Parker J. Palmer: Wise Guy

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Zina Saunders /

Parker J. Palmer was chosen as an Utne Reader visionary in 2011. Each year Utne Reader puts forward its selection of world visionaries–people who don’t just concoct great ideas but also act on them.

Parker J. Palmer Online Extras | 2011 Visionaries Home Page

Type Möbius strip into your favorite search engine and you’ll find images of a long, rectangular piece of paper that’s been given a half-twist and taped together to form a loop. The resulting surface has only one side and no end.

“I often talk about life on the Möbius strip,” says the 72-year-old public intellectual Parker J. Palmer. “That wonderful form that you can trace with your finger and find that what looks like the inside surface keeps merging seamlessly into the outside surface, and vice versa. So that the inner and outer are not two different things, but they’re constantly co-creating each other. That’s become a metaphor for me about the way life works.”

An accessible author with an empathetic heart and a philosopher’s head, Palmer is a modern-day wise man whose nine books, including the just-published Healing the Heart of Democracy, appreciate with each ruminative reading.

His best-known volumes, including Let Your Life Speak and The Courage to Teach, guide readers looking to express their personal passions professionally. He also examines social constructs and institutional limitations through a spiritual, but decidedly nondogmatic, lens. Taken in pieces or as a whole, the work rejuvenates and empowers because it encourages both solitary introspection and collective action.

“I write about the things I struggle with. I write about the things that baffle me,” he says. “My writing is an effort to peel back the next layer, so I can keep moving on.”

The Illinois native left home for Minnesota in 1957 to attend Carleton College, where he says there “was no warfare between science and religion.” After earning a PhD in sociology from the University of California at Berkeley, Palmer spent the early 1970s as a community organizer before ending up at Pendle Hill, a Quaker community near Philadelphia, where he lived and worked for 11 years as a teacher and writer-in-residence. Watching his seemingly quiet brethren engaging in social activism, he became convinced that growth is impossible without self-realization, but “if you keep [it all] within yourself, it’s not spirituality, it’s narcissism.”

Action is the answer. Which is why, 15 years ago, Palmer founded the Center for Courage and Renewal. The goal of the organization, which has matriculated nearly 45,000 trainees in 35 states through a two-year series of retreats, is to help people “bring more of one’s identity and integrity to one’s professional and public life,” Palmer says. “To rejoin soul and role.”

Until recently, the Washington-based nonprofit worked almost exclusively with groups defined by their job titles. With the release of Palmer’s Healing the Heart of Democracy, which represents the culmination of the author’s lifelong journey, the center now aims to reach beyond vocational boundaries to focus on the roles and responsibilities we all share as citizens.

“One of the open questions in my book is whether Americans can rally around something other than an enemy, something that we’re afraid of,” Palmer says. “My hope is to energize people around what Lincoln called the better angels of our nature. A deeper instinct to be human, to be at home in our own skins, and at home on the face of the earth, which necessarily means being at home with diversity and otherness, and learning to handle the conflicts that come with all of that in a more life-giving way.”

Parker J. Palmer Online Extras | 2011 Visionaries Home Page

Have something to say? Send a letter to This article first appeared in the November-December 2011 issue of Utne Reader.

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