Happy 75th birthday to Parker Palmer.
Quaker, teacher, PhD in Sociology, Wisconsinite, author of Let Your Life Speak and eight other groundbreaking books, founder of the Center for Courage and Renewal, speaker and activist who focuses on issues in education, community, leadership, spirituality and social change.
I first discovered Parker in 2009, when I heard him on the Speaking of Faith (now On Being) radio program, The Soul in Depression. He was sharing his own experience with depression and described a poignant story of how a friend had ministered deeply to him during a time of major depression:
“There was this one friend who came to me, after asking permission to do so, every afternoon about four o’clock, sat me down in a chair in the living room, took off my shoes and socks and massaged my feet. He hardly ever said anything. He was a Quaker elder. And yet out of his intuitive sense, from time to time would say a very brief word like, ‘I can feel your struggle today,’ or farther down the road, ‘I feel that you’re a little stronger at this moment, and I’m glad for that.’ But beyond that, he would say hardly anything. He would give no advice. He would simply report from time to time what he was sort of intuiting about my condition. Somehow he found the one place in my body, namely the soles of my feet, where I could experience some sort of connection to another human being. And the act of massaging just, you know, in a way that I really don’t have words for, kept me connected with the human race.
What he mainly did for me, of course, was to be willing to be present to me in my suffering. He just hung in with me in this very quiet, very simple, very tactile way. And I’ve never really been able to find the words to fully express my gratitude for that, but I know it made a huge difference. And it became for me a metaphor of the kind of community we need to extend to people who are suffering in this way, which is a community that is neither invasive of the mystery nor evasive of the suffering but is willing to hold people in a space, a sacred space of relationship, where somehow this person who is on the dark side of the moon can get a little confidence that they can come around to the other side.” – Program Transcript, On Being, 2009
Parker’s gentle, lulling voice touched me through the recounting of this, his own still raw, vulnerable experience. I lay on the cold midwinter floor listening and felt something open up inside of me. God was powerfully present in the room. As he described the connection to another human being that was offered by his quiet friend, I felt wholly seen. His experience became my experience and I was no longer alone. In that very first real, person-to-person acknowledgment of what I had felt nearly my entire life but had never heard anyone express in such relatable terms, something major shifted. It was the beginning of the end of my intense sense of isolation and self-hatred, and also of depression’s relentless grip on my soul.
You can read that full interview here. Below are a few more of my favorite bits, just to give you a taste:
Going into my experience of depression, I thought of the spiritual life as sort of climbing a mountain until you got to this high, elevated point where you could touch the hand of God or, you know, see a vision of wholeness and beauty. The spiritual life at that time had nothing to do, as far as I was concerned, with going into the valley of the shadow of death. Even though that phrase is right there at the heart of my own spiritual tradition, that wasn’t what it was about for me. So on one level, you think, ‘This is the least spiritual thing I’ve ever done.’ And the soul is absent, God is absent, faith is absent. All of the faculties that I depended on before I went into depression were now utterly useless.
And yet, as I worked my way through that darkness, I sometimes became aware that way back there in the woods somewhere was this sort of primitive piece of animal life. I mean, just some kind of existential reality, some kind of core of being, of my own being, I don’t know, maybe of the life force generally, and that was somehow holding out the hope of life to me. And so I now see the soul as that wild creature way back there in the woods that knows how to survive in very hard places, knows how to survive in places where the intellect doesn’t, where the feelings don’t, and where the will cannot.
I take embodiment very seriously, and, of course, depression is a full-body experience and a full-body immersion in the darkness. And it is an invitation — at least my kind of depression is an invitation — to take our embodied selves a lot more seriously than we tend to do when we’re in the up-up-and-away mode.
I do not believe that the God who gave me life wants me to live a living death. I believe that the God who gave me life wants me to live life fully and well. Now, is that going to take me to places where I suffer, because I am standing for something or I am committed to something or I am passionate about something that gets resisted and rejected by the society? Absolutely. But anyone who’s ever suffered that way knows that it’s a life-giving way to suffer, that if it’s your truth, you can’t not do it. And that knowledge carries you through. But there’s another kind of suffering that is simply and purely death. It’s death in life, and that is a darkness to be worked through to find the life on the other side.
The thought of God, all of those theological convictions, were just dead and gone during that time. But from time to time, back in the woods, that primitive wildness was there. And if that’s all God is, I’ll settle for it. I’ll settle for it easily and thankfully.