When Way Closes

Wednesday, January 28, 2015 - 9:50am
Photo by Chris Ford

When Way Closes

A while back, I saw that my 21 year-old granddaughter had posted a quote from one of my books on her Facebook page. I was honored, of course.

Because my granddaughter is a lot smarter than I am about a lot of things, I thought I ought to take a look at what I wrote in that book. Maybe there was something to it!

So here's a story about what I was struggling with in my late thirties, when I lived and worked at Pendle Hill, the Quaker living-learning community near Philadelphia.

I was trying and failing to find a new direction for my life, and feeling very discouraged about it, when I got some life-changing counsel from an older woman named Ruth.

I'm older now than Ruth was then, but her counsel continues to guide me. If someone else finds it helpful, I'll be glad I passed her wisdom along...

"If I were to discover a new direction, I thought, it would be at Pendle Hill, a community rooted in prayer, study, and a vision of human possibility. But when I arrived and started sharing my vocational quandary, people responded with a traditional Quaker counsel that, despite all the good intentions, left me even more discouraged. 'Have faith,' they said, 'and way will open.'

'I have faith,' I thought to myself. 'What I don't have is time to wait for "way" to open. I'm approaching middle age at warp speed, and I have yet to find a vocational path that feels right. The only way that's opened so far is the wrong way.'

After a few months of deepening frustration, I took my troubles to an older Quaker woman well-known for her thoughtfulness and candor. 'Ruth,' I said, 'people keep telling me that "way will open." Well, I sit in the silence, I pray, I listen for my calling, but way is not opening. I've been trying to find my vocation for a long time, and I still don't have the foggiest idea of what I'm meant to do. Way may open for other people, but it's sure not opening for me.'

Ruth's reply was a model of Quaker plain-speaking: 'I'm a birthright Friend,' she said somberly, 'and in sixty-plus year of living, way has never opened in front of me.' She paused, and I started sinking into despair. Was this wise woman telling me that the Quaker concept of guidance was a hoax? Then she spoke again, this time with a grin: 'But a lot of way has closed behind me, and that's had the same guiding effect.'

I laughed with her, laughed loud and long, the kind of laughter that comes when a simple truth exposes your heart for the needlessly neurotic mess it has become. Ruth's honesty gave me a new way to look at my vocational journey, and my experience has long-since confirmed the lesson she taught me that day: there is as much guidance in what does not and cannot happen in my life as there is in what can and does — maybe more."

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Parker J. Palmer

is a columnist for On Being. His column appears every Wednesday.

He is a Quaker elder, educator, activist, and founder of the Center for Courage & Renewal. His books include Healing the Heart of Democracy, A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life, and Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation.

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I am seventy-seven and adrift myself. I have been concerned about my looking back far too much, as we elders are won't to do; this piece offers consolation.

I am going to be 66 tomorrow and feel like my life is as hard as it has ever been. The door that closed on me was one I never in a million years expected to close. It has been a difficult one to accept because I tried so hard to do everything right. As a retired mental health therapist I've told clients a million times we cannot control everything in our lives. So Kate and Parker, I will look again at that event and see it as a closed door and then see what's next. Thank you for your wisdom.

Jan, thank you for your post. Just last night, I was going through some files and found a card with words that I offer to you: "Sometimes old doors have to close...so that new ones can open." Perhaps the closing of the door you mentioned will provide some needed spaciousness for you to recognize and welcome your next step -- whatever it may be and in whatever guise it may present itself. I wish you well on the journey...Joan

A young woman said almost the exact same thing to me today about healing the racism in her Quaker Meeting. "It's like we are traveling in a covered wagon," she said. "We don't know where we will end up, but we know what we're leaving--and we are not going back."

Another great story, Parker Palmer. I have trodden some of this same ground. Having been an attender of a local Quaker meeting for several years during my thirties and forties, now some 20-30 years ago, I find comfort and reassurance in your Quakerly wisdom. The closest I've ever come to Pendle Hill is having read several of their pamphlets during those same years; perhaps some of them contained your words.

What I call "Quaker-talk" has remained with me all these years, and "a way is opening" floats through my head every now and then, along with a few other phrases. I have to admit that until now I had not turned this on its head and considered it from the other perspective. This will likely join the repertoire of the other phrases in my head, and may provide as much guidance for me as it has for you. By the way, there was once a Ruth in my life, too, but her name was Brit. Thank you for bringing this all to mind for me again today.

Very interesting and useful metaphors ... I could relate it to the role of sacrifice in deepening the faith too ... thanks for sharing

I'm in my late thirties and have been struggling through the last years to find my way. What I thought it was turned up not giving the results I expected. I even believe the eczema I have developped is the consequence of so much frustration for not seeing a way opening. Today I decided to give in, not to fight against what I cannot change. I am exhausted. You cannot imagine the consolation I have found reading your words. Thank you.

Iam thinking about what you said in regards to what cannot open again. I am 68, retired educator and minister. My husband and I are taking care of twin 21 month old granddaughters three days a week.This is rewarding, but it is not the same as teaching high school or serving a church in ministry. But I have become part of an anti-racist movement in my church and community. I am white and am learning how my experience teaching Richard Wright's biography Black Boy and Maya Angelou's biography have given me tools to understand. I also realize that in teaching those books I helped my white students, perhaps even more than my black students to discover history not taught. So my past is opening into a new and needed purpose for the present.

I really appreciate this concept/description of the way closing. As I ponder this next part of my life journey (having just retired early by choice), I am amazed at where I've been and what I've already accomplished. This post reminds me to be proud of where my way has been; and know that more of it is coming.

Thanks, Parker, for sharing this. It reminds me of your book, "Let Your Life Speak" - a book I recommend to others, especially young people.

I have read your quote years ago and use it often in spiritual direction. I find it even more true at age 66.

Ruth, looking in the rearview mirror of her life, is describing how much of my understanding of what my way has been - as it has been discovered by me-after the fact. As I approach the end times of my life there are definite reminders of doors closing as I moved in the only direction NOT closed to me. Stubbornly refusing to call where I was headed "My Way" didn't preclude it from being My Way! Oh, I make myself laugh, sometimes!!!!

Beautiful, Mary. And thank you.

This has been one of my favorite guiding stories since I first read it in Weavings many years ago. I have related it many times in conversations about discernment. (It also well describes the nature of my discernment of calling).

So, I'm going to consider this article as "way opening." I am 49 years-old and one year ago, after a near fatal illness, I gave up a stable and lucrative career in the government to make hats. Hats! What was I thinking? They're beautiful and they make me (and others) happy. They are not making me very much money. A few months ago, I started knocking on doors, trying to get back into a government job. None of these doors are opening. Not one. I'm going to print out the last line of this article and stick it over my work table. Thank you. I needed to read this right now.

We are all on The Way.

I'm 72 and it's close close close. So many things I can't do anymore. So, just this.

Perfect that I should find this today for when I look at yesterday I know God has a plan for my tomorrows and it must be something wonderful. Anxious this morning while job searching, I shall rest in peace tonight for a lot of way has closed behind me. 48, mother of five, abundantly blessed with love. thank you.

Lovely. I learned this lesson as well, but slightly differently. There was a time in my life when I was going through a huge transformation in so many parts of my life that it was difficult to know which way was up sometimes, let alone which direction I wanted to go in next.So for a while I simply decided to be content with knowing where I didn't want to go, or what I didn't want to create and choosing from there. So I guess I was doing just what Ruth was suggesting, I knew where the way had closed behind me and let that guide me to other directions. Thank you, Ruth and Parker for saying it so eloquently.

Thank you Parker,once again! Your sharing is filled with so much wisdom!
It brought back my own memories of feeling lost ,like in a forest,many years ago.
Your choice of the foto by Chris Ford is very symbolic for me.
The two tree trunks in the front are like a gate,calling to walk through.
Little light filters through the many trees,but at the edge of the forest shines much bright light!
After a very dark time in my own life,I returned to school,and when I then had my degree,I did not know where to go with it.
A dear friend gave me also very wise councel,and he used to say:"I do not think the time has come yet!" when I shared my thoughts about certain ideas.
I was for sure not living the patience that was required at the time.
I learned to stay with all my many questions,to live with them,and slowly a new life was being born,after I learned to give up my trying to controll
In my prayer life I used to say to God:"I will go where you want me to be,I give up my controlling of events around me and within me"
My gratitude to you for bringing back the memories of that trying time in my own life,I was in my fourties then,now it is 30 years later.
And I do not know what is ahaed,I am so grateful for every day I am given.
We all are called to keep finding the way over and over through what closes behind
Every blessing to you,for sharing so much light into our lives,as we read your words.

I am 50 and about to embark on yet another job search. I am just grateful to see that I am not the only one who hasn't "figured it all out" yet. Great article thank you.

I'm not a Quaker, so am not sure what exactly is meant by "way" in this context. However, I've found in my life that vocation is found as much in action as in reflection. Sometimes I've launched ahead into a new project, unsure of what it will mean, and only found the answer after a great deal of time and work. Looking back, I'm often surprised at what has occurred--and what I may never have expected.

Honestly, we just need to do stuff. Follow your heart and wake up and do something with your day. Do something for a real person and you're on your way. "Onward, through the fog!"

Awesome!! YES!!

In my 82 years, I've found that all the options fall away except one. Waiting is necessary, and I've experienced increasing lightness of heart as the choices become non-chices, one by one.

I lived with a fear of losing myself to others' ways. At 23, I decided to immerse myself to mindful learning and progressing. Now at 33, I realize and embrace my calling.

Thank you for this. I had crafted a clumsy version of this story to myself, but without feeling in good company. Your telling of this storygives me that good company in which to embrace its truth. My first calling was painting. It was derailed when someone close to me destroyed a piece of my work. Many years later, my second calling as an historian was derailed by politics. I returned to painting in despair, but have grown into it with increasing joy. Now I can see those closed doors as hatches that had to be battened down in order for my boat to sail on. Thank you.

The day that one of my big doors closed (and it needed to although I had kept trying to hold it open), I walked outside and looked up. The sun which had been hidden by clouds suddenly appeared with long streaming sun rays all over the sky as the clouds blew away. I knew it was a message that all would be well and it has been. An instant message of peace and comfort has helped me to move a new direction. Thanks be to God!

What I find so difficult is grieving the losses -- of a job, of my identity as a professional, of my certainty about who I am and my calling. In my world, people brag about "flunking retirement," and go on pouring themselves out for the church and the world. I always assumed that would be me, but life circumstances indicate otherwise. Mary Jo Leddy asks (in a beautiful film, "Belonging," that presents Jean Vanier's vision ), "Who am I without my briefcase?" Indeed. I still have some grieving and letting go to do before Way opens for me.

I have been trying to figure out God's direction for my life for awhile. It is certainly about doors closing for me recently. Thank you for the wisdom and reminder.

The thought of a door closing behind me, not in front of me, is a powerful vision for me. God often puts opportunities and light right in front of me. They are often subtle, but some are muscular and in my face. I have not always seen them or have allowed them to register as guides to fulfillment as I wonder and as I wander. I do know that when a door closes behind me, my eyes look straight ahead and I feel the strength of the door supporting me. I say good, one less distraction. It is a method that adjusts the lens so that I can see more clearly. I think.

I suppose we are all adrift, each in a special way. At 71, I share that moment of necessary change and confusion with many writers here. I tell myself that, even now, perhaps especially now, the meaningful vectors are waiting . . . identifiable using the entwined experience of mind and heart. Right now, I'm tipping the balance towards the heart.

As doors close behind or ahead I find I can/must use my creativity to make my way forward, though it's not usually such an easy transition. Your story connects me to Lao Tzu's saying "Rejoice in the way things are; When you realize there is nothing lacking, the whole world belongs to you." On a more secular level, William Bridges in his book, Transitions: Making Sense of Life's Changes, writes about endings and muddling in the middle before new beginnings can be made.

Now that I'm retired, I'm not exactly adrift, but floating through life and not worried where I need to be. If an opportunity presents itself, great. If not, I don't mind floating.

Let Your Life Speak is one of the books I turn to for wisdom and hope over and over, whenever I'm struggling or scattered and need to find the center again. And that is one of my favorite passages!

In her essay, "My Friend Walt Whitman," Mary Oliver writes that as a child, "I had a few friends that kept me sane, alert and loyal to my own best and wildest inclinations...I never met (them) in a usual way - they were strangers and lived only in their writings. But...still they were constant and powerful and amazing. That is, they said amazing things, and for me it changed the world."

And in that way, I've come to think of you as My Friend Parker Palmer.

Thank you for so many years of companionship through your writing. For me it has changed the world.

I read "Let Your Life Speak" as a Catholic a long time ago and have reread it several times since then. I've been an "independent" since 2004,grateful for my Catholic education - no longer attached to any religion but respectful of all of them..
A Quaker friend of mine died recently and this column helps me to understand and appreciate the "way" she lived her life. And as a freelance columnist for over 20 years, I also appreciate the "way" I'm living my life right now - at 81.
Thank you for the inspiration I find in this website. I often listen to it on Sunday mornings. .

On this Ground Hogs day it was exactly two years ago I had a "learning experience" that slammed a door behind me and almost one year ago another "learning experience" caused another door to close behind me. As I start the second half of my life (if I live to 111 as I hope) I am impatiently waiting for a way to open. When I find out if my application to a MSW program is accepted or denied, that may be a way opening or, alternately, a sign saying "not this way". I suspect it's my ego that denies that what I am doing right now in any moment, no matter how trivial it may seem, is the perfect, most important way to be.

I really appreciate all these reflections. I am almost sixty and looking for work
like more than a few who weighed in here
Some people my age are professionally fulfilled,affluent, happily married with loving successful kids.
Not everyone can have all those things- should I be dissatisfied with my life because of the doors that have closed? Or should I give thanks for the closed doors as well as those that opened? Or should I move this frame of reference and be grateful I don't suffer like so many I see in the news in war zones of disaster zones?
It is a puzzle. Life is not a consumer experience -we can't evaluate how things turned out for us, and complain to God and ask for a refund. I am happy with my jalopy life so far, and I pray that I can keep up the good fight in years to come.

A friend shared this on Facebook and while I don't always read the full text of shared posts, I felt compelled to read this one. I'm very glad I did! This was timely wisdom for me right where I am.

For my entire life, I have focused on finding my way. This week, I received a lesson that we can be instruments of the way for another person. Late last year, I passed on a job lead to a co-worker who was far better suited for that job. It had no value to me, but it turned out to be a dream job for her. I didn't know it, but she did apply for the job and yesterday told me that she has a fourth interview scheduled. The company is flying her to their headquarters for this interview. It looks very promising for her and I couldn't be happier for the way things turned out. I am still frustrated where I am at and have a vague idea of where I am going. But now things make a little bit more sense to me about why I am where I am.

At 48 and several months, I feel like I've spent my entire life trying to find my way. Too many interests, too many open doors have left me paralyzed far too frequently. I've often felt overwhelmed by potential and guilty for not making the most of every single fancy that crossed my path. Maybe finding the way is merely whittling away at the fancies until you find what's left--that path that simply refuses to be ignored or discarded...

I am reminded of "the road not taken."Wisdom often knocks quietly. Listening is a blessing sometimes missed. Hearing inwardly guides me daily.

I turn 50 in two days and have been pondering next directions. I left a job and career 2 months ago and am wondering what I want to be when I grow up. This piece helps me to focus a little better. After all, we cannot see the future but we can turn around and definitely see the past and all it has to offer for teaching.

How can you choose what without knowing what you don't want? Once again, experience-based learning comes to our rescue and a life examined is seen to be one that is spent less on our knees than on our feet.

Thank you all for your wise and kind comments. At around 60 I found myself more adrift than I've ever been in my life. I was gifted to see my path in my 20s and was fulfilled in so many ways. Now, it seems I'm almost back to being a clueless teenager, wiser, but lacking direction. This, I know, is the result of the recession and job/career loss, but not all. It's a puzzling time - best to all of you fellow journey-ers.

I do not see where the conclusion makes any sense at all, and there is no attempt to explain it, as if it is obvious or something clear which it is not.

She said = Lots of way has closed behind her, and that's had the same guiding effect.

So what does that have to do with no way opening for the man?

That is incoherent and thereby just gibberish.


I am 63 and there have been moments in my life when I knew a new direction was ahead of me, I trusted and took the step forward, always forward.

I have been experiencing this very same kind of frustration for the past several months. I have struggled through one of the hardest times in my life. I kept waiting for a "Spiritual way" to open before me. As change has come about slowly, too much so for me, I realize that I have no room for what is before me, until I let go completely of that which is, and must remain, behind me. Thanks for your words.