“Let your life speak” is a Quaker value: anyone can preach with their words, Quakers seek to preach with their lives. In his 1999 book Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation, founder of the Centre for Courage and Renewal, Parker J Palmer explores how this value can guide us in finding our purpose and in making a living out of meaningful work.
A successful product of the advertising world in the Mad Men era, Palmer woke one day with a chilling realisation that “the life I am living is not the same as the life that wants to live in me”. Abandoning “the fast cars and other large toys that seemed to be the accessories [of] selfhood” he searches for work that would “match his greatest gladness with the world’s greatest need”.
However, instead of doors opening, Palmer was discouraged to experience setbacks and doors closing. Seeking advice from a wise Quaker woman he states that surely he must have chosen the wrong vocation. In all her years, she replied “way has never opened up in front of me but a lot of way has closed behind me and that’s had the same guiding effect”.
In pursuing vocation as a goal, Palmer had mistaken purpose as something we do, rather than something we are (the word vocation is rooted in the Latin for “voice” and therefore means “a calling that I hear”). The seed of our vocation, Palmer argues, is within us and has been evident in our character since the day we were born. Stifling our authentic voice beneath “shoulds” we march into adulthood striving to imitate our heroes, instead of listening to our hearts.
In Palmer’s case, stifling his voice took him on the dark journey of depression, which he describes as “a nuclear bomb not with the intent to kill but as a last ditch effort to get me to turn and ask the simple question “what do you want?””
That nuclear bomb landed on me in 2008 in the shape of a phone call from my husband informing me that my Mother had taken an overdose, although the fact that this caused my life to completely unravel came as somewhat of a surprise.
That day I’d calmly walked out the office, caught a taxi to the hospital and tracked down my Father working in Ethiopia. Landing in London the next morning, he scooped up my broken Mother and I returned to the very crucial work I was doing as a senior leader in a very important function in a very large company.
That I might have unravelled at some point should not really have come as any surprise. As an undergraduate studying English literature I fell in love with women on the edge: Bronte’s Cathy Earnshaw, Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf. I devoured the thinking of Jacques Derrida, Roland Barthes, Jacques Lacan, Toril Moi and Helene Cixous. My dissertation was entitled “A Psychoanalytic Perspective on the Work of Toni Morrison”.
Naturally I then became an accountant.
“Our deepest calling is to grow into our own authentic self-hood, whether or not it conforms to some image of who we ought to be” says Palmer. Embracing “what we dislike or find shameful about ourselves as well as what we are confident and proud of” is necessary if we are to find our path of authentic service.
Allowing the difficult experiences in your life to develop your authentic voice takes courage. But silencing a core element of what it means to be you, silences your meaning and the unique value you are capable of contributing. If you don’t use your voice, your contribution is unlikely to ever be seen.
Henry David Thoreau wrote “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them”. But we are not the mass of men, we are courageous. We sing our own songs, songs that need to be heard.