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  • Writer's pictureLinda Odhner, with photos by Liz Kufs

Excerpted Inspirations #125

Updated: May 9




[Parker J. Palmer’s thoughts on vocation suggest the transition from the Ishmael to the Isaac rational.] I was in my early thirties when I began, literally, to wake up to questions about my vocation. By all appearances, things were going well, but the soul does not put much stock in appearances. Seeking a path more purposeful than accumulating wealth, holding power, winning at competition, or securing a career, I had started to understand that it was indeed possible to live a life other than one’s own. Fearful that I was doing just that – but uncertain about the deeper, truer life I sensed hidden inside me, uncertain whether it was real or trustworthy or within reach – I would snap awake in the middle of the night and stare for long hours at the ceiling. Then I ran across the old Quaker saying, “Let your life speak.” I found those words encouraging, and I thought I understood what they meant: “Let the highest truths and values guide you. Live up to those demanding standards in everything you do.” Because I had heroes at the time who seemed to be doing exactly that, this exhortation had incarnate meaning for me – it meant living a life like that of Martin Luther King Jr. or Rosa Parks or Mahatma Gandhi or Dorothy Day – a life of high purpose. So I lined up the loftiest ideals I could find and set out to achieve them. The results were rarely admirable, often laughable, and sometimes grotesque. But always they were unreal, a distortion of my true self – as must be the case when one lives from the outside in, not the inside out. I had simply found a “noble” way to live a life that was not my own, a life spent imitating heroes instead of listening to my heart. Today, thirty years later, “Let your life speak” means something else to me, a meaning faithful both to the ambiguity of those words and the complexity of my own experience: “Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you. Before you tell your life what truths and values you intend to live up to, let your life tell you what truths you embody, what values you represent.” My youthful understanding of “Let your life speak” led me to conjure up the highest values I could imagine and then try to conform my life to them whether they were mine or not. If that sounds like what we are supposed to do with values, it is because that is what we are too often taught. There is a simplistic brand of moralism among us that wants to reduce the ethical life to making a list, checking it twice –against the index in some best-selling book of virtues, perhaps – and then trying very hard to be not naughty but nice. Parker J. Palmer, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation (2000), pp. 2-3 [Continued next week]


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