In “Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation,” educational activist Parker J. Palmer makes a good case that to live fulfilling lives we must learn about and develop respect for ourselves instead of catering to other people’s expectations of who we should be and what we should do. This requires brutal honesty about our strengths and our weaknesses, our proclivities and the things we are disposed to avoid. In the process, we are better able to know and respect other people, allowing us to become an integral part of a healthy community.
My own first introduction to Palmer’s premise was in a weekend workshop called “Actualizations” which I took in college at my father’s urging. The workshop effectively created an instant, safe, and supportive community of people who could discover and take control of basic assumptions that had shaped their lives (especially in a negative way) without their conscious assent. I had two such assumptions which it took more than 20 additional years to test and discard: that emotions should (and could) be replaced with objective, logical thought; and, related to the first, that there is an objective way to decide the right thing to do without invoking values.
Taking the inner journey of discovery can be both profoundly rewarding and disturbing, but it is absolutely necessary to uncover the biases that underlie our world views. After starting the journey (which ever ends), it becomes easy to spot others who are suffering from the near-blindness of self-delusion, the most obvious sign being open and unacknowledged hypocrisy. Helping them see -- exposing the “blind spots” I’ve discussed elsewhere -- becomes a natural part of our relationship with them, which, as Palmer warns, must be done respectfully (if not always easily).
The objective of Palmer’s book is to encourage people to be true to who they are in the kind of work that they do; otherwise, they do more harm than good in the long run, to both themselves and to others. One of the greatest tragedies of our economic system, amplified as it now sinks toward depression, is that survival forces people to work wherever they can, accommodating an obsolete and inaccurate factory model that treats people as objects that can be standardized and interchanged to meet the wants, if not the needs, of another set of objects: customers. People as individuals, or members of a larger community that have more value than the things they can produce and consume, have no place in this system that almost by design must eventually self-destruct, along with those who depend on it. This last point emerges from “The Economics of Happiness: Building Genuine Wealth” by economist Mark Anielski, which shows a decline in well-being indicators over more than 30 years even as the primary measure of economic progress, the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), has skyrocketed. We are essentially paying for the destruction of the commons -- human, environmental, and built -- that civilization depends on, and it can’t continue that much longer.
To me, the inner journey is intimately connected to the external one. If we are open and honest with ourselves, we will come to know and accept who we are and what we have done. We will be able to choose what comes next, based on a knowledge of what we can and can’t do, what we can get excited about and what we can never sustain enough interest or effort to do well. Recognizing that we require community to augment our awareness and abilities, we will seek out others with similar values and strive together to live according to those values. I hope that to the extent we are part of a world community, one of those values will be the long-term surviving and thriving of the human species; if so, then we will act with mutual support and respect, preserving that which we all depend on, and exchanging that which we can mutually afford without sacrificing the future or our value as human beings.