In his midthirties, author, speaker, and activist Parker J. Palmer was working as a community organizer in Washington, DC. He had a PhD in sociology from the University of California at Berkeley and a faculty position at Georgetown University, but he was burned out and miserable. Palmer took a sabbatical from his work in Washington and moved with his wife and three young children to Pendle Hill, a Quaker community in Pennsylvania that he says “combined elements of an ashram, a monastery, a kibbutz, and a commune.” His plan was to stay one year. He ended up staying eleven.
That long sojourn at Pendle Hill marked a personal awakening for Palmer. Although he was concerned about his career — “I worried that I was going to disappear from the map of the known world,” he says — he relished the immersion in a community of seventy people dedicated to inner growth and social change.
Palmer’s journey has had its challenges. In the past four decades he’s faced clinical depression three times, a divorce, and professional insecurity. But he does not doubt that he made the right vocational call. His independent writing, teaching, and speaking career has been life-giving and fulfilling, he says. It has also won him an international reputation.
In the mid-1990s Palmer founded the Center for Courage and Renewal (CCR), which helps educators, physicians, nonprofit leaders, and clergy “rejoin soul and role.” Along the way he’s picked up eleven honorary doctorates and authored nine books, including The Courage to Teach, Let Your Life Speak, and his latest, Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit.
I caught up with Palmer in early May at his modest two-story home in Madison, Wisconsin. His wife, Sharon, ushered me into a cozy, book-lined living room where Palmer sprang from the sofa and hugged me. I was struck by his height; he is six foot four. He appeared remarkably fit for a man of seventy-three.
In the months prior to our meeting, Palmer had been crisscrossing the country, promoting conversation about democracy and raising funds for CCR. “It’s been very exciting to reach beyond the professional silos and work with citizens,” he says. “We’re trying to encourage a view of political life that isn’t about what happens behind locked doors, along corridors of power to which we have no access. We’re trying to bring democracy home, so that people have a sense that they can do something.”
Palmer’s work is difficult to summarize, in part because it transcends professional boundaries and religious creeds, touching on education, politics, community, leadership, and spirituality. But after talking with him for several hours, I realized that his greatest gift — along with his sense of humor — may be the one he started with: “Teaching,” he wrote in Let Your Life Speak, “is my native way of being in the world. Make me a cleric or a CEO, a poet or a politico, and teaching is what I will do.”
Von Stamwitz: Your new book is called Healing the Heart of Democracy. What inspired you to write about politics?
Palmer: I started writing the book in 2004 because I was in despair about what was happening in our country, about our inability to talk to each other, about democracy going down the drain as big money becomes more powerful. This coincided with a bout of clinical depression. I’ve made three major passages through that darkness, which I’m glad to talk about, because depression is still a ridiculously taboo subject in our society. Millions suffer from it, yet it continues to carry some sort of stigma. But what’s the shame in being depressed? I’m grateful for what I learned during those dark times — and, of course, for the fact that I survived. One thing I know is that when you’re depressed, if you get a little energy, you need to do something to address whatever conditions you find depressive. For me that meant writing this book.
The book began as a thirty-two-page pamphlet. In it I propose that what we call the “politics of rage” is, in fact, the “politics of the brokenhearted.” There’s heartbreak across the political spectrum, from one extreme to the other, and not just in this country. If Americans don’t understand that radical Islamic terrorists are heartbroken about what’s happening to their people, we’re missing the point. We must understand the depth of suffering in the Arab world. Some of that suffering must be laid at our doorstep, because of the way we’ve exploited their resources for our own benefit and fought wars to protect our access to oil, not to “spread democracy.”
Here’s an axiom that’s central to the book: Violence is what happens when we don’t know what else to do with our suffering. That applies on every level of life. When individuals don’t know what to do with their suffering, they do violence to others or themselves — through substance abuse and extreme overwork, for example. When nations don’t know what to do with their suffering, as with the U.S. after 9/11, they go to war. I think it’s pretty evident by now that what we did in the wake of 9/11 only escalated our tensions with the Middle East and didn’t reduce the threat to this country. Surely our suffering could have led to more-creative actions and outcomes.
Von Stamwitz: Have you been heckled for saying that?
Palmer: No. In fact, I’ve talked with military officers who say that the people who hate war the most are professional soldiers like themselves.
Our society is in deep denial about the costs of violence. We claim to support the troops, but when they come home, we don’t provide adequate medical and psychological care. Many of the homeless people in this country right now are veterans. We need an honest examination of war and its consequences before we say, “Let’s go get ’em.”
When people want to argue with me about issues, I try to say something like “Please, tell me your story. I want to listen. I know I can learn from your experience.” The more I’ve listened to people’s stories and gotten beyond knee-jerk reactions and ideology, the more I’ve found that suffering is an aquifer on which we all draw. That’s one place where we have something in common to talk about.
Von Stamwitz: What if someone doesn’t want to talk?
Palmer: There are people on the far Right and far Left who can’t join in a creative dialogue about our differences — say, the most radical 15 or 20 percent on either end. But that leaves 60 or 70 percent in the middle who could have that conversation, given the right conditions. And in a democracy, that’s more than enough to do business.
When I was researching Healing the Heart of Democracy, I learned that at the Constitutional Convention of 1787 — where, for the first time in history, people created a political system in which conflict and tension are not the enemy but the engine of a better social order — 30 percent of the delegates walked out before the final vote was taken. Serious conflicts are nothing new in our politics. Our job is to learn to deal with them creatively, which is the key to the democratic experiment.
Von Stamwitz: What about people whose views you think are heinous? Do you listen to them?
Palmer: There are views with which I could never be in dialogue, including those that attempt to justify violence against people of certain races, religions, sexual orientations, and so on. Some beliefs are evil and ought not to be honored with dialogue. They need to be witnessed against with courage and clarity.
But when I’m talking with people whose views I regard as wrong but not evil, I need to ask myself: Am I here to win this argument, or am I here to create a relationship? Research shows that when you throw facts at people to refute what they believe, it only hardens their convictions. But if you create a relational container that can hold an ongoing dialogue, it’s more likely that someone will change — and that someone may be you! Failing that, we usually just walk away and revert to talking to people who agree with us. What good is that?
Von Stamwitz: How do you go about creating that “relational container”?
Palmer: I’d say the main rule is to turn toward honest, open inquiry rooted in simple respect. Say, in effect, “Tell me something that will help me understand you, your life, your worldview, and where your convictions come from.” The more we learn about other people’s stories, the less possible it is for us to dislike them, distrust them, or dismiss them. Animosities are unraveling the fabric of our civic society, degrading democracy’s infrastructure. Anything we can do to help people form relational “habits of the heart” — to borrow an idea from nineteenth-century political theorist Alexis de Tocqueville — will help.
At the Center for Courage and Renewal, our concern is not that Americans seem unable to “make nice” with each other. Our concern is that citizens are abandoning the public arena because it’s so toxic, divisive, and abusive — and this creates a vacuum into which nondemocratic powers like big money are eager to rush. Helping people reoccupy the public realm — which requires civil conversations between individuals who see things differently — is an investment in democracy.
Writer Wendell Berry says he doesn’t believe in big solutions to big problems; big problems are solved by a million little solutions. Look at the Occupy Wall Street movement. It started with a lot of people taking small steps, and in a fairly short time they accomplished something quite remarkable: they got everyone talking about the 99 percent and the 1 percent. Liberal economists had been trying to change the national narrative in that way for twenty or thirty years without success.
Von Stamwitz: In several interviews you’ve referred to standing in the “tragic gap.” What is that?
Palmer: By the tragic gap I mean the gap between the hard realities around us and what we know is possible — not because we wish it were so, but because we’ve seen it with our own eyes. For example, we see greed all around us, but we’ve also seen generosity. We hear a doctrine of radical individualism that says, “Everyone for him- or herself,” but we also know that people can come together in community and make common cause.
As you stand in the gap between reality and possibility, the temptation is to jump onto one side or the other. If you jump onto the side of too much hard reality, you can get stuck in corrosive cynicism. You game the economic system to get more than your share, and let the devil take the hindmost. If you jump onto the side of too much possibility, you can get caught up in irrelevant idealism. You float around in a dream state saying, “Wouldn’t it be nice if . . . ?” These two extremes sound very different, but they have the same impact on us: both take us out of the gap — and the gap is where all the action is.
That’s the gap Martin Luther King Jr. stood in his entire life, the gap Nelson Mandela stands in to this day. That’s the gap where Rosa Parks and Dorothy Day stood. I call it “tragic” because it’s a gap that will never close, an inevitable flaw in the human condition. No one who has stood for high values — love, truth, justice — has died being able to declare victory, once and for all. If we embrace values like those, we need to find ways to stand in the gap for the long haul, and be prepared to die without having achieved our goals.
That means we need to change our calculus about what makes an action worth taking and get past our obsession with results. Being effective is important, of course. I write books because I want to have an impact. But if the only way we judge an action is by its effectiveness, we will take on smaller and smaller tasks, because they’re the only kind with which we are sure we can get results. I’m not giving up on effectiveness, but it has to be secondary.
There are people on the far Right and far Left who can’t join in a creative dialogue about our differences — say, the most radical 15 or 20 percent on either end. But that leaves 60 or 70 percent in the middle who could have that conversation, given the right conditions. And in a democracy, that’s more than enough to do business.
Von Stamwitz: Secondary to what?
Palmer: Faithfulness. That’s what it takes to stand in the tragic gap. Faithfulness first, effectiveness second. And when people are faithful to a task, they often become more effective at it as well.
Von Stamwitz: What do you mean by “faithfulness”?
Palmer: I mean being true to my own gifts, true to my perception of the world’s needs, and true to those points where my gifts and those needs intersect. If I can say of my life, “To the best of my ability, I was faithful” in this sense, then I think I’ll be able to die feeling that my time on earth was well spent, even though my big goals will remain unaccomplished.
If I cling to effectiveness, though, I’m going to die an unhappy man. I’m committed to educational goals more ambitious than getting kids to pass tests, and to political goals a lot bigger than getting people to “tolerate” each other. Teaching a kid to pass a test is a piece of cake compared to educating a child. And tolerating people is a long way from understanding how profoundly interdependent we are. As I say in the new book, the civility we need in politics will not come from watching our tongues but from valuing our differences. Somehow my heart doesn’t beat faster when someone says they’re willing to “tolerate” me!
Von Stamwitz: Your new book brings together a lot of threads from your past: education, religion, politics.
Palmer: Yes, I’ve come across similar problems in all of these arenas. In each of them we have a bad habit of making folks into spectators. We treat people as empty vessels to be filled with the knowledge of experts. As a result, I think a lot of Americans feel they don’t have a voice. One of the great tasks for leaders in education, religion, and politics is to help people understand that they have something worth saying and the right to make a claim on our common life.
Some teachers, I’m afraid, look at their silent students and judge them as lazy or ignorant or apathetic. What they’re actually looking at is young people who’ve never been “heard into speech,” to quote theologian Nelle Morton. It takes an insightful and patient teacher to go beyond those negative judgments about laziness, ignorance, and apathy and instead find ways to help students believe that they have voices, that there’s somebody who wants to hear what they have to say, and that that somebody is their teacher.
Von Stamwitz: You’ve said that our public school system leaves many students feeling stupid because they’re convinced they have lost a “contest of learning.” How so?
Palmer: It comes partly from the way we sort kids into winners and losers, of course. That’s bad enough, but there’s more. We know from research that the brain’s weakest function is the retention of isolated bits of data. Its strongest function is the retention of pattern, narrative, story, and system. The brain is a patterning organ, and it thrives on making connections, which is why I say that good teachers have a “capacity for connectedness.”
But for a very long time the public school system has been dumping data bits into students’ heads and calling it “education.” It’s a system that targets the brain’s weakest function, and that’s going to leave a lot of people feeling stupid. The kind of learning that goes deeper and lasts longer comes from engagement and interaction — working in a lab, making art, reflecting on a field experience, or collecting and analyzing information.
This contest to see who can memorize the most factoids has been ramped up by No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, with their emphasis on high-stakes testing. Legislation of that sort flies in the face of a half century of research that says that the more full-bodied the learning experience is, the better it is retained. As neurobiologist Candace Pert has said, the brain may be located in the cranium, but the mind is located throughout the body.
Von Stamwitz: With the current emphasis on test scores and the rankings of schools, is change even possible?
Palmer: That’s the same kind of question people asked before apartheid was dismantled, before African Americans got civil rights, before women got the vote. And all of those challenges were a lot tougher than the ones faced by educators today. When I hear people talking about how “powerless” we are, I like to ask, “Powerless compared to whom?”
The main reason we have dysfunctional education policies in this country is that the teacher’s voice is almost absent from public discourse about how to transform education. The discourse is dominated by the people who tend to know the least about teaching and learning: politicians. Teachers are handy scapegoats for problems that the rest of us don’t have the wit or the will to solve. So politicians draft legislation that creates the illusion of improving our educational system, when in fact the system is being dragged down by policies that are punitive and anti-educational.
Being a teacher today requires the courage to stand against this twisted logic. The system will change when educators rise up, demand change, and show what’s possible. And that’s already happening — teachers around the country have refused to collaborate with the worst excesses of current legislation. But more of them need to insist on the right to join the national education debate. They need to oppose the insidious plot to privatize everything and drain resources away from all public institutions. And “we the people” need to support them in these efforts.
No one who has stood for high values — love, truth, justice — has died being able to declare victory, once and for all. If we embrace values like those, we need to find ways to stand in the gap for the long haul, and be prepared to die without having achieved our goals.
Von Stamwitz: Who or what shaped your politics?
Palmer: From a young age, it was my father, Max J. Palmer. He wasn’t politically active, but he had a hugely generous spirit, and generosity is a major political virtue. Dad grew up in Waterloo, Iowa, where his father was a machine-tool operator. Dad came to Chicago during the Depression with high-school diploma in hand. He got a temporary job as a bookkeeper with a company that sold china and silverware, and fifty-five years later he was owner and chairman of the board. Just as this country had given him a leg up, Dad used his company to give chances to people who might otherwise not have had them. He felt that a business owed a debt to the society that helped make it possible. And my dad was a staunch Republican — though his son is not!
As often happens to successful businesspeople, Dad was asked to join various boards, including the board of Chicago’s YMCA Hotel. During his tenure as chair of that board, the Black Panthers wanted to hold a national meeting in Chicago and stay at the Y Hotel, which the board approved. During the week of that meeting, a radical right-wing Chicago disc jockey launched a vicious attack on the Y board and my dad for hosting these “traitors.” I remember Dad coming home bewildered. He didn’t get it: The Panthers weren’t trashing the place, or stealing towels, or leaving graffiti in the rooms. They were just talking, and they paid their bills, and this was America. So what was the big deal?
I was struck by what happened when my dad suddenly found himself on the “wrong” side of respectability. This dislocation opened his mind to this country’s shadow side. I realized that every time we step into the stranger’s shoes and see the world through someone else’s eyes, something new can open up for us. That was an important political lesson for me.
Dad also gave me a rare gift that liberated me in every way, including politically: unconditional love surrounded with an aura of expectancy — not specific expectations about what I would do but the expectancy that I could grow into myself. This combination allowed me to take all kinds of risks without fearing that I was going to lose his love if I messed up, which you always do when you take risks.
For example, I got mediocre grades in high school but had high scores on intelligence tests. And yet not once did Dad sit me down and say, “Come on, Park! Live up to your potential!” And this was in a community where success and upward mobility were the goal. Dad was like a gardener: he knew that I would flower when I was ready, because that’s what had happened to him. I think his whole life had taken him by surprise, and so he believed that, at some point, something would spark in me, and I would start finding my gifts — which is what happened when I went to Carleton College in Minnesota.
One other story about my dad’s political impact on me: When I was twelve years old, he announced that this was the last year we’d be taking a family vacation. Starting the next year, when I turned thirteen, I’d have to work all summer. In the affluent North Shore Chicago suburb where I grew up, a lot of kids spent summers lounging at the beach or around the pool at the country club. But as a teenager I got up at five o’clock on summer mornings to caddie at the country club — where we were not members because “that’s not who we are.” I carried clubs for my friends’ fathers while my friends were at the pool. When I turned sixteen or seventeen, I started working at the local beach, cleaning public restrooms.
Von Stamwitz: Wasn’t that kind of humiliating?
Palmer: Not at all. I didn’t feel deprived. I felt grown-up and trusted, like an adult who could start taking care of himself. I learned some good work habits and something about saving money. And politically I saw life from the other side of the tracks.
Speaking of work, when I was ten, Dad said, “Do you know the word nepotism, Park? Well, my company has an anti-nepotism rule, which means you can never work for me.” When I got older, I realized that a lot of the guys I’d grown up with had just been coasting, knowing that they’d go into their fathers’ businesses someday. But from the get-go I’d had to think for myself about what I wanted to do, and that was another huge gift from Dad.
Von Stamwitz: How about your mother?
Palmer: My mother was loving but more, well, “colorful” than Dad, and a very anxious person. She was a bit suffocating for me, and I needed to get away from that, as well as from the Midwest and the affluent North Shore. So after college in Minnesota I spent the next quarter century living on one coast or the other: New York, Berkeley, DC, Philadelphia. But in later years I realized that my own craziness — for which I’m grateful — comes from my mom. I didn’t get it from my dad, who was a model of steadiness. By my late twenties I was already thinking crazy thoughts and taking crazy risks. I had a PhD from Berkeley and could have moved directly onto a faculty tenure track, but I didn’t. Instead I spent the next five years as a community organizer. Then I spent eleven years living at Pendle Hill, a funky Quaker living-learning community. I had friends and mentors who thought I was nuts to commit myself to a place like that during those “career-critical” years of thirty-five to forty-five. And a part of me agreed.
Von Stamwitz: Looking back, do you think some of your decisions were crazy wrong?
Palmer: No, I think they were crazy right. Take my time at Pendle Hill: My crazy-right decision to go there forced me to develop a more collaborative and engaging way of teaching and learning, because at that place education was all carrot and no stick. It also led to various forms of personal spiritual growth.
Von Stamwitz: Can you give an example of what you mean by “spiritual”?
Palmer: One of the problems with a lot of educated, reasonably well-off white males like me is our sense of entitlement. We’re too often driven by the thought that we’re supposed to be getting more than anybody else. When we don’t, it creates resentment and separates us from others and from our true selves. But eleven years at Pendle Hill really challenged my sense of entitlement.
I became dean of studies at Pendle Hill in 1975, and for the next decade my salary was the same as everybody else’s, including the eighteen-year-old who worked in the garden. I was thirty-six, I had a wife and three kids, and I was making $2,400 a year plus room and board. Pendle Hill put wheels on the Quaker principle of equality, and not just in salaries. Every member of the community had a daily job related to meals, either preparing or cleaning up after them. But as dean of studies I also had responsibilities off campus: I had to give talks, raise money, and so on. And yet every time I left campus, I had to find someone to replace me at my daily kitchen job. When I got back, I had to fill in for that person, working two meals a day for as many days as I’d been gone, with no exceptions. They didn’t cut me any slack just because I was the dean.
Over a ten-year period this chipped away at my sense that I was somehow better or more deserving. I’m not going to claim it’s completely gone. A sense of entitlement is hard to lose in a society that’s designed to work best for people like me. But I think it’s considerably less than what it would have been without the Pendle Hill experience. When you live in a community like that, you start to look at people differently. When there are no inequalities in income or status, you begin to appreciate what everyone has to contribute. You see people through different lenses and no longer rank them as “less” or “more” the way our culture does.
Was I madly in love with living on a combined income of $4,800 a year (my wife worked in the community too) plus room and board, with three young kids? No. In fact, it was during that time that I started writing and giving talks to make a little extra money, because someday I wanted to help my kids pay for college.
When friends asked me, “Why are you doing this when you could be rising in the academic ranks?” I didn’t have a good answer. All I could say was “For some reason, I can’t not do this.” I guess I had an intuition that I needed to be at Pendle Hill to learn how to join hands with the human race. But not until years later did I understand the value of what that experience had taught me.
Von Stamwitz: Not everyone has the chance to live in an intentional Quaker community. What are some other ways we can grow out of our sense of entitlement?
Palmer: For some young people I know, a college term abroad in a poverty-stricken country triggered the process. They had an immersion experience and weren’t looking at poor people from the ivory tower. They were in a place where they saw, and often depended upon, the gifts of people quite different from them. Of course, you can be immersed in poverty — and in the life of “the other” — in the U.S. as well.
A major step toward reducing your sense of entitlement can be asking yourself the question “When I die, what do I want to be able to say about how I lived?” You might realize that you want to die knowing that you spent your time on earth as yourself and for others, not wearing a mask of difference and privilege. Two thousand years ago Rabbi Hillel asked three questions that remain worth asking: “If I am not for myself, who will be? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”
I was born baffled and have trusted my bafflement more than my certainties.
Von Stamwitz: You mentioned that you started writing partly to make ends meet.
Palmer: True. But I also felt compelled to write because I was born baffled! [Laughs.] For me, writing is an effort to dive into my own bafflement and discover what’s beneath it — which, in turn, takes me to my next level of bafflement. Through writing I come to understand what I think, believe, know, or have experienced, and what it is that I need to understand next.
I was the first person in my family to go to college, and I never imagined that I could write a book — though I wrote countless essays that almost always got rejected. My breakthrough came when a student at Pendle Hill took the text of a lecture I had given and sent it to her uncle, an editor at Ave Maria Press. He published it in their newsletter, and it got a great response. So he called and asked if I had any more essays in my file. “Are you kidding?” I said. “How many do you want?”
That led to my first book, The Promise of Paradox, made up largely of essays that had been sitting in my files for years. When I held the first copy in my hands, I thought, I guess I can write a book. I must have believed it, because within three years I had two more, and now I’m up to nine.
So it’s been a gift that I was born baffled and have trusted my bafflement more than my certainties. I have my certainties, of course, but I don’t altogether trust them, because so many of them have been derailed over the years. I do, however, trust the kind of certainty you can find in poetry. The poets have a way of nailing the truth without nailing it. It’s what Emily Dickinson was talking about when she said, “Tell all the Truth, but tell it slant.” I love the notion that you can see more out of the corner of your eye than you can by looking straight ahead.
Von Stamwitz: You’ve had three major bouts of depression. Do you have any wisdom for others who are depressed?
Palmer: Only on the slant. Depression is a great mystery. I’ve talked with a number of experts, and they all say that there’s much we don’t know about it. People will often say, “I just can’t understand why so-and-so committed suicide,” but I think perhaps I do: depression is utterly exhausting, and he or she needed the rest. What I don’t understand is why some people survive depression and thrive on the other side of that darkness. That’s the real mystery.
Paradoxically, to survive depression you have to give yourself over to it. You have to embrace the darkness, or enter into the darkness, or let yourself become the darkness, and try not to judge yourself for it. You also have to try as much as possible to honor whatever small signs of progress might come as you work your way through that darkness, or as it works its way through you.
The second and third times I was depressed, I kept a journal. At the start of each day I’d write the date, and under it I’d list two or three tiny signs of progress, like “Got up at 10:00 this morning,” instead of 10:30. Or “Took a ten-minute bike ride today,” instead of staying in my room all day. That journal, which I kept for several months, helped me see that I was making progress — but not by the standards I too often use to measure progress now, when I might want to write a bestseller or give a speech that brings people to their feet. In depression you have to follow William Stafford’s advice: asked how he managed to write a poem every day, he said, “Easy. I lowered my standards.” [Laughs.]
Von Stamwitz: That sounds like good advice for ordinary times too.
Palmer: Yes, and I’ve carried some of it with me, I guess. I’m certainly more grateful for simple gifts that I might not even have noticed before. Which reminds me of a simple but great gift I received from a Quaker friend named Bill Taber, a story I tell in Let Your Life Speak.
During a bout of depression I had at Pendle Hill, Bill came to my house every afternoon at about four. I’d sit in an easy chair, he’d remove my shoes and socks, and for twenty or thirty minutes he’d massage my feet, rarely saying anything. Occasionally he’d say, “I feel your struggle today,” or, “I feel you’re a little stronger,” but nothing more. There was no judgment or cheerleading. He just mirrored my condition.
Bill did three great things for me: First, he found the only place in my body where I was capable of feeling connected with another person — my feet. My body and emotions were dead. I couldn’t feel anything, which gave me the terrifying sense of being totally disconnected from life. But somehow, when Bill massaged my feet, I felt connected for a while.
Second, Bill did not try to fix me. He simply reflected back what he saw. That was important, because when you’re depressed, your bunk detector is set on high. You don’t want anybody saying, “Oh, I’m sure you’re going to be fine. You look so much better today!” when you feel like killing yourself.
Third, by coming to me day in and day out, Bill proved that he wasn’t afraid of me. In depression you feel isolated and cut off, partly because people are scared of you. They’re scared by your darkness; they’re scared of what the consequences might be for you and for them; and they’re scared of falling into this pit themselves, as if depression were contagious. So either they stay away, or they’re with you in evasive ways, ways that protect them but hurt you. They might say, “What’s wrong? You have such a good life. You write such great books. You’ve helped so many people. You have such a lovely family, blah, blah, blah,” which only makes you feel more depressed. You feel that you’ve just defrauded another person, because the voice of depression tells you that you’re a worm, you’re worthless.
I thought about Bill Taber during my third depression, long after I’d left Pendle Hill. I tried to treat myself the way he would have treated me. I tried as best I could not to be afraid of myself, but just to let the experience unfold.
Von Stamwitz: What do you mean by “unfold”?
Palmer: There is some psychiatric consensus that many people are able to work their way through depression over time. Yes, it’s hard, but you come out of it — or it comes out of you — eventually. But if you’re afraid of yourself, you’re likely to prolong that recovery, and you may even find yourself moving toward suicide.
Depression felt to me like what Saint John of the Cross called a “dark night of the soul.” There were spiritual lessons to be learned, but only after I had come through it. When you’re in it, there’s no such thing as God or Spirit. You’re in a void, hopeless. But as you start to emerge, you can retrieve lessons from that darkness, such as gratitude for small glints of light.
It’s important to remember that depression can be genetic or biochemical as well as situational, and medication should never be ruled out as part of the treatment. What’s confusing is that various kinds of depression can interact with each other and become hard to sort out. If you have a situational depression and can’t sleep for weeks, it creates biochemical changes. If you have a biochemical proclivity for depression, it may lead you into situations that deepen your suffering. I needed to be on medication for a few months each time, to help me deal with the situations that were the primary source of my depressions. Some people need to be on medication their entire lives, because they have an organic imbalance. Whatever the type, depression is a mental illness and needs to be respected as such. What’s truly crazy is the culture of shame that still surrounds depression, the refusal to acknowledge it for the disease it is.
Von Stamwitz: It’s clear that the eleven years you spent living among Quakers at Pendle Hill was a pivotal time in your life. What role has Quakerism played in your spiritual journey?
Palmer: I went to Pendle Hill because, as a community organizer, I’d realized that I’d never had a deep and rich experience of community; of people living, eating, studying, worshiping, witnessing, and doing physical work together. So Quakerism’s first gift to me was its model of community.
Quakers — at least, in the branch I belong to — have no clergy. At Pendle Hill we worshiped in communal silence for an hour each day, seven days a week. Out of the silence people would occasionally rise and spontaneously engage in what Quakers call “vocal ministry.” They’d speak from a deep place in themselves, giving voice to what they were grieving or celebrating, or to some significant insight. During my first few months at Pendle Hill I struggled with sitting in that silence and hearing speech that sometimes seemed empty to me. I wasn’t looking for orthodox Christianity, but I was looking for something with theological content, as I defined it at the time.
Some wise Friends saw that I was upset and invited me to talk. Gently, they helped me understand that my faith was falling apart because I didn’t have a preacher or teacher constantly propping it up, the way I’d had up to that point. I began to realize that my anger was not about what I was hearing but about the emptiness of my faith — one that was largely intellectual and received from others rather than grounded in my own experience. In Quakerism whatever you believe needs to be grounded in the evidence of your own life. It can’t just be something that you wish were true or that you borrow from others. As a famous Quaker verse has it, “Your holy hearsay is not evidence. / Give me the good news in the present tense.”
Once I got clear about where my anger was coming from, I was able to use the silence to start reconstructing my faith. In many ways that process took me back to some basic tenets of Christianity — tenets like grace and forgiveness, incarnation or embodiment, and resurrection. Emerging from my first depression, for example, allowed me to frame my own understanding of resurrection.
Given what goes on in certain branches of Christianity, I sometimes struggle with whether I should identify myself as part of that tribe. But the truth is that I rebuilt my faith by reviewing my life through Christian lenses. Those lenses have been very valuable to me — though they are not the exclusive property of the Christian tradition. Far from it.
So one thing that resonates with me in Quakerism is its emphasis on the value of silence. Another is its insistence that everyone has within himself or herself a source of truth — an inner light or inner teacher. It’s important to pay attention to that voice, which is your ultimate authority in life. Of course, truth is not the only thing we hear from within. We also hear the voices of ego, of fear, of greed, of depression. So Quakerism puts an equal emphasis on the role of the community in helping people sort out what they’re hearing. Is it really the voice of truth, or is it coming from some other place?
On top of all this, Quakerism historically has joined the inner and outer life in some remarkable ways, such as in various peace and justice movements. During my eleven years at Pendle Hill I started to understand what I now call “life on the Möbius strip.” The Möbius strip is a flat plane that’s twisted, with the ends joined such that the two sides become continuous. For me it’s a symbol of how the inner and the outer keep flowing into each other and cocreating the reality we live in. The spiritual journey is simultaneously inner and outer. It’s not about navel gazing, but neither is it about losing yourself in the frenzy of social action. It’s about helping to cocreate a reality fit for human habitation.
Von Stamwitz: You’ve written about the “scarcity mentality” versus an “abundance mentality.” Can you explain what you mean?
Palmer: Our major institutions reinforce a scarcity mentality in order to corner the market on whatever it is they’re selling. For example, our educational system says that you’re not smart unless it certifies you as smart. The educational system has convinced many people that they can’t claim intelligence unless they get a scholastic stamp of approval.
The abundance mentality in education, on the other hand, says that students have inner wisdom. If the teacher just lectures nonstop, day in and day out, the students will never discover what knowledge they possess. Real education helps them claim what they already know, and then helps them reach for what they don’t yet know.
Various religions also play the scarcity game, saying that you can’t have salvation except through their particular belief system and way of institutionalizing it. You can’t get it from other religious groups, much less secular sources. If a religion can convince enough people of that, then it stays in business.
The scarcity mentality, the fear of not having what we need, is part of the human psyche. But it’s not only something we create out of neurotic anxiety. It’s also an intentional marketing ploy used by institutions to exploit our fears.
Von Stamwitz: What’s the fix?
Palmer: In education I’ve long advocated a communal form of teaching and learning based on the notion that all of us thinking together are smarter than any one of us thinking alone. As I said earlier, the students who sit in our classrooms are not empty vessels.
In religious life I point out that the people in the pews know a good deal about faith, but there are major cultural and institutional obstacles to recognizing and releasing their assets. People have been so wounded by the culture of scarcity that when a leader tries to tap into their abundance, they often say, “Why are you asking us all of these questions? You’re the person who’s educated in these matters. We’re paying you to give us answers!” It’s easy for a leader to fall into the trap of providing all the answers because it’s ego-gratifying to be viewed that way. But every time a leader takes the ego route, he or she deepens the wound.
The mainline Protestant churches are dwindling in size, but that might not be a bad thing. This shrinkage might lead to leaner churches with fewer but more deeply committed members who are willing to use their gifts doing good work in the world.
I once consulted with a group of rural Episcopal churches in Texas who felt certain they were dying because their memberships and budgets were going down. I pointed out that the only books they kept counted dollars and members. Could they imagine another kind of ledger, one that tallied the talents of the people in their congregations, and all the ways those gifts might serve the other congregants and the larger community’s needs?
Those churches began keeping two sets of books, so to speak, and found new life over the next few years. They never got back to the numbers they’d once had, but they grew some in size and even more in vitality. People are drawn to communities that celebrate their assets and offer support in simple, down-to-earth ways. That’s a lot more attractive than the pitch that says, “You need to join us in order to achieve salvation, and you’ve got to give us your money in the bargain.”
But I’m afraid that few seminaries are preparing leaders who can help create a new kind of church. The biggest enemies of all our professions — medicine, education, law, ministry, and so on — are the institutions in which those professions are practiced. And the only people who can transform those institutions are people on the inside. What might happen if our professional schools taught not only the core skills and knowledge required by a given profession but also some of the skills and knowledge required to be a community organizer, an agent of institutional change? That could fuel the kind of reform we need.
Too many churches today are like tour buses of the Holy Land. People get on the bus, and then the pastor or priest gets into the driver’s seat with a microphone and says, “Now, folks, look out the window on your right. That’s Jesus, and there are the disciples, and on your left is the miracle of the loaves and fishes. I’ll explain what all this means. But please don’t get off the bus at any time. It’s dangerous out there.”
Many people are glad to stay in their seats with the windows closed. Then they can say, “I’ve visited the Holy Land,” without having risked anything. Now, there’s a certain logic in taking a tour bus the first time you go to the Holy Land. But some people want to go back again by themselves, having learned the language. They want to walk around on their own, live with a local family, get engaged with the community, and immerse themselves in what they saw out the window. For them it’s not enough to stay on the bus for the rest of their lives.
The question for the churches is “Do we want to keep running tours of the Holy Land? Or do we want people to go there on foot, explore the landscape of faith for themselves, and find out where they might engage the needs of the world most fruitfully?” Serious seekers want churches that will support them in a lifelong exploration of faith and action, and help them keep sorting and sifting what they’re learning.
There’s an old Quaker story about a stranger who wanders into a meeting for worship and sits there in the silence for ten or fifteen minutes, wondering when the preacher’s going to stand up and get things started. Frustrated, the stranger turns to the Quaker next to him and asks in a stage whisper, “When does the service begin?” The Quaker says, “As soon as the worship ends.”
OK, now you’ve heard one Quaker joke. Someday I’ll tell you the other one. [Laughs.]
The spiritual journey is simultaneously inner and outer. It’s not about navel gazing, but neither is it about losing yourself in the frenzy of social action.
Von Stamwitz: You’re going to leave me laughing, I see.
Palmer: As William James said, “Common sense and a sense of humor are the same thing, moving at different speeds.” If we can’t laugh about religion, politics, and ourselves, then we’re in trouble.
I’m fond of a little book by a Spanish pacifist named Lanza del Vasto, a disciple of Gandhi. The book summarizes what he learned through a long life of spiritual and political exploration, and he gave it a marvelous title that always makes me smile: Principles and Precepts of the Return to the Obvious. I wish I’d had the wit to come up with that. It sums up every halfway meaningful thought I’ve ever had.