Book Review: “Let your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation”

Parker Palmer wrote “Let your Life Speak; Listening for the Voice of Vocation” and so much resonated so strongly with me. When your life’s work and career is disrupted by a serious illness, it’s difficult to find purpose to keep going. Sure, family is important and I’d do anything for my husband and kiddos; at the same time, finding purpose in the midst of trauma can be a key factor in HOW you live as well as the quality of that life.

“Ask me whether what I have done is my life.”

William Stafford, “AsK ME”

Here’s a concept that often divides people along gender lines, I’ve heard. Generally and stereotypically, men often blur the lines between identify and their work whereas women typically don’t. For me, being an advocate has most often been both who I am as well as what I’ve done for work. This confluence meant that much of what I’ve done for work has also met other needs in my own life, for better or for worse.

Today I understand vocation quite differently-not as a goal to be achieved but as a gift to be received. Discovering vocation does not mean scrambling toward some prize just beyond my reach but accepting the treasure of true self

This theme is one that resonated with me strongly. While I didn’t always have the language, once I stumbled upon the idea of going to law school, so much fell into place. The concepts and training necessary to practice law affirmed that I’d headed in the right direction. I realize that this makes me incredibly lucky since many (if not most) people’s paths are not so straightforward.

True vocation joins self and service, as Frederick Buechner asserts when he defines vocation as “the place where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep need”

Here’s another theme from the book that I’ve connected with over time. Service is a concept that I hope to pass along to my boys and this definition of vocation is one I’ve embraced in my life without having the language or labels. Pursuing a vocation means on so many levels that what you do is embedded in who you are. Pursuing a vocation is both good for the self and the world. Pursuing a vocation is where you meet and see yourself more fully.

Vocation at its deepest level is, “This is something I can’t not do, for reasons I’m unable to explain to anyone else and don’t fully understand myself but that are nonetheless compelling.”

One of the reasons I named this blog “No Half Measures,” is because I very rarely ever do anything halfway. This concept of compelling reasons that can be hard to explain to others (and myself) is one I’m familiar with. Some parts of this explanation is also embedded in personality; at the same time, trusting one’s purpose and higher power to lead can be scary and requires a fair amount of courage to heed when it doesn’t always make sense to others.

The punishment imposed on us for claiming true self can never be worse than the punishment we impose on ourselves by failing to make that claim. And the converse is true as well: no reward anyone might give us could possibly be greater than the reward that comes from living by our own best lights.

True self. The author talks quite a bit about the true self in the book and how important it is to find our true selves, to be loyal and true to this core of who we are. As with so many things, there is both a balcony and a basement to this concept. When we are in alignment to our true selves, when we embrace who we are, there’s some mighty magic. When we are not in alignment to our true selves, the result can be toxic for us and those around us.

One dwells with God by being faithful to one’s nature. One crosses God by trying to be something one is not. Reality-including one’s own-is divine, to be not defied but honored.

I appreciate so much how the author weaves the spiritual life into the discussion of vocation. Outside of those people whose vocation overlaps with spirituality, most of us are continually figuring out how to integrate the seen with the unseen. Demonstrating the overlap reveals that there is good reason to embrace the complexity of integration versus attempting to separate these elements of who we are.

If we are to live our lives fully and well, we must learn to embrace the opposites, to live in a creative tension between our limits and our potentials. We must honor our limitations in ways that do not distort our nature, and we must trust and use our gifts in ways that fulfill the potentials God gave us.

Our eldest turned double digits this year and my husband and I talk incessantly about both our kids; this concept of creative tension has come up quite a bit recently albeit not with that label. As parents, we agonize a bit over who these precious boys are and will be as they grow. We watch and ponder how their childhoods are so different from ours and how their paths will meander in meaningfully different ways. In some small way, I hope we are able to help them do a better job of living between their limits and their potentials, but I do know that this can take a lot of trial and error.

One of the hardest things we must do sometimes is to be present to another person’s pain without trying to “fix” it, to simply stand respectfully at the edge of that person’s mystery and misery.

I’ve written about this a lot, about holding space, physically and with language. This idea of standing respectfully at the edge of another’s mystery and misery is really hard. Especially for those of us whose vocation truly is to help/fix. Knowing when to stand respectfully, when to offer help, when to jump into high gear to fix … that struggle is a basement for me in this whole vocation thing.

The poet Rainer Maria Rilke says, “love … consists in this, that two solitudes protect and border and salute each other.”‘

I wasn’t family with this poet until I read this book and now I’m a little obsessed. I love this concept of two solitudes protecting, bordering and saluting each other. It feels safe. It feels as though these two solitudes see one another. It feels like love. It feels like respect.

The underground is a dangerous but potentially life-giving place to which depression takes us; a place where we come to understand that the self is not set apart or special or superior but is a common mix of good and evil, darkness and light; a place where we can finally embrace the humanity we share with others.

A good portion of the book describes the author’s personal struggle with depression, those dark nights of the soul that continue for days and months and weeks. Only someone who has walked that dark valley can speak so knowledgeably about those silver linings. Hitting the bottom gives tremendous perspective and empathy.

Good leadership comes from people who have penetrated their own inner darkness and arrived at the place where we are at one with one another, people who can lead the rest of us to a place of “hidden wholeness” because they have been there and know the way.

Hidden wholeness. It’s hard to define and yet I think we know it when we see it. We want to follow those who have it. We want it for ourselves, sometimes more desperately than others.

And this is my wish for each of you — may we all pursue and find hidden wholeness, whether in vocation or otherwise.

5 thoughts on “Book Review: “Let your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation”

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