: I grew up in the 1940s and 50s in an all-white suburb of Chicago. My family was open to diversity, but I had hardly any face-to-face experience with people outside my “tribe.” That changed when I went to Union Seminary in New York City (where I worked with kids from Spanish Harlem), and then went to Berkeley where I spent much of the 1960s doing a PhD in Sociology. By the time I got my degree, my heroes had been assassinated and our big cities were burning, and I felt strongly called to use my sociology in the streets rather than the classroom. I’ll always be glad that I walked away from an academic career and moved to Washington, D.C., to help establish a community organizing institute that was focused on stabilizing rapidly changing neighborhoods by helping people embrace the richness and value of diversity. That work brought me more deeply into the lives of real people in the real world, diverting me from the kind of scholarship that often gets lost in abstractions. 

Kathleen: You voice some strong opinions about our 45th President and the state of our country in On the Brink of Everything. How do you foresee the future playing out? Do you feel hopeful and optimistic about our world—a world you will someday leave behind?

ParkerAs I say in the the book, I’m not writing to persuade anyone of anything, but to encourage elders to stay in the game by using their voices to contribute to our political discourse. As long as you have your mind and your voice, you can continue to be part of “We the People,” and I think that’s important for elders and for democracy. As for hope, I’m writing on the day that 800,000 young people and their supporters went to Washington, D.C. to protest our political inaction around reasonable gun control. I’m part of a generation that once had high hopes about fomenting social change—but many threw in the towel when they didn’t succeed by the end of the 1960s. This generation is different, I think—many of them know that quick results are impossible, and they are in this struggle for the long haul. Their poise, intelligence, diligence, and ability to articulate blow me away, and I think that’s going to translate into political persistence on social media, in the streets, and at the ballot box. 

On religion

KathleenAre you affiliated with any organized religion at present? If so, which one and why? Also, how has/does this varied spiritual background influence your life?

Parker: I continue to identify as a Quaker, and I belong to a Quaker Meeting. In my branch of Quakerism, worship is rooted in silence, there are no clergy, and there’s no formal creed. All of that gives me a spiritual freedom I treasure. Quakerism affirms the centrality of “the inner teacher” AND the importance of testing our “leadings” in a community of discernment: we have a lot of voices within us, and not all of them are trustworthy. I like the fact that, for Quakers, the Scriptures have never stopped being written: you can find the “Gospel truth” in literature, in poetry, in science, in nature, and in personal experience: right here, right now. As one Quaker poet has it, “Your holy hearsay is not evidence/Give me the Good News in the present tense.” While I’m glad that I discovered Quakerism, I’m also grateful for the historical and theological grounding my mainline Protestant upbringing gave me. I’m grateful as well for the introduction Thomas Merton gave me to Christian, Jewish, and Islamic mysticism, and to Taoism and Zen Buddhism. I branched out spiritually because it’s clear to me that no one tradition has a corner on the wisdom market, or on the source of light. Each of them turns the prism a little differently, refracting a different dimension of ultimate reality. I think the variety in my spiritual background makes me less dependent a fixed version of truth, and more open to and respectful of the wide range of ways human beings have sought meaning and purpose in life.

KathleenWhat advice would you give other spiritual seekers who don't feel settled in any one particular avenue of worship?

ParkerWhile I’m big on dialogues about spiritual matters, I’m not big on giving advice: what works for me may not work for others. So I think the best thing I can say to those who don’t feel settled in one tradition is this: Don’t think of spiritual seeking in binary terms, as in, “If this tradition fails me, I guess I’ll have to drop the quest.” Follow the example of Gandhi who titled his autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth. Keep experimenting. That’s how we learn.

On Parker's legacy

Kathleen: Has your view of mortality changed from when you were 40-50-60 versus being an 80 year-old?

Parker: When I was young and at the peak of my active life, I didn’t try avoid thinking about my own mortality, but when I turned toward it, my thoughts were distant and abstract.  Nonsensical as it is, many of us live with an unspoken illusion of “immortality” for a long time—and that leads many of us to get our priorities out of order. The quip that “No one ever died wishing they’d spent more time at the office” doesn’t fully sink in until you start getting signals that you need to get real about the limits of your life and what you give your time and energy to.

KathleenWhat legacy would like to leave? Is there a quote that best sums up your life? 

Parker: I don’t think of legacy in personal terms. It seems to me that everything of value I’ve ever done, I’ve done with the help of a lot of other people. So whatever my legacy statement might be, it would be a “we” statement, not an “I” statement. As for a quote that sums up my life—at least as an aspiration—I love the quote from Florida Scott-Maxwell that appears in my book: “You need only claim the events of your life to make yourself yours. When you truly possess all you have been and done…you are fierce with reality.”

Kathleen: You state in the introduction of On the Brink of Everything that, at your age, you didn't feel you had the wherewithal to undertake the writing of a whole book. Yet, On the Brink of Everything came together successfully. Do you think you have yet another book in you?

Parker: I should have learned long ago that I’m not good at predicting the future, and this book proves it! So even though I don’t have another book in mind right now—and have other things want to do, personally and professionally, and have begun to do them—I think the safest answer to your question is, “Who knows? Certainly not I!”

This article is based on interview conducted by Shelf Awareness editor Kathleen Gerard and originally appeared in Shelf Awareness on April 25th, 2018.

Topics: You, Leadership, Servant Leadership, Service, Mentoring, Leadership and Management

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