Text of Parker J. Palmer’s Bioneers Plenary
Sustaining the Human Spirit: Another Way of Going Green
Parker J. Palmer
Delivered at Sustain Dane’s 2011 Bioneer Conference, Nov. 11, 2011
Introduction: First, my thanks to Sustain Dane for putting my name on the same list as Greg David, Will Green, Jessica Leclair, Kim Neuschel, and Stephanie Ricketts, the other 2011 Badger Bioneers from whom you’ll be hearing in the course of this conference. I’m very honored to be in such great company. But in many ways, I’m the odd man out on that list. The folks I just named are very clearly Bioneers. Me, not so much—or so I thought when I first got word of all this from Kristen Joiner. Let me explain, in a roundabout way…
I. The French dramatist Moliere wrote a play called “The Bourgeois Gentleman.” In it, there are many lovely moments of lunacy—I want to describe one of them:
A. The gentlemen in question, Mr. Jourdain, is what we might call an airhead (I don’t know the French word for that!). He wants to write a love letter to a woman who’s above his class, so he hires a literary scholar to tell him how to do it. The scholar explains to Jourdain that he must first choose whether to write his love letter in poetry or in prose. But Jourdain tells the scholar that he doesn’t want to use either poetry or prose. Instead, he says, he wants to write the love letter in the same way he speaks, as in, “My darling, your lovely eyes make me die of love.”
1. Very patiently, the scholar tells his rather dense student that the way he speaks is, in fact, called prose. “Really?,” says Jourdain. “Absolutely,” says the scholar.
2. At which point Mr. Jourdain exclaims, “Well what do you know about that! For the past forty years, I've been speaking in prose without even knowing it!”
B. Looking back, I realize that I was as dense as Mr. Jourdain when Kristen told me I’d been named as a Badger Bioneer. My initial reaction was not, “What an honor!” It was, “Say what?” I’ve never been professionally involved in the biological, ecological, scientific and technological aspects of the green movement, so I did not think I deserved the title.
1. But now that I’ve had a chance to learn more about the sustainability movement—and to rethink the work I’ve been doing for a long time—I can say, with Mr. Jourdain, “Well, what do you know about that! For the past forty years I’ve been doing sustainability work without knowing it!” I’m very grateful to Sustain Dane for this prod to look at my own work from a different angle and understand it in some new ways.
2. As I’m sure all of you know, Sustain Dane—along with the national sustainability movement—wants to expand our understanding of what it means to “Go Green.” They’ve helped me understand that my work has been focused on the “greening” of the human spirit.
3. So this afternoon, I want to share a few thoughts and stories about what it means to help make our own humanity sustainable.
II. The human spirit may be the most sustainable resource we have. But it is also a resource that is often diminished—and sometimes destroyed—by institutional, economic, and political forces. As a society, we don’t seem to understand that if we want to do our most important work and achieve our most life-giving goals, the human resource is critical and the human spirit needs sustenance.
A. We could generate a long list of examples of how the human spirit gets crushed. Here are three to prime the pump: When the public realm becomes a combat zone, when we brutalize our elected officials with hateful rhetoric, it becomes harder and harder for people with open minds and hearts to run for office, and both they and “We the People” pay the price. When we create working conditions for healthcare professionals that shut down the heart of the healer, both they and their patients pay the price. When we demean and degrade our public school teachers, both they and our children pay the price.
B. Let me focus on teachers for a moment—since providing a good education for our children is foundational to sustainability in this or any other society.
1. Back in mid-April, not long after the rallies at the Capitol in February and March, I met with the Aristos Scholars, a wonderful group of 20 top-flight teachers from the Madison public schools who come together to explore problems and possibilities in public education. These are experienced teachers who have been around the block many times and have managed to maintain both commitment and excellence for 10 or 15 or 20-plus years.
2. In the middle of that meeting, one of those teachers asked a question that really shook me. Referring not only to some politicians but to segments of the public at large, he asked, “Why do they hate us?”
C. Is it possible that that kind of diminishment of the human spirit helps explain the fact that 50% of the young people who enter teaching are gone from the profession for good within five years? Is it possible that that kind of diminishment of the human spirit helps explain the fact that too many teachers die on the vine, depleted by many years of thankless service?
1. Every day, many pre-K–12 teachers serve as our true “first responders,” supporting kids who suffer terribly from social and economic problems that we grown-ups seem unable or unwilling to solve—supporting them in ways that few adults in this society take the time or trouble to do.
2. And yet those same teachers regularly become the punching bags of politicians, the press and segments of the public, who charge teachers with incompetence in solving problems that are not in their power to solve. When will we “get it” that when children fail to do well on high-stakes tests, the reason may well be poverty and stressed-out families rather than bad teachers? When will we “get it” that the teacher is the most important resource we have in public education, a resource we need to regenerate, not denigrate, if we are serious about education reform?
III. In 1992, I had an opportunity to go beyond complaining and kvetching about all this. With the help of a foundation grant, I started a program for K-12 teachers called “The Courage to Teach.”
A. The pilot program I designed took a cohort of 25 K-12 teachers through eight retreats of three days each over a two-year period. The goal was to create a space—a space I call a “Circle of Trust”—where these teachers could “rejoin soul and role,” could touch in again with their identity and integrity, with their deepest values and commitments, and find the courage to bring all of that more fully into their professional and public lives.
1. That pilot gave clear evidence of the potential of this program to renew the participants’ commitment to teaching; to deepen their relationships and effectiveness with students and colleagues alike; to empower them to take leadership positions in their schools; to encourage them to rejoin the political process around public education.
2. So the foundation made it possible for us to start training facilitators to replicate the program around the country, and to conduct evaluations that showed us that the program’s potentials were being fulfilled.
C. As this program grew and received attention, people in other lines of work began saying, “It’s wonderful that you’re doing this for K-12 teachers. But those of us in healthcare—or the non-profit world, or philanthropy, or politics, or community organizing, or religious leadership—have challenges similar to those faced by teachers. How about creating programs to renew and encourage us for the work we want to do?”
1. That led to the creation of the Center for Courage and Renewal. We now have 200 well-trained facilitators in 35 states and 60 cities (as well as Korea and Australia) who have touched the lives of nearly 50,000 people in a variety of professions over the past dozen years.
2. Today, as our work continues to emerge, we are developing Circles of Trust for citizens, rooted in my new book, “Healing the Heart of Democracy,” whose subtitle fits with my theme today: “The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit.”
IV. There’s a lot to be said about what it takes to create a “Circle of Trust,” much more than I can say here. If you’re interested in details, please check out my book “A Hidden Wholeness.” What I want to do here is tell a story about the kind of thing that can and often does happen in a Circle of Trust.
A. A few years ago, I facilitated a retreat for a group of physicians. We were reflecting on a poem called “The Way it Is” by William Stafford. You have a copy of the poem to follow along as I read it:
There's a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn't change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can't get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time's unfolding.
You don't ever let go of the thread.
B. In the silence that followed the reading of the poem, as people reflected on the “thread” of their lives, a physician spoke. He said, very simply, “The health care system I work in has me right on the edge of violating my Hippocratic Oath two or three times a week…” More silence, then he spoke again: “You know,” he said, “that’s the first time I’ve ever said that to a group of peers…” Still more silence, then he spoke for a third time, spoke from a deeply reflective place: “The truth is, that’s the first time I’ve ever said that to myself…”
[By the way, if you want to know what the “soul” is, or what it does, that third statement came from the voice of the soul. It’s a statement that would never be made by our intellects, our emotions, or our egos…]
V. I invite you to “think big” and “think wide” about that little story. Everyone who does serious work in any field has an equivalent to the Hippocratic Oath, even if it is not explicit, a commitment to honor the best interests of those he or she serves. Understood that way, that little story contains at least four important truths about what it takes to sustain the human spirit among folks who are doing the heavy lifting in our society.
A. First, sustaining the human spirit has nothing to do with “making nice” on people. “Teacher of the Year” awards will not do, nor will “Take a Teacher to Lunch” days. Sustaining the human spirit means creating communal spaces that are safe enough for people to tell soul-deep truths, to acknowledge what they are wrestling with and wounded by—and to do so as a first step toward healing and empowerment. Such spaces are very hard to find in our society: we need to become skilled and intentional about creating them, in and out of the workplace.
B. Second, when we hear a voice from within calling us back to true north—as happened to the physician in my story—the impact we feel is very different than when some external voice exhorts us to do the right thing. Once we hear that voice from within, we are on the horns of a major dilemma: Do I try to pretend I didn’t hear what I just heard, try to suppress my own truth? Or do I find ways to act upon it—knowing that I’m likely to get into trouble if I do, but knowing that suppressing my own truth will get me into even worse trouble?
C. Third, if we decide to act on what we hear from within, we need relational support, the companionship of people who can help us stay in touch with that inner voice and help us deal with the challenges that come when we agitate for change in the places where we live and work. The physician in my story had such a community in his Circle of Trust, but two or three people will do. We need to help more and more people relationships of that sort to sustain this strong yet fragile thing called the human spirit, and to follow it into action.
D. Fourth, and finally, sustaining the human spirit is about more, much more, than renewing our individual missions and callings. It is about generating and harnessing the soul-power that turns us into change agents, that helps us become sources of transformation in our deformed institutions and in our suffering world. It is about courage as well as renewal.
• This is how all great social movements have begun—sparked by people who, one by one by one, decided to live divided no more, to act on the deepest truths they know, and to come together in the kind of community that has the discipline and dedication to change the lay and the law of the land.
• This is not easy work. It requires us to be in it for the long haul—and, in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., most of us will not live to see the Promised Land. But if we stay in touch with true north, we will keep heading in the right direction!
• I suspect that everyone in this room has his or her equivalent of the Hippocratic Oath, and has heard the inner voice that calls you to keep trying to live by it. That’s why you do the vital work you do. Let’s help others hear that voice in themselves, in order to get more people engaged in preserving this good earth and all the species that live on it—including the baffling but beautiful species known as you and me!
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ABOUT THE SPEAKER: Parker J. Palmer, founder and senior partner of the Center for Courage & Renewal, is a writer, speaker and activist. He holds a Ph.D. in sociology from the University of California at Berkeley as well as ten honorary doctorates, two Distinguished Achievement Awards from the National Educational Press Association, and an Award of Excellence from the Associated Church Press. He is the author of nine books, including several best-selling and award-winning titles:The Courage to Teach, A Hidden Wholeness, and Let Your Life Speak. In 1998, the Leadership Project, a national survey of 10,000 educators, named Palmer one of the thirty “most influential senior leaders” in higher education and one of the ten key “agenda-setters” of the past decade. In 2002, the Accrediting Commission for Graduate Medical Education began giving annual Parker J. Palmer “Courage to Teach” and “Courage to Lead” Awards to directors of exemplary medical residency programs. In 2005, Living the Questions: Essays Inspired by the Work and Life of Parker J. Palmer, was published. In 2010, Palmer was given the William Rainey Harper Award whose previous recipients include Margaret Mead, Elie Wiesel, Marshall McLuhan, and Paolo Freire. In 2011, Utne Reader named him one of 25 Visionaries, “People Who are Changing the World.” A member of the Religious Society of Friends (Quaker), Palmer lives in Madison, Wisconsin. His latest book is Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit.