I am now blogging at a new blog: erdman31.com

If you post comments here at Theos Project, please know that I will respond and engage your thoughts in a timely manner.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Self, Pilgrimage, and Vocation: A short Sunday meditation

Here is a lengthy quote from Parker Palmer, a Quaker, writer, teacher, and activist. He has a good deal to say about vocation, particularly in his small book, Let Your Life Speak.

In this quote he equates the search for vocation with the search for self, which is the journey of a pilgrim. We've talked a good deal on this blog about self and pilgrimage. So, I thought I might share this quote:

"Most of us arrive at a sense of self and vocation only after a long journey through alien lands. But this journey bears no resemblance to the trouble-free 'travel packages' sold by the tourism industry. It is more akin to the ancient tradition of pilgrimage--'a transformative journey to a sacred center' full of hardships, darkness, and peril.

"In the tradition of the pilgrimage, those hardships are seen not as accidental but as integral to the journey itself. Treacherous terrain, bad weather, taking a fall, getting lost--challenges of that sort, largely beyond our control, can strip the ego of the illusion that it is in charge and make space for true self to emerge. If that happens, the pilgrim has a better chance to find the sacred center he or she seeks. Disabused of our illusions by much travel and travail, we awaken one day to find that the sacred center is here and now--in every moment of the journey, everywhere in the world around us, and deep within our own hearts."

I like that he links the search for self with a pilgrimage. I appreciate the rather unromantic, realistic appraisal: the pilgrimage is hard. It's tough. It ain't easy going. Perhaps that's why so many of us fail to feel like we are doing something truly vocational, even though the U.S. affords us so many more job opportunities than others have. Most of us end up pushing paper for a living. It ain't all bad, of course, but it isn't a vocation, not a true sense of calling, not something a pilgrim has struggled to find.

I also like how Palmer mentions that these trials of the pilgrimage work something important in us, something we could get in no other way: striping the ego of the illusion that it is in charge. Can we get to this place without pain? Without failure?


john doyle said...

Parker Palmer... isn't that Spiderman's secret identity? It turns out that Anne has this book, so I went to take a look at it. 116 pages, $18.95 hardback! And the pages are small, with not much print on them. This is probably the sort of book that people buy as a gift for other people. From the back cover:

"With wisdom, compassion, and gentle humor, Parker J. Palmer invites us to listen to the inner teacher and follow its leadings toward a sense of meaning and purpose."

Me, I'm listening to the inner cash register. Sorry -- what was your post about again?

tamie said...

Some of this is part of what I think I was trying to say this morning when I was driving you to work! That you're in a place of discovering vocation, and that every part of your experience, especially your work experience, gets folded into that discovery--that pilgrimage--even if it seems like a bummer experience at the time.

Asheya said...

I'm at this crossroads right now, I feel, in my life, trying to discover my vocation. I liked this quote a lot, about how all the getting lost and hard weather is all part of that discovery. I think I might have found my calling, doing advocacy and education work to improve maternity care and to enable the voices of mothers, but it's still working itself out.

john doyle said...

I read Palmer's book yesterday (the advantage of a short book is that it doesn't take long to read). I read it not for personal inspiration but critically, having a set of fairly well-developed ideas of my own on the subjects he addresses. When I finished I felt a bit irritated by the book. To give it a fair shake, and perhaps also in the hope of engaging in informed and non-rancorous discussion, I figured I would go back and evaluate Palmer's ideas one at a time. Only later, when I found myself unable to go back to sleep at two in the morning, did I realize that the book had actually depressed me.

I suspect my reaction says as much about me as it does about Palmer. Since Palmer seems to speak more to the others on this thread, and I think to Anne as well, I'll keep my cynicisms to myself. I will say, though, that I'm always heartened by people who are seriously trying to find something meaningful and satisfying to do with themselves in the world.

One more thing: I was alternating my reading of Palmer's book with another book I found out about on a blog and which I picked up from the library. It's a collection of essays written by the Russian poet Joseph Brodsky. Jewish by heritage, Brodsky was sort of Christian in outlook. He was imprisoned by the Soviet state on the charge of "parasitism," which meant that he didn't contribute to society by doing what the state regarded as useful work -- evidently the profession of "poet" wasn't deemed useful enough. Eventually Brodsky was released, exiled to a labor camp, and eventually expelled from the country, after which he moved to the USA. In 1987 he won the Nobel Prize for literature. Here's something Brodsky wrote in the first essay in the collection:

"I have always envied those nineteenth-century characters who were able to look back and distinguish the landmarks of their lives, of their development. Some event would mark a point of transition, a different stage. I am talking about writers; but what I really have in mind is the capacity of certain types of people to rationalize their lives, to see things separately, if not clearly. And I understand that this phenomenon should not be limited to the nineteenth century. Yet in my life it has been represented mostly by literature. Either because of some basic flaw of my mind or because of the fluid, amorphous nature of life itself, I have never been capable for distinguishing any landmark, let alone a buoy. If there is anything like a landmark, it is that which I won’t be able to acknowledge myself – i.e., death...

"If you are in banking or if you fly an aircraft, you know that after you gain a substantial amount of expertise you are more or less guaranteed a profit or a safe landing. Whereas in the business of writing what one accumulates is not expertise but uncertainties. Which is but another name for craft. In this field, where expertise invites doom, the notions of adolescence and maturity get mixed up, and panic is the most frequent state of mind. So I would be lying if I resorted to chronology or to anything that suggests a linear process. A school is a factory is a poem is a prison is academia is boredom, with flashes of panic."

Palmer presents himself as one of "those nineteenth-century characters" envied by Brodsky, interpreting his life as a series of meaningful turning points. In contrast and despite my best efforts, I find that I share Brodsky's "flaw of mind" rather than Palmer's 20-20 hindsight.

Jonathan Erdman said...


I appreciate your criticisms. I haven't read the book all the way through, so I'm going to assume that you are correct in saying that Palmer comes from a perspective of having 20-20 hindsight. What I took away from the quote I posted is the idea that one must embrace the journey as a pilgrimage, one with trials and hardships. I assume this implies that we often don't have that sense of hindsight, we don't often see the landmarks.

Palmer says, "Disabused of our illusions by much travel and travail, we awaken one day to find that the sacred center is here and now--in every moment of the journey, everywhere in the world around us, and deep within our own hearts." In other words, it is the "the fluid, amorphous nature of life itself" that is the sacred center, as you cite Brodsky in saying.

Personally, I feel like I can look back on life and pick out landmarks, significant periods or events in my life. With me, though, they have tended to change over time. I find that there were significant events in my life that I didn't recognize at the time. So, my perspective changes. When I was in high school, I thought that my junior high days were a silly waste of time. When I was in college, I thought that my high school days were a ridiculous waste of time. After college, I trivialized my college years, because now I was in the "real world," as a worker and earner. Now, in my thirties, my tendency is to think I was a bit silly in my twenties; it's just my tendency. Now I try to kind of chart the flow of my life and see how events shaped me, and how I shaped events--try to learn something that I can take with me.

Jonathan Erdman said...

A general comment....I think that we all tend to have a sort of Hollywood view of trials: the traditional hero is the one who goes through a tough time but always comes out on top. There is always resolve.

How does one embrace the trials of the pilgrimage as ends in and of themselves? (John, maybe that is what you have been getting at?)

john doyle said...

After my sarcastic self made snide remarks about the book price, I wanted to re-establish my sincere self, hopefully to clear myself out of the way of what might prove a valuable discussion initiated by Tamie and Asheya. But they haven't returned, so either I scared them away or they were done talking or else you, Erdman, can take the blame for not responding. Anyhow, I will come back to the Palmer quote you introduced in the post, since it is interesting, probably later today.

Jonathan Erdman said...


For the record, I think that the high price of the book is a fair criticism. Obviously a very small book (the size of a short essay, actually) with an attractive hard cover that sells for eighteen bucks is out of the range of the lower class. So, does he have a more economically accessible version of the book? I checked amazon.com and couldn't find anything. Is this something that Palmer is aware of? Or was it something that was out of his hands? But perhaps this is a book that isn't targeted to the lower class. Maybe it's a book for the so-called "successful malcontent" of U.S. society.

I've appreciated his thoughts thus far in my read, particularly the sentences that I cited.

Lastly, I know that vocation is something you have thought and written a good deal about. So I am looking forward to further discussion with you.

john doyle said...

I'm not a fan of the "true self." I'm also not a fan of the travel as self-discovery theme. And I suppose I started out with a cynical remark because I was channeling the narrator of my novel The Stations, who takes a few swipes at these very themes. Is it indulging my ego to cite the passages where the phrase "true self" appears in the book, or would I regard them as relevant even if I hadn't been the one who wrote them? I'll skip the first two and provide only the third one, which has the most direct parallel to the passage from Palmer that you cite:

The world is a mirror to be sure, but it is as likely to multiply distortions as to remove them. Ultimately the world cannot be trusted. It is when the traveler throws himself into the faithless world that the self speaks most emphatically: “Trust me. I am your one true companion. Only the inner light avails.” And so the traveler begins to encounter the world not on its own terms but as a secret language bespeaking deeper truths, truths which reside not in the world but in the self. When the traveler begins his descent into the corkscrew turns of solipsism, then doom is imminent and nearly certain. Don’t bother; stay home.

Once upon a time, the hero ventured forth from the homeland into the unknown. Much later, long after the hero has passed into legend, comes the pilgrimage. The pilgrim rewinds that heroic road. He cashes in the long-held ticket for the return voyage, from provinces to homeland. A pilgrimage is a journey upstream, to the source of all life. It is a retreat, a backward march, an undoing. Going back in place and in time, the pilgrim strips away the layers of dross. When at last he arrives at the origin only gold remains...

It is because we have allowed ourselves to become distracted that the gods have visited us with confusion and despair. Knowing from the beginning that we leave only to find ourselves, we, the would-be heroic travelers of our tribe, cannot help but fail utterly, having even before the beginning already been corrupted from within, consumed by an irony that precludes even self-deception. You who embark upon the quest for the True Self, turn around and go back!

In the purity of the quest the heroic voyager is no one, the world is nothing. And yet the world is more than just a stage prop for the scripted performances of travel; it is a vast and dangerous place. Does anyone have the strength to enter it alone, to encounter it on its own terms?

Palmer and my narrator agree that the journey is liable to be harrowing. However, my narrator insists that the world isn't a metaphor for the self, and that discovering the one isn't the same as discovering the other. "Look out, not in" is the narrator's motto, and I tend to agree with him.

My book was more about voyage than vocation, but I think the contrast holds anyway. I'd say that vocation isn't something inside yourself; it's out there in the world. One can have passions and abilities that are part of the self, but vocation has at least as much to do with responding to an external calling and aspiring to standards beyond and above one's own capabilities.

Just because some work resonates with your so-called true self doesn't mean it's worth doing. Some missions are worth doing even if they call on you to do things you're not naturally gifted at or enjoy doing. Just as I'm not sure there's one unchanging true self, so I'm doubtful that there's one true and lasting calling for each of us. Santiago and Jerusalem and Canterbury and Mecca are different places, and you might find yourself called to all of them at different times in your life.

john doyle said...

I maxed out my word count on the prior comment, so I'll finish up here. Returning to my 20-20 hindsight observation, I find a paradox in Palmer's message.

In the passage you quote he concludes: "we awaken one day to find that the sacred center is here and now--in every moment of the journey, everywhere in the world around us, and deep within our own hearts." But in the rest of the book he's not living in the here and now of the moment; he's repeatedly focusing on particular and very special milestone moments in his life. And he didn't even recognize most of them as significant at the time, as he was experiencing them. Only later, looking back in memory on these past events in his life, did he realize their significance. And it's these special occasions that seem to imbue the rest of his here-and-now life with meaning. In short, I don't think his story matches his take-home message.

I don't have a huge problem with that mismatch -- did I mention that I'm also not a huge fan of living in the moment? Nonetheless, I think the paradox is worth noting.

Jonathan Erdman said...


Thanks for your thoughts. Let me throw a few questions and comments out there to try to get at where you are coming from.

I've always been drawn to Heidegger's "existential" maxim: you are the world existingly. In other words, it is philosophically problematic (from Heidegger's point of view) to separate self and world as though they were completely distinct. The reason is that we are shaped by our world and the world is shaped by us. Wittgenstein, in his own way, seemed to suggest the same thing. It was kind of the turning point, many say, from modern philosophical speculation into more postmodern approaches. For me, it has made sense not to strictly dichotomize world and self.

From your narrator's perspective: Does anyone have the strength to enter it alone, to encounter it on its own terms? I think it's a good challenge. I do.

Then you said: Palmer and my narrator agree that the journey is liable to be harrowing. However, my narrator insists that the world isn't a metaphor for the self, and that discovering the one isn't the same as discovering the other. "Look out, not in" is the narrator's motto, and I tend to agree with him.

I think I agree with you. But I need some clarification. Are you attacking the metaphor of "journey" or "pilgrimage"? What do you mean, exactly that the world is not a metaphor for the same?

There are many spiritual approaches that say that enlightenment is understanding that even though you are not others/your environment/the world, you are not other than others/your environment/the world. It's a paradoxical realization where one can at the same time discover a "true self," but realize that this true self is not other than the world, not other than others.

What do you think?

john doyle said...

My understanding is that Heidegger says you are in the world, not that you are the world. There is no transcendent Being to be discovered by humans; there is only being-there (Dasein). I'd think this would apply to the True Self as well: no essence of the self that transcends place and time, but a self that is always-already enmeshed in the world. By implication, I think, changes in where and when I am also mean changes in who I am -- or as you put it, Erdman, "we are shaped by our world."

My sense is that Palmer regards his encounters with the world as a way of peeling back the layers of confusion in order to arrive at the sacred center of who he really is and always has been ever since God made him, and presumably who he will be forever after he shuffles off this mortal coil of being-in. Heidegger too speaks of truth as a matter of uncovering in a way that's compatible Palmer. Heidegger, though, regards this unveiling as an irresolvable paradox for humans who are inextricably enmeshed in the Dasein. I.e., he's more likely to say that our True Self will continually withdraw from our efforts to unveil it.

I'm not objecting to the metaphor of journey or pilgrimage in finding a vocation. I'm objecting to the idea that the journey -- every journey -- ultimately leads to the sacred center. And then you discover that the sacred center is always with you. To me this minimizes the uniqueness of different journeys and different destinations in the search for identity and invariance and permanence. Different projects, passions, callings and so on have their own integrity, and each of them calls on a different part of your self, or even a different version of your self, without ever arriving at a sacred center of who you Really Are.

Mostly I think that, in vocation, the static entity of self or identity or personality is less important than the dynamic and variable forces of passion and calling and mission. Here's something I wrote in a booklet intended for high schoolers, but I think the same way about grownups:

A personality test can give you some insights into what kind of person you are – or, more accurately, what kind of person you see yourself as being. Presumably your test results tell you something about what kinds of work you’d probably be good at and enjoy. It turns out, though, that people’s self-evaluations don’t correspond very well with how they actually engage the world. Plus there’s a tendency for personality profiles to reinforce stereotypes: this sort of person is best suited for that sort of work. In the real world some filmmakers are introverts while others are extroverts. Some focus on analyzing the details of camera angles and acting nuances and lines in the screenplay, while for others the intuitive big picture is everything.

You might try to identify what kind of intelligence you have: verbal, mathematical, spatial, social, and so on. If you’re like most people, you’re smart in more than one way. Intelligence is a pretty flexible
capability, which is a good thing. But that flexibility makes it harder to decide what you’re best at. As with personality tests, there’s also a danger of stereotyping. Imagine three graphic designers, equally successful in their work, one of whom excels in visual intelligence, another in mechanical intelligence, the third in mathematical intelligence.

john doyle said...

Returning to the pilgrimage metaphor: You get a desire or passion to go on a voyage of discovery or penitence or sanctification. You feel the call of some particular destination and pathway. You exercise your will and ability actually to make the voyage, striving to achieve the goal of making it all the way to the end, to Santiago or Canterbury or wherever. You encounter physical features and and weather conditions and specific people along the way.

All of these aspects of the pilgrimage are outside of yourself. Any type of person can make the voyage. And for centuries pilgrims made the trip without giving much thought to self-discovery, which is a very modern motivation.

Here's a book to consider: the price new is high, but it looks like you can get a used copy pretty cheap. The Mind of the Traveler: From Gilgamesh to Global Tourism, by Eric J. Leed. It's a historical book written by an academician for the non-specialist. I've found it quite valuable in understanding the ideas of pilgrimage and quest from a longer-term perspective. It even begins with a quote from Camus, the first sentence of which reads as follows:

"What gives value to travel is fear."

Jonathan Erdman said...


It's interesting that some spiritual teachings emphasize the "true self," as though it were some sort of permanent fixture. I wonder if this isn't due to the general psychology of "self discovery" that you mentioned.

Buddhism philosophy and psychology does not deal with permanence. The self is a variety of changing, impermanent forces: memory, physical sensation, emotions, thoughts, etc. All of these change, the mix is always in flux as we acquire new experiences, etc.

I tend to prefer the latter approach. I think, though, that phenomenologically speaking, we experience times where we find ourselves thinking and doing things that are clearly not "my self." That is, we can see that we have been carried along by the herd, perhaps thoughtlessly and carelessly, or perhaps just mistakenly. But what I think we all experience is an unmistakable sense that we haven't been our "true self." Do you ever have this experience?

john doyle said...

I think people have stable personality traits. I'm just not persuaded that discovering them offers much clue to vocation. Is the work worthwhile? Would I enjoy doing it? Does anybody else want me to do it? Am I any good at it? Personality might be a factor in all of these considerations, but the more direct question is what you do rather than who you are. And people with different personalities can find different ways of going about the same work, which was the point of the booklet quote I included in my recent comment.

On a more negative note, I think there's no assurance that finding your passion or discovering your True Self or your gifts will turn into a successful vocation. We had this discussion at least a year ago: what you love and what people will pay you to do might be two very different things. And further, a job that matches your talents and that you enjoy might be something that doesn't meet your standards for doing something good in the world.