Parker Palmer on Calling: That Which You Can't Not Do

Vocation at its deepest level is, ‘This is something I can’t not do, for reasons I’m unable to explain to anyone else and don’t fully understand myself but that are nonetheless compelling.’
— Parker Palmer

I recently shared my list of recommended books on the topic of calling. Parker Palmer's Let Your Life Speak was near the top of that list.

I was an anxious college freshman when I first read Palmer's Let Your Life Speak, which is as good a time as any to think about questions of vocation and calling. Questions like, What am I meant to do? Who am I meant to be? 

As the book's back cover puts it, Palmer's short book is aimed at "illuminating a pathway toward vocation for all who seek the true calling of their lives." 

Palmer considers the topic of vocation by narrating his own personal struggles and questions about callingone of my favorite features of the book. How else would you talk about calling?

As Palmer puts it: "The story of my journey is no more or less important than anyone else's. It is simply the best source of data I have on a subject where generalizations often fail..." (19).

More than a decade after first reading Palmer's short book, I still find my thoughts going to one particular line from Let Your Life Speak when questions of calling come up:

"Vocation at its deepest level is, 'This is something I can't not do, for reasons I'm unable to explain to anyone else and don't fully understand myself but that are nonetheless compelling'" (25). 

Vocation, Palmer says, is that which I can't not do. And I love that. 

It's the idea that even if I am a student who has to write loads of essays each week, I’m still going to find a way to carve away time to write for myself. Because I can’t not write.

Or it’s the teacher who spends her days and nights trying to help the most unbearable, troubled kids learn how to read for just over minimum wage. Because she can’t help herself. Because teaching and helping children is, somehow, part of who she is.

For Palmer (who uses the words 'vocation' and 'calling' interchangeably), vocation is a common theme interwoven throughout the story of our life, which we'd see, if only we paid close enough attention. 

Vocation & Identity

Vocation, according to Palmer, is uniquely tied up into who we are.

Palmer points out that the word vocation comes from the Latin word for "voice," which is why vocation is properly understood as "a calling that I hear" (4). And this calling, Palmer suggests, is uniquely heard in one's life: "[Vocation] comes from listening. I must listen to my life and try to understand what it is truly about--quite apart from what I would like it to be about... I must listen to my life telling me who I am" (4).  

Palmer's understanding of calling is linked with identity, which makes for a certain beautiful simplicity. It means that God's purpose for one's life is found in God's design of one's life. And this idea resonates with us. It's something we feel to be true, somehow. Like a kite released into the wind, there are moments in life when things line up in such a way that we realize we were created for this

A kite is designed to fly, and so it is better suited soaring through the sky than it is hanging on a wall. Likewise, for someone whose life unfolds in such a way that they realize they cannot help but paint, it would seem odd that God would not use those gifts to help paint a rich picture of God's in-breaking Kingdom for a world that is dying to see it.

Look inward, Palmer insists. Find God's fingerprint on your life in your deepest desires and talents. And it is there where you will find what God calls you to do.

As Palmer puts it, "Our deepest calling is to grow into our own authentic selfhood... the seed of true self that was planted when I was born" (16-17). 

Who you are is who God has created you to be, Palmer's book suggests. And who God has created you to be reveals what God has given you to do.

In many ways, this can be a helpful way to think about calling. But it also has its problems.

Some Assumptions & Concerns

Parker Palmer's understanding of calling operates on (at least) three assumptions: 1) that God has endowed each of us with certain gifts or talents, what Palmer refers to as "birthright gifts;" 2) that we can recognize such gifts; and, 3) that these gifts are uniquely bound up with God's purpose for our life.

While Palmer's Let Your Life Speak is a genuinely helpful book, there are some concerns to this approach to calling. Especially for Christians. Here are a few reasons why.

1) First, what if we cannot recognize our God-given gifts? What if who we are is somehow beyond our grasp? As the theologian and ethicist Stanley Hauerwas has suggested, "We are opaque mysteries to ourselves and one another" (Hannah's Child). And I think that's true. Self-awareness is a terribly difficult trait to come by. Likewise, what if what we understand to be our gifts are actually different than God's understanding of our gifts?

2) What if God's call comes as an unexpected surprise, rather than a natural fit with our talents or passions? Moses the shepherd somehow standing up to Pharaoh, and eventually leading God's people out of their Egyptian slavery; David the runt becoming the great warrior king of ancient Israel; the Scriptures are filled with characters who appear to be called precisely because their natural talents make them unsuited for God's call. In such lives, God's call cannot be reduced to particular talents or passions. Instead, God's call unmistakably points back to the One who calls, rather than the one calledTo put it another way, God's call makes us more than the sum of our parts.

3) Lastly, what if what we believe to be our God-given talents or passions can actually lead us astray from what God would have for our life? We are, after all, meant to follow the living God, not what we believe to be our God-given gifts. What if, in following our talents or passions, we are actually tempted to follow not God, but an idol?

These concerns are in no way meant as a general critique of Palmer's work. It's a great book, and I think Palmer's definition of vocation as that which you can't not do is helpful. But there are some things to think about here in terms of how we understand calling, particularly as Christians.

So what does all this mean for finding God's calling for your life? It means, as Palmer puts it, Let Your Life Speakbut be careful. That might not always be God's voice speaking. Gifts, talents, and passions are good to discern, and to pay attention to, but they are also ambiguous.

In the process of letting your life speak, we must not lose sight of the One who calls, "Follow me."

Up Next: Frederick Buechner on Calling

Parker Palmer's understanding of calling is similar to another author I appreciate: Frederick Buechner. I'll consider Buechner's understanding of calling next.