Interview with Parker Palmer & Thoughts about Insecurity, the Self, & Writing

Today I had an opportunity to serve as interviewer with Parker Palmer, one of my heroes in education, spirituality, and social change.  He is such an inspiration in the way that his life and work are one and the same.  He is a reflective, thoughtful person who seeks to share himself with others, but in a kind rather than self-promoting way.  He’s a real role model for me as a person who tends to like the quiet and the thoughtful.  His depth is refreshing in our culture of constant movement, self-branding, provocation and 140-character wisdom soundbites.

Parker is the author of seven books, including the bestsellers The Courage to Teach, A Hidden Wholeness, and Let Your Life Speak.  One of his basic arguments is that if we attend to our own inner landscapes – our own deepest needs and fears – we can be better prepared to open up safe spaces in which learning can truly happen.  He says that it was in his own experience of clinical depression, when he was stripped from his ability to rely on his emotions, his ego, or his critical thinking skills, that he first became aware of the soul. He compares the nature of the soul to a wild animal deep in the woods of our psyche, and says that if we approach it with too much loudness, it will cower away.  We need to wait for it, create inviting spaces for it to appear in our midst.  It sounds so paradoxical, and so true: if we acknowledge and honor our own lives, we are better prepared to honor the lives of our students – and the lives of our children.

On good days, I’m right with Parker, and life and work feel completely in tune.  Kids are happy, students are engaged, writing is rewarding, teaching is exhiliarating.  But unfortunately, not every day is like that, and when it’s not, I know that it’s much more about my internal life than about anything that’s happening around me.  On those days, I’d just rather hibernate.  On those days, I’ve somehow allowed myself to focus on the fact that I might not be liked, or respected, or I’m worried that I’ll say something inappropriate or unintentionally hurtful.  I’m all too familiar with my own flaws: I’m so serious and intense, I have a tendency to be self-involved, I tend to overcommit myself and am constantly worried about whether or not anything I write or say will have any resonance or usefulness.  I know that I don’t really need reassurance from anyone but myself.  So why is it so hard to give it?

I think it has to do with an ingrained, female-specific script that needs to be changed.  I need to remind myself that taking care of self isn’t the same as selfishness.  Instead: Care for the self, and then you can truly care for others.  It is so much easier to beat myself up.  And it isn’t clinical depression so much as something far less acceptable but perhaps just as widespread: emotional insecurity.  Like depression, this word too is feminized.  Lacking in confidence, security, or safety; lacking mental stability; unsteady, full of doubt, anxious. It’s a trait that’s not attractive to self or to others. Which means the recognition of insecurity just adds to the negative perception of self.

The good news is that perception of self is the key.   It’s a focus on the negative, even the possibly negative, that gives rise to insecurities.  But adjusting perspective is something that can be learned and practiced as a discipline.  I think it’s an important discipline, for parenting as well as for teaching and writing.  If I want my kids and my students to feel confident and secure, then I need to model that.  I need to care for myself, because don’t I want them to learn to care for themselves, to see that it’s okay to care for themselves?

Is blogging the appropriate venue for thoughts like these?  I never seen to work them into books or articles, although more and more I talk about things like emotional work and meaning in relation to family life and connection in the mediated environment in which we immerse ourselves. I admire the people who can “brain-dump” into blogs.  Maybe I’m just too intense for this medium.

Most of my writing time goes to different pursuits.  I write journal articles and labor over the analysis and presentation of data even as I also strive to situate what I think I’ve found in relation to what others have found so that I can feel somewhat confident that my own contribution is unique.  Sometimes I take on theories and histories to try to make some kind of point that I think a particular scholarly community would benefit from hearing. Sometimes I struggle to figure out how to divide up “big projects,” which is to say books.  Sometimes I even get them finished, even if they’re still, in my view, more complicated than they needed to be.

So how does writing fit into all of this?  I have gotten much praise over the years for being “productive,” which is interesting because I think my drive to write is less about achieving productivity than the result of something I feel compelled to do.  I don’t write because I’m insecure and need to prove something.  In fact it’s hardest to write when I’m feeling insecure.  But writing is what keeps me healthy.  It’s the way in which I know what I truly think.  It’s how I can get away from distraction and regain perspective.  Running is its complement for me, because it forces me out of my head so that I have to notice the beauty in the world around me.  I’ve often thought that the rhythm of breathing that comes after the first half-mile or so is the payoff in running, for it’s when I feel like my body’s had to give over control to some other, internal rhythm.  It’s my reminder of my own life-force, my soul.  The peace that comes from the solitude of writing does the same.  So today, it was very interesting to hear Parker talk about writing and visiting the woods as his own “spiritual disciplines,” because I guess they are mine, too. But is there any benefit to talking about them?

I have another spiritual discipline, and that’s the discipline of being really present with my kids.  Sometimes I have to force myself to put down my laptop.  Sometimes I will recognize that their acting up is in direct response to my distractedness.  Then, on good days, I will put down what I’m doing, look them in the eye, and say something like, “let’s each work on our homework for 15 minutes, and then I want to hear you tell me all about (whatever it is they were wanting to tell me).”  Sometimes that works, but there are other times when I just have to take on the discipline of allowing myself to go with their flow, to put down the thing I wanted to do and resist thinking about it or resenting the interruption.

Parker Palmer also got me thinking about interruptions and constants in work, especially over the life of a career.  I have often wondered what in the world unites all of my own work that seems to range from audience studies to world religions and popular culture to work on parenting, media, and young people and the future of journalism, and I felt like this opportunity to sit with Parker and talk about his work before a particular audience of educators helped me to get some insight into this.  I guess what tends to characterize my own writing is that I am very interested in serious listening, in trying to find what gives people a sense of meaning and value so that I can hold a mirror up and let others reflect on what is being said or done.  Sometimes, this has meant trying to listen to the true angst of parents as they express their care for their children through the worries they locate in media uses.  At other times, this concern with meaning has ended up being an interest in how people reconcile what they say and do, how their world views relate to their politics and to what’s in the mediated realm that reinforces or occasionally challenges what they take for granted.

So it was refreshing to be in a space where I could be invited to be the public listener, reflecting back to educators what I’ve heard in their midst and then listening to how Parker responded to their desires for affirmation and wholeness.  Because that’s sort of the role I’d like to grow into myself: a reflector, not a provocateur; a person who lets you figure out your own insights about parenting or teaching or learning whatever.  I don’t have any interest in demanding that you listen to what I think I know about anything.  But I would like to be part of your conversation, to learn from you and share what I’ve learned based on what it seems like you want to know.  I’d much rather be wise than smart, and that’s sort of a quieter, more contemplative thing.  It’s out of step with remix and Twitter culture, and probably with blog culture, too.  But if I can just continue to live in the moment, conscious of others’ needs but not neglectful of my own, I think this life work of being a teacher/scholar will be – or actually, will continue to be – really amazing.



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