Parker Palmer is a Quaker teacher, writer, and world-renowned speaker and activist. He has received ten honorary doctorates in addition to his other academic accomplishments. He is the founding partner of the Center for Courage & Renewal which, according to his wikipedia page, “oversees the “Courage to Teach” program for K-12 educators across the country and parallel programs for people in other professions, including medicine, law, ministry and philanthropy.” By any account, Palmer is successful, leading a fulfilling life and reaching many people with his ministry. And yet, at the height of his success, Palmer, when in his mid-forties, faced for the first time a debilitating depression.
In his book, Let Your Life Speak he wrote about his experience. “Depression is the ultimate state of disconnection, not just between people but between one’s mind and one’s feelings. To be reminded of that disconnection only deepened my despair” [p. 62]. This disconnection was experienced as friends unhelpfully tried to cheer him up, encouraging him to get outside and smell the flowers. He writes, “And that, of course, leaves a depressed person even more depressed, because while you know intellectually that it’s sunny out and that the flowers are lovely and fragrant, you can’t really feel any of that in your body, which is dead in a sensory way. And so you’re left more depressed by this “good advice” to get out and enjoy the day.”
As someone who has wrestled with depression myself, I can attest to the difficulty of being with friends and loved ones who want to offer advice. While they mean well, and I would never want to disparage them for the courage to try to walk with me in my suffering, a depressed person really doesn’t want to hear easy answers. As the story of Job reminds us, sitting in silence with the person who is suffering is an immense gift. Job 2:11-13 recounts,
When Job’s three friends, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite, heard about all the troubles that had come upon him, they set out from their homes and met together by agreement to go and sympathize with him and comfort him. When they saw him from a distance, they could hardly recognize him; they began to weep aloud, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads. Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was.
In real life this can be so hard to do. When someone we care about is in pain, we naturally want to do all we can to help ease their suffering. But as Palmer goes on to write, “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” [p. 63].
Time passed and Palmer found treatment that helped him, though he continued to struggle over the years. After a while he felt compelled to write publicly about his experience, and he was met with a surprising result–people REALLY responded to his experience with depression. In a recent interview with Palmer, now in his seventies, he shares what he learned about being vulnerable in this way:
I’ve written nine books… but the one piece that I’ve written that has gotten the most response by far is a chapter in Let Your Life Speak about my experience with depression. It’s my acknowledgement of weakness, it’s my capacity to be vulnerable which has made me more friends than whatever capacity I have to be smart and strong…
When you start understanding wholeness not as perfection but as embracing everything you are, then you become able to talk about it [weakness] and to invite other people to share those same pieces of their own lives.
For many people, Palmer included, writing and speaking about depression has been part of the healing process. It can be so hard to take that first step and open our mouths to admit we are struggling, but so often that experience is liberating. I know for me, when I have the courage to share with a trusted friend about my story, I open up the possibility of receiving new support, deepening that relationship, and allowing the other person to be honest about her own suffering.
Near the end of this short video interview, Palmer reminds the viewer of the Leonard Cohen song that says:
Ring the bells that still can ring
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
Thank you Mr. Palmer, for your honesty and vulnerability, and for reminding us all that we are not alone in our suffering. In fact, suffering is simply part of being a member of the human race.
Other Parker Palmer Resources:
- I first heard Parker Palmer talk about his experience with depression in an interview on the NPR show, “On Being” with Krista Tippet. It is a wonderful episode that I highly recommend! Listen here >>
- The 4-minute video interview with him talking about writing publicly about depression is excellent. Click here to watch the short video.
- His book, Let Your Life Speak, is excellent! Well worth purchasing or checking out of your local library.
- The website of his organization, the Center for Courage & Renewal, is pretty fascinating.