Book Review: Let Your Life Speak - Parker Palmer

Book Review by Debra Griffis-Woodberry, Pinnacle Associate

Sometimes it is beneficial to re-visit a good book. This is true of the time-proven, value-packed work of Parker J. Palmer in his brief, but profound book Let Your Life Speak. This book embraces insights from Palmer’s Quaker tradition of listening to the inner quiet voice. The book is autobiographical as well as instructive. Each sentence is nuanced and carries deep meaning. Anyone searching for clarity concerning vocation and call will find Let Your Life Speak helpful.

With just over 100 pages, there are six chapters which make the book very readable. But don’t let the smallness fool you. Each sentence carries a punch.

The first chapter entitled, Listening to Life, invites the reader to listen for one’s true self and not for someone else’s life. Palmer says, “Trying to live someone else’s life, or to live by an abstract norm, will invariably fail—and may even do great damage.” (pg. 4) The author encourages attention to one’s mistakes as well as triumphs in life. The insight in this chapter lines up well with life coaching’s emphasis upon personal core values.

Chapter two, Now I Become Myself, continues the conversation about true selfhood. Reflecting upon his granddaughter’s birth, Palmer says, “She arrived with her own gifted form, with the shape of her own sacred soul.” (pg. 11). In a letter that he wrote to her to be read in her early twenties, Palmer, encourages his grandchild to “….remember who you were when you first arrived and reclaim the gift of true self.” (pg. 12). Palmer links the gift of true selfhood to vocation as he shares part of his own story of journey toward letting his life speak authentically in a vocation of service and contribution to society.

Chapter three, When Way Closes, embraces the traditional Quaker counsel that says, “Have faith and way will open.” Palmer included in this discussion the reality of facing one’s limitations and liabilities. In the concluding paragraph he says, “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. (pg. 55).

Chapter four, All the Way Down, presents with deep self-disclosure Parker Palmer’s journey through clinical depression. The insights shared are valuable for anyone experiencing depression and for care-givers walking through depression with another person.

Chapter five, Leading From Within, encourages self reflection that examines the shadows as well as the lights in our lives. Palmer gently compliments the shadows in our lives by stressing how important it is to recognize and know their power. He says, “…by failing to look at our shadows, we feed a dangerous delusion that leaders too often indulge: that our efforts are always well intended, our power is always benign, and the problem is always in those difficult people whom we are trying to lead!” (pg 79). Pinnacle Leadership Associates often use the PeopleMap Personality Assessment to help us with leadership development. One aspect of the PeopleMap System is that each personality type has an “Achilles Heel”. This concept parallels Palmer’s wisdom about addressing one’s shadows while seeking to lead from within.

Chapter six, There is a Season, uses the metaphor of the seasons of the year to continue to look at selfhood and vocation. Palmer says, “Our lives participate in the myth of eternal return: we circle around and spiral down, never finally answering the questions “Who am I?” and “Whose am I?”” (pg. 95) It is helpful to remember what we know about seasons and apply that knowledge to our spiritual journeys. For example, Palmer reminds the reader that “…nature is not dead in the winter—it has gone underground to renew itself and prepare for spring.” (pg. 101). Often we need to identify the season in which we find ourselves. For example, knowing that it is winter helps us be patient as new ideas or calls in life have time for germination.

So, whether one is reading it for the first time or re-visiting this good work, Let Your Life Speak offers wisdom and insight for life’s journey. In reading this book, I caught a glimpse of Parker’s ability to laugh at himself and to integrate the influence of others like Thomas Merton upon his life. Above all the reader feels Palmer’s authenticity of selfhood and is inclined to listen to one’s own life as it speaks.