Living an Undivided Life

Wednesday, April 23, 2014 - 6:30am

Living an Undivided Life

I don't know anyone who'd recommend living "a divided life" — a life in which our words and actions conceal or even contradict truths we hold dear inwardly. And yet our culture counsels us to do exactly that:

"Don't wear your heart on your sleeve." "Play your cards close to your vest."

Sadly, most of us learn early on that it's not safe to be in the world as who we really are with what we truly value and believe.

But everyone pays a price when we live behind a mask. Ever have a masked relative, colleague, teacher, or physician? There's no way to connect and establish trust with such a person — and the quality of what might happen between us suffers as a result.

Of course, the person who lives a divided life also suffers. I can't imagine a sadder way to die than knowing I never showed up on Earth as who I really am. But every time we show up as our true selves, we reclaim identity and integrity, and new life can grow within, between and around us.

In the six-minute video above, I talk about "living divided no more." It's a theme at the heart of the work of the Center for Courage & Renewal, a nonprofit I founded some 20 years ago. It's also at the heart of my book, Healing the Heart of Democracy.

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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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Lovely talk and man, his facial expressions are so mobile and alive, you don't see that a lot on elder white men in our culture. Thank you.

I find that a very strange comment. I can't speak for all humanity, but in this great country of ours, I don't think any particular group has a lock on living with a mask on. We most likely all have one to some extent. That said, this is such an interesting and important topic. And by the by, "elder" at 72?

The bad thing that happens if one shows too much of the unfiltered self is that the masks can be going up on the other people, as they find out how much of the real you is indigestible in whatever way for them. So I think it's bilateral. Children don't bring much that others have to be afraid of, by which I guess the correlative point is that adults can indeed have great impact on one another, and there's a skill to learn to use that.

I think the most important thing that helped me lay aside the mask was Quaker worship. Sitting there in the silence helped me come to understand my issues better, and then I'd realize I was supposed to share that insight with the rest of the group. I'd grown up eating shame for breakfast, lunch and dinner, so when I knew I was supposed to speak, I'd say to God, "You really want me to tell THAT?" I didn't want to go on and on, turning worship into a cheap form of therapy. But I'd sit there awhile, and the words would be given to me, the words that would briefly state the context in which my insight was helpful. I'd stand and speak, and sit down, and the other worshippers would tell me later I'd been helpful. One of the rewards of greater openness about who I really am was that other worshippers began sharing who THEY really were, too. Often they came to talk privately. One of the consequences of being who I am in public is that I can hear others' pain without defending against their pain. You use the word "safe," Parker Palmer; safety can be contagious, both inwardly and outwardly.

I am so thrilled to have found you again after reading your book "Let your Life Speak". I read it a couple of years ago, but was not ready to hear it quite yet and through this blog and your video on living an undivided life, I picked it up again and found I was ready for the message. So many streams of experience are converging on this one theme: to live an undivided life and let the experiences of my life speak through a vocation. Thank you for being at this crossroads on my path. Light and Love!

Parker Palmer is a salve to all wounded by alienation of our true selves. Thank you for your words and wisdom. John Gatto, former New York City school teacher, exposed the faulty way we are "schooled" and "educated" which touches on these same subjects. It's why most of have such struggles throughout our lives. Our past and present model of education is based on the Prussian model of conformity and obedience. I highly recommend readers and listeners read Mr Gatto's books, including Dumbing Us Down and Weapons of Mass Instruction. Everything Mr. Palmer speaks of is simpatico with Mr. Gatto's. There are great teachers who work hard against a behemoth bureaucracy of power that still upholds this model. Thank God for them. But great changes must be made from early on if people are to able to grow safely and confidently into themselves .

Finishing up the 19th Annotation and talking with my spiritual director about just this! I so needed to hear his wisdom today. I equate the undivided life {with more fulfillment and more service and more communion} to holiness...

Simple and profound. Much appreciated. Please add me to your list of subscribers.

What is the "true self?" What is authenticity? Is it true that there is an essential being, or natural state of self-hood connected with childhood "that we lose as adults?" (some more than others) Does returning to childhood truly connect us with true being, or does the notion of "true self" have different possibilities that have nothing to do with the notion/discourse of a "divided self?" In some ways I'm interested in Dr. Palmer's work, but in others I am also skeptical. I think humanity, in its infinite diversity, color, and complexity, is too hard to distill down to a self being separated and that one's quest is one of re-integration. Not only does this seem too simple, but also one could make the argument that division, differentiation, and that life which houses multiple selves (which I think all great lawyers, writers, philosophers, clergy eventually come on achieve), gives our experience, and engagement with the world greater complexity, diversity, and plurality. Here division is does not necessarily have to have a negative connotation, but rather one of new growth, fusion, and composition of elements.

Thank you, Parker I am thinking about how living an undivided life connects to feeling safe and the implications for children and adults who are trauma survivors.

Your kind gentle tone is soothing as you offer these clear wise truths.

Esther Sadie