Book Notes: “Let Your Life Speak” by Parker Palmer

“Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation” by Parker Palmer is a book my wife recommended to me.

It’s a short, small book, but don’t be deceived by its physical dimensions—this book rocked my world. Since reading it, I joke with my wife that I was cruising along just fine in life, feeling good about my choices, and then she had to go and drop this book into my life — a book that made me question everything about myself and drove me to probe the innermost depths of my soul, trying to find that “voice of vocation”.

Unfortunately I have nothing to report back from my probing. No inner voice discovered. All I discovered were more questions. Therefore, instead of giving you revelatory insights into what my inner voice said and how you too can find yours, I’m merely citing passages from the book that stood out to me.

Quotes On Miscellaneous Topics

Coming to know yourself:

what a long time it can take to become the person one has always been. (9)

Listening to, and being led by, constraints:

making pottery involves more than telling the clay what to become. The clay presses back on the potter’s hands, telling her what it can and cannot do—and if she fails to listen, the outcome will be both frail and ungainly. (16)

True vocation:

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.” (16)

[a clue] to finding true self and vocation: we must withdraw the negative projections we make on people and situations—projections that serve mainly to mask our fears about ourselves—and acknowledge and embrace our own liabilities and truths. (29)


self-care is never a selfish act—it is simply good stewardship of the only gift I have, the gift I was put on earth to offer to others. Anytime we can listen to true self and give it the care it requires, we do so not only for ourselves but for the many others whose lives we touch. (30)

Authentic selfhood:

look at the great liberation movements that have served humanity so well—in Eastern Europe, Latin America, and South Africa, among women, African Americans, and our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. What we see is simple but often ignored: the movements that transform us, our relations, and the world emerge from the lives of people who decide to care for their authentic selfhood. (31)

Knowing thyself:

our problem as that we resist the very idea of limits, regarding limits of all sorts as temporary and regrettable impositions in our lives. Our national myth is about endless defiance of limits: opening the western frontier, breaking the speed of sound, dropping people in the moon...we refuse to take no for an answer.

Part of me treasures the hopefulness of this American legacy. But when I consistently refuse to take no for an answer, I miss the vital clues to my identity...and I am more likely both to exceed my limits and to do harm to others in the process. (43)

If I try to be or do something noble that has nothing to do with who I am, I may look good to others and to myself for a while. But the fact that I am exceeding my limits will eventually have consequences. (47)


when I give something I do not posses, I give a false and dangerous gift that looks like love but is, in reality, loveless—a gift given more from my need to prove myself than from the other’s need to be cared for...

One sign that I am violating my own nature in the name of nobility is a condition called burnout. Though usually regarded as a result of trying to give too much, burnout in my experience results from trying to give what I do not possess—the ultimate in giving too little! Burnout is a state of emptiness, to be sure, but it does not result from giving all I have: it merely reveals the nothingness from which I was trying to give in the first place. ... When the gift I give to the other is integral to my own nature, when it comes from a place of organic reality within me, it will renew itself—and me—even as I give it away. (49)

We don’t even notice our own gifts:

It is an affirming experience to see our gifts at work in a real-life situation—and it often takes the eyes of others to help us see. Our strongest gifts are usually those we are barely aware of possessing. (52)


Then there were the visitors who began by saying, “I know exactly how you feel...” Whatever comforts or counsel these people may have intended to speak, I heard nothing beyond their opening words, because I knew they were peddling a falsehood: no one can fully experience another person’s misery. Paradoxically, it was my friends’ empathetic attempt to identify with me that made me feel even more isolated, because it was overidentification. Disconnection may be hell, but it is better than false connections...

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. Standing there, we feel useless and powerless, which is exactly how a depressed person feels...

In an effort to avoid those feelings, I give advice, which sets me, not you, free. If you take my advice, you may get well—and if you don’t get well, I did the best I could. If you fail to to take my advice, there is nothing more I can do. Either way, I get relief by distancing by distancing myself from you, guilt free. (63)

Social media:

an inflated ego that led me to think more of myself than was warranted in order to mask my fear that I was less than I should have been. (67)

It me:

the intellectual self wants to hover above the mess of life in clean but ungrounded ideas (69)