The challenge of modern life seems to be to learn how to cope with paradox and the sense of crazy-making it can produce. News reports are filled with horrendous tales that portray the most unpredictable elements of nature and the worst parts of humanity — from bombings at U.S. sports events, and a triplet of hurricanes devastating the Caribbean and U.S. Gulf Coast to genocide in Africa and the Middle East and beyond, as well as political and corporate scandals encompassing the globe. At the same time, our generosity toward each other has reached new heights, with people around the world contributing incredible sums to disaster relief for victims of the Southeast Asian and Japanese tsunamis, the flooding and devastation in New Orleans, tornadoes and floods that ripped across the United States, and the devastating earthquakes in Pakistan, Japan, and Haiti, among other global catastrophes.
When faced with the unknown and uncertain, families and individuals can reflect both the best and worst the world creates. Some break down or split apart, fracturing into conflict and chaos. Others summon untapped reservoirs of strength and grace, creating and holding together a space for healing or reconciliation. Even if the “patient” doesn’t live, this process of finding oneself and one’s community while participating in the activities of daily living serves a healthy purpose, which may be none other than to save the planet as a space amenable to human habitation. Margaret Mead is not the only person to recognize that the way the world changes is through individual acts and the efforts of small groups of committed people.
Parker J. Palmer has long been at work in the fields of heart and mind, helping us reclaim the disparate parts ourselves while we search for the purpose and calling that gives a life meaning and prepares us to change the world. In A Hidden Wholeness, Palmer returns to the themes and issues that have been his focus throughout his life and career. And once again, as in his 2000 book, Let Your Life Speak, he uses a pointed quotation from the poet Rumi to remind us of the importance of this work: “If you are here unfaithfully with us / you’re causing terrible damage.” To suggest the possibility and outline the process of merging the inner self (soul) and the outer self (community) is the goal of Palmer’s approach and subject of this book. What a gift he offers!
Most of us want to consider ourselves separate, individual, and independent. But it only takes one major calamity for us to face up to the reality that we rely heavily on an intricate web of connection. Whether it’s a just-in-time supply chain bringing food to grocery stores or plywood to home improvement centers, recent weather-related disruptions remind us that our sense of comfort and security is powered by tenuous threads transporting electricity and gasoline — and that’s especially true in the “developed” world. When those energy commodities are scarce or unavailable, it doesn’t take long for the surface civility of society to break down.
But what if that social civility was more than just skin deep? What if we did not “suffer from an empty self” with “no identity” that needed to fill up with “competitive success, consumerism, sexism, racism, or anything that might give…the impression of being better than others”? Palmer contends, “We embrace attitudes and practices such as these not because we regard ourselves as superior but because we have no sense of self at all. Putting others down becomes a path to identity, a path we would not need to walk if we knew who we were.”
In the heart of A Hidden Wholeness, Palmer lays out the process of creating what he calls “circles of trust” that can help us “practice the paradox of ‘being alone together,’ of being present to one another as a ‘community of solitudes.’” If we believe that solitude and community are diametrically opposed, it’s just one of the concepts we live by that needs to be shifted from either/or to both/and. We can be both individuals and in relationship. Even if “exactly how solitude and community go together turns out to be trickier than breathing,” Palmer shows us how it is possible. He starts with a reminder of the paradox and a redefinition of terms.
“If we are to hold solitude and community together as a true paradox, we need to deepen our understanding of both poles. Solitude does not necessarily mean living apart from others; rather, it means never living apart from one’s self. It is not about the absence of other people — it is about being fully present to ourselves, whether or not we are with others. Community does not necessarily mean living face-to-face with others; rather, it means never losing the awareness that we are connected to each other. It is not about the presence of other people — it is about being fully open to the reality of relationship, whether or not we are alone.”
Although secular in nature, Palmer’s “circles of trust” are an outgrowth of his eleven-year experience at the Quaker “living-learning community” of Pendle Hill, near Philadelphia. The value Palmer received from participating in the non-judgmental Quaker “clearness committees” showed him the benefit of relationships created to support each other without attempts to “fix” the person voicing issues. “A circle of trust…has no agenda except to help people listen to their own souls and discern their own truth.” This “rare form of community — one that supports rather than supplants the individual quest for integrity…is rooted in two basic beliefs. First, we all have an inner teacher whose guidance is more reliable than anything we can get from a doctrine, ideology, collective belief system, institution, or leader. Second, we all need other people to invite, amplify, and help us discern the inner teacher’s voice….”
By offering a blueprint for creating a safe and respectful form of relationship and by encouraging each participant to do “the work before the work,” A Hidden Wholeness invites us into the best trip of all, “the journey toward an undivided life.”
Author: Parker J. Palmer
Published: San Francisco: Jossey-Bass ©2004