Jun 22, 2021
Through the Prism with Parker J. Palmer
Parker J. Palmer is a writer, speaker and activist who focuses on issues in education, community, leadership, spirituality and social change. He is founder and Senior Partner Emeritus of the Center for Courage & Renewal, which offers long-term retreat programs for people in the serving professions, including teachers, administrators, physicians, philanthropists, non-profit leaders and clergy. We invited him to share how human connection and the past year has shaped his life’s work.
What is one of your earliest memories of the power of human connection?
I was raised in a warm, stable, trustworthy family. So human connection was woven into my youth—and it gave me a basic trust in life. Of course, adult experience has sometimes shaken my trust, but I’ve always been able to reclaim it because my early formation was so strong. Without basic trust, human connection can’t happen.
When I was 22, my understanding of how connection works was deepened by one of those “shaking” experiences. I was at Union Theological Seminary in NYC. My field work assignment was with junior high boys from Spanish Harlem in a weekend recreation/education program. Because of my white, privileged insularity, ignorance, and arrogance, I was sure that what I had to teach them would help them find a better life. So I prepared lesson after earnest lesson that kept widening the disconnect between me and my students, for an obvious reason: we lived on different planet
“Ring the bells that still can ring
forget your perfect offering.
There’s a crack in everything,
that’s how the light gets in.”
What are you working on right now?
As always, I’m working on myself! At age 82, I’m trying to keep “beginner’s mind” alive. That’s the most fruitful way I know to approach the many mysteries of self and world, including the mystery of death.
What values guide your work?
From my mid-twenties onward, I’ve tried to understand the imperatives of my own heart and soul, and find work that allows me to act on those imperatives—work that allows me to put whatever gifts I have in service of others. So I’ve served as a teacher, a community organizer, a leader of a Quaker living-learning community of some eighty people that practiced radical economic equality, the founder of the Center for Courage & Renewal, and an “independent” writer, teacher, and activist.
How has the experience of the last year affected you and your work?
For years I’ve written about “the divided life,” and how we start choosing to live “divided no more” when we experience “the pain of disconnection” that comes from the deep divides within us and between us. The pandemic has plunged me into the pain that comes from the collapse of community. If anyone ever doubted the importance of face-to-face interactions in everything from maintaining mental health to doing meaningful work, I hope this deadly experience has opened their eyes, minds, and hearts.
What’s giving you joy right now? What are you hopeful about?
I find joy and hope almost every day in the natural world, which is continually renewing itself against all odds, and in the lives of the young, who are or soon will be helping to shape a new world.