Parker Palmer on Questions & Listening

If you’d like to enter my giveaway, please leave a book title in the comments from my interview with Tayari Jones.  You can do so til midnight today.  It looks like Cathy has a strong chance of winning so far!  I know you’ve read the interview, people.

Now, for today’s post.  Parker Palmer writes the passage below in A Hidden Wholeness, words that echo how I feel when I’m trying to listen well, to withhold unnecessary words when I sit with someone I care about.

Two things it may be helpful to know before you read the quote.  One is that he uses the phrase “inner teacher” to talk about the core of humanity, the soul, or the true person, what in the general Christian tradition may also be called either the image of God or the Spirit of God.  Second, when he says “circle of trust,” he’s describing a group of people who come together to pay attention to no other agenda except to provide a safe space for the soul.  The book’s about these two things, so while that one-sentence is only so helpful, you can gather his gist with my summary (from pgs. 117-18):

When you speak to me about your deepest questions, you do not want to be fixed or saved: you want to be seen and heard, to have your truth acknowledged and honored.  If your problem is soul-deep, your soul alone knows what you need to do about it, and my presumptuous advice will only drive your soul back into the woods.  So the best advice I can render when you speak to me about such a struggle is to hold you faithfully in a space where you can listen to your inner teacher.

But holding you that way takes time, energy, and patience.  As the minutes tick by, with no outward sign that anything is happening for you, I start feeling anxious, useless, and foolish, and I start thinking about all the other things I have to do.  Instead of keeping the space between us open for you to hear your soul, I fill it up with advice, not so much to meet your needs as to assuage my anxiety and get on with my life.  Then I can disengage from you, a person with a troublesome problem, while saying to myself, “I tried to help.”  I walk away feeling virtuous.  You are left feeling unseen and unheard.

How do we change these deeply embedded habits of fixing, saving, advising, and setting each other straight?  How do we learn to be present to each other by speaking our own truth; listening to the truth of others; asking each other honest, open questions; and offering the gifts of laughter and silence?  These ways of being together are so important in a circle of trust that each of them has its own chapter in this book…

Our purpose is not to teach anyone anything but to give the inner teacher a chance to teach us.


Misspellings And Other Mistakes

I hate reading misspelled words.  I really hate writing them.  Like most people I’m subject to doing what I hate.

Over the weekend, I looked at my blog.  I had scheduled Nina’s post.  The day it went up, I read it.  I read it like I had several times before scheduling it.  But, after it went up on the blog, I saw an error.  I saw a misspelled word, a mis-chosen wrong.  If you read the last post, you saw it too.

I was reading the post on my phone.  I reread it to make sure that I wasn’t seeing things.  This happens when I wake up too early, when I don’t get sleep.  I blinked, rubbed my eyes, looked away at an object on the other side of the glass.  The mistake was still there.  So I logged into my account.

I was going to write the wrong, fix the error.  Except the mountains had other plans.  It turns out that the interstate highway between Tennessee and Alabama isn’t too friendly to smartphones.  I had the hardest time logging in to wordpress, and even after getting into my dashboard, I couldn’t successfully edit the post.  I silently complained to peaks and cliffs to our side while we drove up and down the winding road.  By the time I got to where I was headed, I lost energy.  I forgot to edit the post.  Then, after remembering–which was after a long day of driving and negotiating tiny truces with the boy and meeting relatives and cleaning a room that looked like an ad for a new bed bug product–I was too exhausted to visit the closet-labeled-business center in the hotel.

The error haunted me.  It hasn’t stopped.  But I wouldn’t correct myself.  I wouldn’t change the word when I finally got the chance.  The mistake meant something by then.

When I came home, I got back to a book, The Active Life, I’m reading for an upcoming class.  It’s by Parker Palmer.  I’ve read three of his other books and will read this one and a fifth one for my class.  In the chapter I read through today, he talks about failure.  I thought of my failure to proof the blog post.  I thought of my day and the one before that, the mistakes jumping out at me, joining the other misspellings of my weekend.  It was a moment of orientation for me, a moment where I came back to grace in a humble way.  Here’s a quote from Palmer, speaking about the “downward movement” and the healing power of failure:

If downward movement is key to our quest for reality, then failure is key to our growth.  Success, or the illusion of success, is an upward movement, an inflation of the ego that makes us lighter than air.  But failure is life’s ballast.  It restrains our tendency to float away on a bloated ego and pulls us back toward common ground…The paradox is that failure may turn to growth, while success can turn to self-satisfaction and closure.

Better Decisions, pt. 1 of 4

Every decision you make provides a view into your head.  When you make a decision, you are making a statement about the way you think, about what you value, and about what you’re looking forward to.  I’ve been thinking about the courage it takes to make hard choices.  Part of this is coming from my thoughts as a sermon-preparer and giver.  I’m preaching more regularly than I ever have and it’s both rigorous for my weekly calendar and for my soul. 

I have a list of things in my red journal that I want to be different about me because I’m speaking to a congregation who is listening and looking for my own life to be changed.  I think it makes a difference preparing messages with that in my mind–that “these people expect me to live up to my words,” words which in the case of the Bronzeville congregation, because we’re wading through Matthew, are largely the words of Jesus.  Following Jesus or being a Christian, if you will, is a series of daily decisions about whether I will follow while choosing what I’ll think and do in response to that Man.

That said, here is my first offering of a few things to consider as you make better decisions.

Draw wise people around you

Resist the need or the urge or the temptation to make major decisions alone.  Whether you started doing it when you were younger or whether you were convinced later on that smart people made their own decisions.  A mark of wisdom is the inclusion of others in your life, in general, and in your decisions, in particular.

I learned about a clearness committee while in grad school at Wheaton.  Scottie May has us reading Palmer.  The clearness committee is a concept that I’ve implemented at various points in my life.  The last two times was when my wife was deciding to leave one place of employment and when I was also discerning (at a different time) to leave my first church, Sweet Holy Spirit, to come to New Community and serve.  At both times, the good people who sat with us ask great questions and some things came out that I still remember.

Parker Palmer writes about the committee, which comes out of the Quaker tradition.  It’s kinda like a roundtable or a panel or a small group of people.  The group is made up from people you trust, people you invite, to help you make a decision.  You invite them to a table somewhere, give them some background for the choice before, open yourself for their questions, and you listen to yourself while you answer.  That’s it.  You hear what they have to say while questioning.  You can only answer their questions, nothing else.  You don’t tell them what you want necessarily.  You simply hear what wisdom comes from them and from what they wish to ask.

The assumption behind this invitation to the table is that great wisdom 1) comes from you and 2) comes after the good and sometimes intense questions that a community of people level at you.  You come to clarity, to clearness, to insight when you hear yourself, when you hear the insights of others.

Questions for you: What types of decisions have you asked others to help you with?  How have you found a community, friends, or relatives helpful as you’ve made choices?