Let your life speak: why forcing yourself to ‘do good’ can do harm

Posted by | March 4, 2019 | Looking for work

Between quitting one job and starting another there is a crossover, an overlap, a natural period of contemplation, in a Venn diagram it’s your work and life. This crossover is an ideal opportunity to look back at your work-life and reflect on why one job fit like a glove, while another job fit like a mitten hand-knitted for you out of burlap by your six-year-old niece.

When I was in such a crossover period, I was delighted to come across a modern-day classic on finding your true calling. Let Your Life Speak: Listening to the Voice of Vocation is a short and soulful book by Parker J. Palmer on living and working authentically. Palmer is a writer, teacher and activist from the United States. He’s also a Quaker.

Palmer begins Let Your Life Speak by telling the story of how, in his early 30’s, he first questioned his vocation. In the midst of uncertainty and sleepless nights, he found solace in a traditional Quaker saying, “Let your life speak”.

“Let your life speak” resonated with Palmer. To him, it meant “Let the highest truths and values guide you. Live up to those demanding standards in everything you do.” He decided to conform his life to the highest values he could imagine, aiming to live like Martin Luther King Jr. or Rosa Parks. Sounds good, right?

Surprisingly, Palmer’s desire to do good backfired. Instead, his ideals led him away from his vocation. He writes of his early attempt to ‘be noble’:

“The results were rarely admirable, often laughable, and sometimes grotesque. But always they were unreal, a distortion of true self – as must be the case when one lives from the outside in, not the inside out. I had simply found a “noble” way to live a life that was not my own, a life spent imitating heroes instead of listening to my heart”.

Does this description of “nobility” sound familiar? It does to me. In the name of ‘doing good’, do we sometimes distort ourselves, or even, as Palmer goes on to suggest do “great damage” to ourselves and others? Palmer is serious about the damage:

“The willful pursuit of vocation is an act of violence toward ourselves–violence in the name of a vision that, however lofty, is forced on the self from without rather than growing from within.”

Looking back on my work life, I observe that occasionally, by wanting to be the best person possible, I have cut myself into shape like a topiary tree, lopping off leaves and even whole branches in an attempt to fit myself to an ideal. My tree may have ended up looking like an elephant (the Gandhi of topiary), but at what cost? What if my tree was really meant to be an antelope?!

Palmer? He definitely wants us to be an antelope (or a hyena, or dung beetle, or whatever our inside tree may be). “Let your life speak” now means something very different to him:

“Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you. Before you tell your life what truths and values you have decided to live up to, let your life tell you what truths you embody, what values you represent.”

Palmer doesn’t say it will be easy. But you know what? I’d rather be a messy-looking antelope than a perfect-looking elephant any day.

By Liz Willoughby-Martin

Like this post? You might also like First-day nerves: preparing for your new ‘do good’ job and Escape the daily grind: take a radical sabbatical

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