Ep. 3 | The Scariest Book I Have Ever Read (with Parker Palmer)
4:15PM Oct 2, 2023
My conversation today is with Parker J. Palmer. I've been reading Parker's books for years, and I thought we would open our conversation today talking about elevated and philosophical topics like grace and courage. But it turns out fate had other plans spend about 30 minutes trying to troubleshoot our tech setup as our intro. He has been wise for many years and 83 years old is an elder worth listening to. He's the author of 10 books about education, community leadership, spirituality and social change. I learned the most about my own experience through three of his books. So you may hear more reference to these than his other works, because we're here to talk about learning through experience. And I've had a particularly great learning through my experience with these three, let your life speak, the courage to teach and on the brink of everything, Grace, gravity, and getting old. addition to being a writer, Parker Palmer is also the founder and senior partner Mrs. of the Center for courage and renewal. He graduated University of California Berkeley, in 1969, with a PhD in philosophy, and funny become an academic, but took a sharp detour and moved to DC, where he became a community organizer for approximately five years. After that, Parker took another detour. He took what he thought was going to be a brief break at a Quaker learning community, Pendle Hill, and ended up spending 11 years there. Well, at Pendle Hill, he felt drawn to write, teach, and be a speaker focusing on issues in education, community leadership, spirituality and social change. Finally, after leaving Pendle Hill, Parker founded the Center for courage and renewal, which focuses on long term retreats for people in service professions, teachers, doctors, nurses, and others. You know, I thought we were going to be learning from experience on like, you know, abstract topics like grace and wisdom and love, it turns out, no, we're going to start at the basics of today, when we get the sound on.
So we're going for the nitty gritty not for grace. Well,
I'm going to hang with grace as the thing that is enlivening to me. But it turns out, it's hard to have grace when the technology doesn't allow you to hear each other if you're trying to do mutual grace. Okay, I feel like we need to start with some meditation after all of that.
Hello, you are a person dear to me, because I've been reading you for many years. And I'm so honored that you came to this to this podcast, which is called learning through experience. And so warm welcome to you, Parker. J. Palmer.
Thank you, Heidi, I'm so glad to be with you.
So I thought I might start by asking you a little bit about what you're up to these days to just kind of set a context. So I know a little bit about you from your, from your, from your writing, and from what's posted online. But I thought I might ask you what you're up to it. How are you spending your time?
Sure, we're always in the moment, right? If we're if we're paying attention to our lives. And so in this very moment, what I'm putting a lot of time and energy into is a sister who's just two years younger than I who is in the hospital in Chicago with COVID, and a very serious threat to her health. So that's taking a lot of time and energy, especially since I have underlying conditions that keep me from going there, which I would dearly love to be able to do. Fortunately, there are other family members in the area. But in the moment, that's a very major vocation of mine. But more broadly and more generally, as you know, from reading on the brink of everything, subtitled grace, gravity and getting old, I'm tracking this interesting interplay of aging and vocation. My vocation has meant the world to me, and if you have to boil it down, I think it was hurt. As I said, in the courage to teach, I'm a teacher, whether I'm writing or speaking, or workshopping or retreat leading or in the classroom, I think teaching is probably my vocation, which for me also means learning teaching and learning hyphenated phrase can't have one without the other. And so tracking the limitations that come with age, and then the whole question of as my canvas gets smaller, how do I keep making art? And it's a very interesting question to me because I've always thought that constraint and creativity have a an organic relationship with one another. Mean creativity never means splatting it out everywhere. Like a river Over running its banks. Creativity is you know, working within what's possible, and stretching the boundaries when you when you can, using available resources. And all of that changes. As we get older, I don't have the time and energy, I don't have the energy, I may have the time, but I don't have the energy to be on the road, two weeks out of every month, the way I did for 30 years, I have some underlying health conditions that make it unwise for me to get up in front of big audiences face to face. Although I continue to do a lot of that on Zoom. I don't have another book in me, because a book for me is a marathon, it's typically taken me at least five years to write a book, sometimes more. And I've written 10 of them. So I know what that the cost of that. In, in my elder years now at age 83. I've been focused more on short form writing. And as as old fashioned as this will sound to me and your audience. I take great pleasure in maintaining a Facebook author page, where I post short form pieces along frequently along with poetry, and sometimes with political commentary. And I just I take a lot of pleasure in working with poetry, which I've done for half of my adult life. And in putting that word out to an audience, which has grown, you know, reasonably sizable, and I get a lot of interaction and feedback from them. So I'm also working with a singer songwriter. And this is a development in my life that began maybe 10 years ago, when a wonderful singer songwriter named Carrie newcomer reached out to me and asked me to write the liner notes for what was then a new album, we struck up a friendship and we struck up a conversation. And it's been richly rewarding to me for the first time in my life really to work closely with a colleague who has a completely different skill set. She's music through and through and poetry through and through. And while I write some poetry, I'm not that kind of poet, she just plucked him out of the air, and then puts into music. And it's beautiful stuff. So we've done before COVID hit, we did a bunch of retreats together. And on several onstage productions, I guess 15 altogether over the years, have spoken word and music. And it's a it's been a wonderful, wonderful collaboration. We had one production called Healing the heart of democracy, a gathering of spirits for the common good, and another called What we need is here, hope, hard times and the human possibility. So you know, I keep trying to push the boundaries as one candidate at my age, in this, this whole business of working with someone who operates really on another channel, but with whom I'm deeply simpatico in other ways has been quite wonderful.
Amazing. I love that the draw into the connection between creativity and and grace, and the way that you're talking about kind of adjusting it to a smaller canvas. It's a it's a nice image. It's a nice image. I wanted to tell you how I first encountered your voice and then asked you a couple of questions related to that. And then we got to make my way back to some of the things that you've just mentioned. I first encountered your voice because I started to lead and design after being first a participant, a program based in New Haven called the Community Leadership Program, which was funded and founded by Bill Graf Stein, who was really committed to an energy of helping people think through collaborative values based leadership that also helped create the capacity for the city to work in more equitable fashion. And so we spent about 20 years so far, working on this vision of leadership development that was a place based leadership. Now, that's important because Bill had and still continues to be a friend practicing a Quaker approach to spirituality. And so your voice wound up quite central because it was so alive. mind with the way that we were thinking about creating learning spaces. And so thank you for all of the company, you've kept me in there in different ways. It's particularly in the Community Leadership Program. And I wanted to come back to this to this idea that you that you mentioned about the connection between teaching and learning. Right. So you talked about your, your vocation being a teacher, and yet for many people, certainly in the in the Yale context, people think about teaching as sharing expertise. And yet, you have a very different idea of what teaching might look like and feel like, when you speak about teaching, you immediately mentioned your own learning and your own own pathway. Can you talk a little bit about that what that looks like?
Sure. You know, maybe maybe this is what I'm about to say, maybe because I have a low tolerance for boredom. Even though I have a very welcome embrace of silence, you know, waiting patiently, and all that good stuff, along with the fierce urgency of now. But my point is, that if I hadn't been learning from teaching, I would have gotten an honest job a long time ago, when I don't learn, I get bored. To me the when I have to give a lecture, the lecture is the least engaging part of it, because I know exactly what I'm going to say. But in the q&a, when I'm challenged with questions, things get interesting, because I don't know what I'm going to say, and I'm learning on my feet. And I get a lot of energy from that. One of my experiences in the last three years is that when I've done webinars, I really miss the immediacy of interaction with a live audience where you can pick up all kinds of clues about where to go next, and what kind of feedback they're giving you just from body language, which you know, which, which always evokes new responses in me, like, Oh, I didn't, I didn't say that very well, or at least they're not understanding it. So let me take another run at it, you know, that, to me, those are exciting moments, I would rather whitewater raft and just be on a placid lake.
Roll. This is this is really important, especially speaking to you from a Yale studio, where teaching is sharing expertise. And that means kind of knowing ahead of time, that the teacher is the expert, who is then going to share their relatively static knowledge. And you're talking about a much more dynamic process. And in fact, maybe not even knowing what you might say, until there's a moment that provokes you to respond.
Yes, and I don't, and I know you don't, either it I don't want for a moment to discount the importance of preparedness. Yes, doing your homework and learning, you know, some facts and theories and moves. We should all keep working at that. But you know, in the courage to teach I offered a definition of teaching, which I stand by, to this day to teach is to create a space in which the community of truth is practiced. And we can take a long time to unpack every piece of that, but it goes right along with with what you're saying, which is that top down teaching has nothing to do with community, it's more about management, and then staying in control of things so that the surprises never come up where you know, you're you have to learn something new on your feet, or you have to say to your students, you know, I have no idea how to respond to that. But I'll study up and come back the next time with something that might take us further, conversationally down that road. The community of truth in my mind, is important because it replicates how knowledge gets generated in the first place. So as you know, I always take pedagogy or teaching back to epistemology, our theories about how we know what we know and and the validity of our knowledge. And I don't think it takes more than 10 seconds of decent thought, to realize that knowledge does not spring full blown out of a geniuses head. Knowledge is the slow human journey toward deeper and deeper understanding, which is always done communally advancing knowledge under you know, with certain ground rules about what constitutes validity. But no scholar just stands up and say, Hey, here's the truth. You Like it or lump it, everything gets tested in a community of fellow inquires. And then the to me the most important thing is that, and this is will be known news to anybody in your audience either. For many years, that community, let's say, since the Enlightenment has been limited to a certain demographic, and I'm talking about people who look like me, white males, usually reasonably well off with the privilege of a lot of education. But over the years, through movements of social change, new voices, new perspectives, new life experiences come into that circle. The protocols themselves get challenged and sometimes changed. For what constitutes valid inquiry, which then compel new interpretations, new hypotheses, new theories, and eventually, new facts. But the facts, I often say when I'm talking with folks about this, if you want your students to be in the truth, it is simply not enough to deliver the set of facts that constitutes your disciplines current version of truth, you have to give them that they have to know what the score is at this moment. But it's an ever changing score. And if you want them to be in the truth, you have to teach them how to be in the conversation. And that means embrace diversity, embrace the conflict that comes with diversity, embrace, the openness to listen to a contrary point of view, to move forward collegially ideologically, toward a next iteration of, of something that never finishes.
The NFL, what you call a community of of truth, I refer to and course that I teach here and some work that I'm doing on every day leadership. I think that as a, as a courageous community, significant overlap and connection back to the energy that you're bringing up there. And one of the reasons of my starting this podcast in this way of, for me, starting a podcast on learning through experience, by going back and talking to people whose voices have impacted me is that I'm really wanting to, to acknowledge that we build who we are in context and in company of others. So this kind of myth of individualism, this idea that individuals kind of spark from the pavement or something, their brilliance, and then stand alone, and their ability to kind of conquer the world is an ideology that I think really limits our capacity to really unleash the potential of the collective.
It's very destructive. And I think among other things, we could debate this or talk about this for a long time. It's a it's an epistemology, or a way of understanding knowing that actually encourages authoritarianism to to encourage reliance on experts. So I'll just toss it one more note, and you go wherever you'd like to go. The word truth cries out always for a definition, I think, and I and I have one, which is this truth is any eternal conversation about things that matter, conducted with passion and discipline? And both of those elements that passion and discipline are critical, as are things that matter? But again, it's it's the conversation is not the conclusions, because one thing we know, in every field of scholarship, the conclusions keep changing.
Oh, yeah. Beautiful, beautiful. You know, a few years ago, I reached out to you, because when I read at that time, your piece on an invitation to really be yourself, I was really, really encouraged to teach and let your life speak at the same time. But I reached out to you, because of the story that you told about your own professional development in let your life speak. I was at the time asking a question of how did I wind up in the context of a major business school? Yale School of Management is perhaps a little bit different than other schools. And yet, people just don't necessarily know that. And so, I reached out to you at a time when I think fairly business schools are being asked, What are you willing to be accountable to and for about the ideologies that are being created, about what it means to to lead to be a business leader to be accountable for excellence in this in this world, and I have a much broader hope and definition then people's ideas of what business schools are doing. And so I was asking, you know, can I be bigger and broader than what people think business schools are like my classrooms invite different kinds of teaching and learning. And, and I read your story, I also went to UC Berkeley. So I read some of your your story about your decision to craft your pathway, partly out of the way that I heard it, I have a kind of a disillusionment with what was possible for your energy and your path and for unleashing your potential. And I found in it, some, some strands that made me that had me resonating with your story. So I reached out to you and said, That's the scariest book I've ever read. And you were kind and generous and gentle and lovely, and invited me to, to connect, which I prefer I'd much appreciated.
scares me to, yes,
there was there was there was that as well. But I think there's reason to be scared. And I think there's reason to be to be hopeful, I decided to stay in, in the university. And it feels a bit of an uphill battle in terms of being in the ideologies, which are very strong in the university, but what is expertise? And what is learning? And what does it mean to to lead and to have a presence. And so this conversation is happening in the context of my looking to have people see a little bit more of the way that I teach, and how much demand there is from the students for this kind of an energy of acknowledging your own learning process in community with others, which is for me, I think the way that we need to lead in a really complex world. So when you talk about the conclusions, shifting, this is a this is a radical and very disturbing idea for the way that we educate as though knowledge is itself fixed. And if you could just learn the right answers, then excellence is probably at your fingertips, because then you can be a problem solver who can resolve things come to conclusions, and therefore, I think, you know, be brilliant and accomplished. And, you know, who knows what other the other words are going to be that flow from from there. But there's a, there's a promise in there that I think it's hard for young people to be able to, to realize, without leaving behind some of themselves. And so I wanted to ask you, what do you think about where the world is now, in terms of the messages that you have have have brought out? You know, I mean, I'm really hearing the the work that you did around the healing the heart of democracy? And how are you feeling about kind of the uphill battle of the voice of your work? Does it feel as uphill, as as I was feeling a few years ago, I'm not sure why I'm even feeling it's as up as I was I was a few years ago.
Yeah, well, I guess, it's a very interesting question. To me it because I'm sitting here realizing my work has always felt uphill, you know, for the past 30 years. Because when I began writing, about, let's just say, spirituality and education. This is not a popular topic in top academic circles. I soon realized that I couldn't get away with using a word spirituality that created walls rather than bridges for people. And I've always been interested in being a bridge builder. And so I started talking instead about epistemology. And as I did a few moments ago with you, and I found that I could bring people to many of the same places with a word that either is or should be kosher in academic circles, how we know what we know. And both the limits and the potentials of our knowledge. So today, I feel like it's still uphill, but I also feel that there are people like you, in places like Yale, who are doing the kinds of things I've written and talked about for many years not. And when you're in this kind of business, you could do exactly what you're doing. You you reach out and you find your friends, and kind of warm your hands over that shared fire. You know, it's hard, folks. It's cold out here, but we can we can get a night's sleep and make it through. And because the truth of the matter is that 30 or 40 years ago, the odds of me talking with someone like you doing what you do in a prestigious institution like a Oh, we're slim to none. I have a ton of stories about how that how that has played out in encouraging ways, you know, in everything I care about. And this is an interesting part of being 83, or anywhere in the neighborhood of old age. Everything I've cared about since I was in my 20s has either not gotten as far as I had hoped it would, or has periodically advanced only to be beaten back.
What do you mean? Oh,
let's say voting rights, for example, just just to take one or racial realities in the United States and Americans, America's grip on what people keep referring to as a racial reckoning, which didn't begin with the murder of George Floyd, it's been going on for a very, very long time. And it's one step forward and two steps back, and then a lot of my age mates have just said, Screw it. We gave our life to an illusion, it wasn't worth the effort. Well, I have another little thing that I have learned to live by. And that is the this American fetish with looking at outcomes and results, every quarter is pretty much nonsense. And it's done us a lot of harm. It's not that I don't care about results, but I cannot think of any of my heroes now gone, who were able to die saying, I'm sure glad I gave my life for the sake to love truth and justice, because now everyone in the world can check all that that off their to do list, right? Nobody ever died that way. And so you ask, Well, did they have an alternative criterion or a standard by which to hold themselves accountable? And my personal answer to that is, is faithfulness over effectiveness, not giving up on effectiveness, but being faithful to the task that you believe you've been called to? Or that lies before you? And that's a gut check for me every day. Okay. Parker, you believe in love, truth and justice? What did you do today? That, for example, was along the lines of what Ibram X kendi says, about there's no such person as one who's not has no racist bone in his or her body, but you can on a daily basis, speak or act in an anti racist way?
You know, I think of that in terms of, you know, kind of logic of, of consequence versus a logic of commitment, you know, what can I kind of create, right right now, especially, versus what are the principles to which I am holding myself as an app, and the processes that go along with that
are really like the consequences of commitment
in the long arc of the years that you've had 83. So, so far, who has who has kept you company, I'm reaching back to you because you've kept the company. I wonder who are some of the people who have kept you company?
Well, that's a great question for me to meditate on. And I'm sure I'll come up with a lot of answers after we finished talking. I feel very accompanied by certain writers whom I never met. One of those people is Thomas Merton. Trappist monk. I discovered his work. When I was beginning my work as a community organizer in Washington DC, at age 29. Focused on racial justice, especially in the form of the consequences of redlining and blockbusting. It was hard work, it was stressful work, it was burnout work, and Merton really helped me understand something about the importance of the inner life of the activist that I'm, that I'm still trying to live into. Not not long after that. I made a friend, a great black historian, Vincent Harding. I became dean of studies that are small Quaker adult studies center, because I was drawn to the Quakers nonviolent approach to social change and their way of developing the inner life, which didn't require one to be a Trappist monk, which I definitely was not And one of the first people I invited to join the faculty at Pendle Hill this Quaker center was Vincent Harding and his family. Were in residence there for several years and I learned so much from just hanging around with them. to fast forward to one of my more current mentors. From among the many people of color I've worked with Greg Ellison down at Emory University at Candler theological school was half my age, has written some wonderful books, and established a program about dialogues or fearless conversations. One of his a book that he's written about, he also wrote about young black men and a book called cut dead that's still alive. Greg has been generous mentor of mine and has invited me into a community of folks who are attempting to bring back to prominence the work of, of Howard Thurman, the great black theologian, whose role in the Civil Rights Movement has been pretty widely understood. So there's that, you know, there's an endless list of people of that sort. The other thing I want to name is that I've always had a, an aspiration, I guess, even a commitment to trying to put wheels on ideas, that is, create a vehicle that will allow other people to ride that idea, reshape it as they go toward destinations of their own choosing. So in that context, I 25 years ago, established a nonprofit called the Center for courage and renewal, which began its work working with public school teachers who are some of the unsung heroes of our society, true first responders. We've grown today to maybe 350 400 facilitators all over the country and around the world, who are working with lots of people in the helping professions. So not only teaching at various levels, but health care, Ministry of ecumenical multi-dimensional, denominational way, nonprofit leaders, et cetera, et cetera. I wrote about all this in a book called a hidden wholeness. And that work, you know, being involved on a nitty gritty level with helping to establish and maintain an institution and nonprofit over 25 years. That is nothing if it's not actively engaged with all the kinds of folks that I was just naming and more including social change agents, especially young, social change agents. That work has just given me this rich, multi dimensional community of reference, where I've, there's a leadership story here that I won't bore you with unless you want to hear it, where when I established it at a foundation and ran the program for three years, while it was held in house at this foundation. They then said it's getting too big for for it to stay here. So let's establish a 501 C three. And I said that would be great, but I want to find young leaders for it. I have a day job that I want to get back to writing and teaching. And so brought in two people who did a wonderful job for almost 15 years. But in the very first week, I said to them, I don't want to be on your staff, I don't want to be on your board and I don't want to make any money off of this. I have a day job, I'll be fine. But I don't want to pose when I get old and crotchety, I don't want to pose the founder problem that so many nonprofits have, where you say I want to give it away to younger people. But then you watch them take it in a direction you don't approve of and you do everything under the table to try to get it back. That's an ugly picture that's been painted many times. And I know my own proclivities and I want this to be structured in a way that prevents me from doing that. That got tested early on. And there's an interesting story about what I did with everyone once I was tested, but anyway, I'd love to hear it. Okay, so the quick story Id It is that having made this speech back in the late 90s, to these two people that were the first generation of leaders of the Center for courage and renewal, they had had a lot of nonprofit experience. And they were thrilled that I was taking this position that I didn't want to become a, you know, a wrench in the works. And so we I signed off on it, and we were all very happy. And it happened that I was at the foundation, the very first time the new board, which they had put together, I had nothing to do with it. The very first time the new board flew in, to have a decision making meeting with the two new co directors. Uh huh. I was at the airport, on my way home. And here comes this board. And on the way home, I started getting pissed off. This is after three plus years of hard work and all the politics involved at this foundation. Here's this is the first meeting that I won't be sitting in on where important decisions about the future will be made. And I really, I got my undies in a bunch, I was kind of amazed. But one thing I've learned about myself is I don't really know how I'm gonna feel until I get there. So go there, get there learn from it. I knew exactly what I had to do. And I did it a week later, after the board meeting was over, everybody had gone back home and I had had a chance to process my feelings I called these co directors. And I told them what I what I've been wrestling with for the past week. And because we operated with five trust with each other, I just exercised that demon, it was gone. And so big leadership lesson, you gotta have people you can be absolutely emotionally honest with or you start building something that's phony. And it will fall like a house of cards. Community of truth. Yep, community of truth. Do it in community. Thank you.
And I love the energy of despite our greatest ambitions and clear intentions to live a kind of life of virtue aligned with our values, it can be actually very annoying to be walking the path of integrity.
This was a good idea.
Some of our best ideas are really hard to it's a hard path to follow. I think that's part of part of some of the complexity of walking a process or a commitment to a set of values and principles rather than to try to just know things or have conclusions and be done with it already.
So much of what we do is in that mold or model, isn't it? Let's let's keep control. Let's let's take the efficient way to getting done. Don't distribute the power because that's messy, etc.
So the direction that you know, I have energy around for my next chapter is around and everyday leadership that can learn together in a complex world that we actually need these collective and mutual learning conversations to, to make our way forward. That what we have normalized to date, that kind of status quo of individualism, and I think you're inspiring me to call it conclusion ism, or something along those lines and kind of static relationship with with with knowledge and knowing and being is not fit for the future that we're that we're stepping into, and in fact, are already in. And we need each other to change those norms.
Absolutely. And it's always hasn't it, it's always been an illusion that the world sort of holds still, as long as we're running. It just means we're blind. And what's happening underneath the surface.
It is a comforting illusion. However, that does explain some of our surprise later on when the path gets irritating. We were not necessarily letting ourselves know the truth along the way. Amen. Well, this has been a delightful conversation. And I'm really honored to be able to be in conversation with you at this point in my trajectory, and to continue to learn with and from you.
Thank you for this. I've really enjoyed it. It's been very stimulating, and I have some new thoughts to think as I go forward. So thank you.
Beautiful. Thank you so much. All the best. Until now. This has been an episode of learning through experience. I'm your host Heidi Brooks. This podcast is produced through Yale School of Management. The editor is Miranda Shaffer. Please like and subscribe to learn more through this experience with me and the perspective of the guests who join me to talk about learning our way through life while wisely