Books, Documentaries, Reviews: February 3, 2012
A HIDDEN WHOLENESS: THE JOURNEY TOWARD AN UNDIVIDED LIFE:
Welcoming the Soul and Weaving Community in a Wounded World
Parker J. Palmer
Parker J. Palmer is a Quaker and is someone who suffered what was, apparently, really serious depression. Gradually, he began to realize that his inner life was sharply divided from his outer, lived life–and that divide was making him sick. Using practices from his Quaker heritage, he devised and recommends taking part in a guided (by a trained practitioner) “circles of trust” practice. These circles are manned by trusted companions and can meet one time when someone needs to sort out a life problem or can form and meet over a stated cycle, like four times a year. The circles allow participants to be heard and to hear themselves, and from that practice, ways emerge to handle problems or worries. Palmer would say that participants learn to speak their “truth.” No one “fixes,” advises, etc. Circle participants just listen. Also, what occurs in the circle, stays in the circle, so only people with the integrity to keep this pact should take part.
Palmer is deeply interested in creating, nurturing, and maintaining viable communities, and he believes that to do that, we must be able to hear each other. Here’s how Palmer describes what happens when we try to fix and advise (116-117):
So what do we do in a circle of trust? We…speak our own truth; we listen receptively to the truth of others; we ask each other honest, open questions instead of giving counsel; and we offer each other the healing and empowering gifts of silence and laughter.
This way of being together is so countercultural that it requires clear explanation, steady practice, and gentle but firm enforcement by a facilitator who can keep us from reverting to business as usual. But once we have experienced it, we want to take this way of being into other relationships, from friendship and the family to the workplace and civic life.
If we are to embrace the spirit as well as the letter of the law that governs a circle of trust, we need to understand why the habit of fixing, saving advising, and setting each other straight has such a powerful grip on our lives. There are times, of course, when that habit is benign, when what grips us is simple compassion. You have a problem, you share it with me, and wanting to help, I offer you counsel in the hope that it will be useful. So far, so good.
But the deeper your issue goes, the less likely it is that my advice will be of any real value. I may know how to fix your car or help you write a paper, but I do not know how to salvage your failing career, repair your broken marriage, or save you from despair. My answer to your depest difficulties merely reflects what I would do if I were you, which I am not. And even if I were your psychospiritual clone, my solution would be of little use to you unless it arose from within your soul and you claimed it as your own.
In the face of our deepest questions–the kind we are invited to explore in circles of trust–our habit of advising each other reveals its shadow side. If the shadow could speak its logic, I think it would say something like this: “If you take my advice, you will surely solve your problem. If you take my advice but fail to solve your problem, you did not try hard enough. If you fail to take my advice, I did the best I could. So I am covered. No matter how things come out, I no longer need to worry about you or your vexing problem.”
The shadow behind the “fixes” we offer for issues that we cannot fix is, ironically, the desire to hold each other at bay. It is a strategy for abandoning each other while appearing to be concerned. Perhaps this explains why one of the most common laments of our time is that “no one really sees me, hears me, or understands me.” How can we understand another when instead of listening deeply, we rush to repair that person in order to escape further involvement? The sense of isolation and invisibility that marks so many lives–not least the lives of young people, whom we constantly try to fix–is due in part to a mode of “helping” that allows us to dismiss each other.
When you speak to me about your deepest questions, you do not want to be fixed or saved: you want to be seen and heard, to have your truth acknowledged and honored. If your problem is soul-deep, your soul alone knows what you need to do about it, and my presumptuous advice will only drive your soul back into the woods. So the best service I can render when you speak to me about such a struggle is to hold you faithfully in a space where you can listen to your inner teacher.
Palmer’s take on “fixing” is especially interesting to me as I come from a family of “fixers.” And, have been a “fixer” myself. Hmmmmm. I don’t think “fixing” works too well. I read this book before Christmas, and I’m still thinking about many of the things Palmer poses, especially the strong place he holds for developing community through nourishing the inner life, the soul, of each person–which works to heal the cultural divide we seem to have created between values that foster humanity and values that foster the market.