Friday, February 12, 2016

Let Your Life Speak

by Parker J. Palmer

Why You Will Like This Book:
  • It's beautiful, poetic, true, unusual.
  • But with all this, it's very easy to read (and short).
  • And I think it's ideas might be very important indeed for our modern life, where people forget their human nature.

And Why You Might Not:
  • It's not Catholic, and often not specifically Christian. Some could be put off by this, because the ideas, though (I think) terribly important and true, could easily be misconstrued without the understanding of Christian moral theology.
  • And that's my only criticism, because it's beautiful.

Thoughts: I don't know if this is actually an AMAZING book, or if it just happened to come at the perfect time in my life. Whatever the case, I was scribbling down notes every other page. Fortunately it is a short book so the notes didn't become overwhelming, but I'm still not going to be able to summarize it well at all.

But basically, it's about discernment of the inner life, and using your self-knowledge to affect your actions. It's about ridding oneself of fear and pride, and accepting who you are as a person.

And now comes the notes. There are a lot. You probably want to skip them. But I wanted a written record so I could remember in the future, so here goes:
  • Pg. 9: "How much dissolving and shaking of ego we must endure before we discover our deep identity." I love that phrase, "dissolving and shaking of ego". It's much more subtle and interesting than the way many people talk about getting rid of ego.
  • Pg. 10: "Vocation does not come from a voice 'out there' calling me to become something I am not. It comes from a voice 'in here' calling me to be the person I was born to be, to fulfill the original selfhood given me at birth by God." I've always loved the presentation of sanctity as becoming the best version of yourself. It can be misconstrued as a wishy-washy idea, but if thought about properly, require tons of humility.
  • Pg. 16: Frederick Buechner defined vocation as "the place where your deep gladness meets the world's deep need". Love this. Reminds me of how people talk of charisms, and how you discover your charism by seen what both makes you very happy and what people tell you brings them happiness.
  • Pg. 24-5: He mentions people saying he was "wasteful" to not use his PhD, and instead join a community of Christians. I've definitely experienced this and the fear that goes along with this (the fear of disappearing professional mentioned on pg. 23 as well). Fear!! It's a thing to be conquered! I'm realizing this more and more.
  • Pg. 32: "[T]he people who plant the seeds of movements make a critical decision: they decide to live 'divided no more.' They decide no longer to act on the outside in a way that contradicts some truth about themselves that they hold deeply on the inside." Consistency in life is something I'm not good at, but I think is very important to sanctity. Like many things in this book, it can sound wrong, like the people who use "I was just following my heart! Being myself!" to excuse bad behaviour. That's why we need the Church to give rules and guidelines so we don't fall off the rails thinking we're following our true selves. But I think for Catholics struggling with discernment and such, this can be excellent advice.
  • Pg. 35: "We must see [Rosa Parks] as the ordinary person she is. That will be difficult to do because we have made her into superwoman--and we have done it to protect ourselves. If we can keep Rosa Parks in a museum as an untouchable icon of truth, we will remain untouchable as well: we can put her up on a pedestal and praise her, world without end, never finding ourselves challenged by her life." This reminds me of the many badly written saints stories that give the impression they were superhuman from the beginning, that they didn't have normal human struggles. Because of this, it's a lot easier to ignore the fact that we're called to be saints as well. It's a lot easier to give it up as impossible.
  • Pg. 36: "The world still waits for the truth that will set us free--my truth, your truth, our truth [...]" As much as think I've already mentioned a bunch how much in this books sounds more wishy-washy than it is, this phrase still bugs me a bit by being too close to the relative truth that has caused so much wrong-thinking in this world.
  • Pg. 43: "Had I not follow my despair, [...] I might have continued to pursue a work that was not mine to do, causing further harm to myself, to the people and project with which I worked, and to a profession that is well worth doing--by those who are called to do it." He discusses how doing good work, if it is not your vocational work, can actually be harmful in some ways. Much like the rest of the ideas in this book, this can obviously go too far, and people can think they don't have to do stuff because it's hard and they don't like it. But I liked it because it's something I've been thinking about recently.
  • Pg. 44: There is a Quaker custom to have a "clearness committee" when someone has an important decision to make. A group of trusted friends asking honest, open questions for three hours, refraining from giving any advice, and tries to help you discover your own inner truth. I think this is a really cool idea, and I think I'd like to try it sometime.
  • Pg. 47-8: "It took me a long time to understand that although everyone needs to be loved, I cannot be the source of that gift to everyone who asks me for it." Similar to page 43 mentioned above, I could really see this idea being taken the wrong way, and people using it as an excuse not to love people. But there's a really important concept there, I think. I don't have it down firmly enough to explain any more than what I just quoted, but I'm going to keep thinking on it. I think it might be related to humility. It can be our pride that tells us we are responsible for everyone feeling loved, and we alone. The fate of the world rests on our shoulders because we're so special.
  • Pg. 51: He quotes John Middleton Murry, "For a good man to realize that it is better to be whole than to be good is to enter on a strait and narrow path compared to which his previous rectitude was flowery license." Here I think he does actually go a bit far. It seems to me that this is ignoring original sin and our fallen nature.
  • Pg. 70: He quotes Florida Scott Maxwell, "When you truly possess all you have been and done ... you are fierce with reality." I love that phrase, fierce with reality. It reminds me of the things I like best about Chesterton--like the quote on this blog.
  • Pg. 85: "Because there is no way out of one's inner life, so one had better get into it. On the inward and downward spiritual journey, the only way out is in and through." He is relating this to a great story about cliff climbing that is too long to tell here. And I can't explain what this means to me particularly, but I know exactly what he's talking about.
  • Pg. 88: Two points here. One, he disagrees with using battle a metaphor for the spiritual life. Although I know what he's getting at (I have people that try to make me view the spiritual life the way he's explaining and it doesn't work), I still really like the use of battle. There is nothing like the feeling of charging at stuff with a big sword. Second, he talks about "functional atheism", which is "the belief that ultimate responsibility for everything rests with us". It's really important for me to remember not to think this way. Trust!
  • Pg. 92: He discusses the importance of not having an attitude of "setting each other straight". This is another tricky one. Part of charity is to admonish sinners and to counsel the doubtful. But I also know from experience that people almost never listen if you have the wrong attitude, and you can excuse your responsibility by blaming it on their free will on not on your attitude. This is where the use of the "clearness committee" (discussed above and on pg. 44) can come in useful.
  • Pg. 93: "It is no accident that all of the world's wisdom traditions address the fact of fear, for all of them originated in the human struggle to overcome this ancient enemy. And all of these traditions, despite their great diversity, unite in one exhortation to those who walk in their ways: "Be not afraid."" I find this quite beautiful.
  • Pg. 97: Apparently Chinese children ask, "How does a baby grow?" Whereas American children ask, "How do you make a baby?" The different affects culture can have on language and vice versa are fascinating to me.
  • Pg. 100: "But in a culture that prefers the ease of either-or thinking to the complexities of paradox, we have a hard time holding opposites together. We want light without darkness, the glories of spring and summer without the demands of autumn and winter--and the Faustian bargains we make fail to sustain our lives." I have heard people talk about the Catholic inclination to paradox, to "both-and" ideas (specifically contrasting them to the Protestant tendency to "either-or"). Yet at the same time, we as Catholics have to be wary of the Eastern ideas of ying/yang, and the equality of light and darkness. The darkness is not equal to the light, it is an absence of light, which is equal to goodness. Or something like that. You need particular theology language, I think, to properly differentiate between these ideas.
  • Pg. 105: "[I]f we want to save our lives, we cannot cling to them but must spend them with abandon." Spend it like Spring spends its energy, wildly and passionately and bursting with life and fruitfulness.
  • Pg. 106: When we are in Winter (metaphorically speaking), it can be hard not to think it's going to stay Winter forever. It can be hard not to hoard the things we need (again, metaphorically speaking; think hoarding love or trust). But in reality, Summer comes again every single year. C. S. Lewis calls this the "law of undulation", and it's very important to remember this if you want to be Springlike, as in the note above (pg. 105).
  • Pg. 108: He discusses the importance of community: "Community doesn't just create abundance--community is abundance." It's been something that's been coming up as an idea more and more in my life. So much so that I can't help thinking there's something big coming up there... For me individually, or maybe just our society as a whole, not sure. But there's something...

Phew. There we go.

Grade: 5 stars

If You Like This, You Might Also Like:
--The Gifts of Imperfection by BrenĂ© Brown: because it has similar themes, speaking of the importance of being "whole-hearted" and gaining resilience against shame and embarrassment. It didn't help me all that much personally, but I know people for whom it did a lot. This has less of a religious perspective than Letting Your Life Speak, although it is mentioned a couple times.
--Opening to God: A Guide to Prayer by Thomas H. Green: because it is about discernment for beginners, but from a Catholic perspective. But still attuned to modern life and attitudes, and with the readability that LYLS has.

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