Transcript: Parker Palmer and Courtney Martin “On Being”

Parker Palmer and Courtney Martin interviewThe following is a transcript of an interview of Parker Palmer and Courtney Martin “On Being”. The link was posted at Wikimedia Gender Gap list. Note the safe space question at the end.

[0:38] Parker Palmer: It’s an act of rebellion to show up as someone trying to be whole and I would add as someone who believes there is a hidden wholeness beneath the very evident brokenness of our world.

Crista Tippett: And that may be something importantly different–as Courtney Martin has written–“from the mantra many of us grew up internalizing, that we are supposed to ‘save the world'”.

Courtney Martin: I needed to re-orient myself, have a totally different relationship with rebellion that would not last me a lifetime, and was honoring of the lifetimes of rebellion that have come before me.  That here I thought I was just going to graduate and head out into the world and like be super efficient.  I’m a little suspicious of efficiency, in part because I crave it so much.  And I think that that’s a very generational thing and emotions are inefficient, and rebellion in many ways is inefficient and never will be.

[2:03] Crista Tippett: I’m Crista Tippet and this is “On Being”. Rebellion was the subject of the 2014 Pop tech conference where I sat down for a cross-generational conversation with journalist and author Courtney Martin together with her friend and mentor, the Quaker wise man, Parker Palmer.  We spoke on stage at the opera house at Camden Maine.


[2:28] Crista Tippett: We have been looking forward to being here all year and what we’re going to do is delve into the human aspects of rebellion, the inner life of rebels, and that is a complicated and sometimes messy space. If this generation does rebellion differently–generatively, resiliently–I think it will be in part because of a new redemptive commitment that I’m aware of in the world that is very much on display Pop Tech to connect inner life and outer life, inner work and social change: to be reflective and activist at once, to be in service as much as in charge, and to be wise in learning from elders and from history, while bringing very new  realities into being for this stage.  Courtney Martin and Parker Palmer are two of the wisest thinkers I know and two of the wisest teachers I know, on two places across the generational spectrum about the work and the gift of giving transformative structures for our world by becoming transformed, life-giving people. And so I want to start by asking the two of you to talk about what the word rebellion connotes for you, I mean, what your life experience has brought you to think about when you think about rebellion, and to reflect on that in terms of you know, where you started, where you came from.

And I’d like to start with you Parker, you came of age in the middle of America in the Midwest in the 1950’s.  You went on to do graduate work at Berkley and to become a community organizer in Washington DC in the 1960’s.

[4:26] Parker Palmer: You know, I think for me, awakening into rebellion was a slow process.  Certainty to be born in the 50’s in a white upper middle class suburb of Chicago, as I was, was to labor under the illusion that all was right with the world.  My first wake-up call came when I went to Union Theological Seminary in New York City for a year, until God spoke to me and told me he wanted me to get the hell out of the church [laughter], so he sent me to Berkley [more laughter], where I spent most of the 60’s.  And that was, you know, a huge education in the streets, as well as in the classroom; in fact, more in the streets than in the classroom.  And, I went there thinking I’d become a college professor, but by the end of the 60’s, with the cities burning and my heroes assassinated, I went to Washington DC and became a community organizer, working on issues of racial justice.  Five years later, I realized that I was trying to lead people towards something that I had never really experienced myself, namely, community.  So I went for what I thought was a sabbatical year, that ended up to be eleven years of my life, to a place called Pendle Hill, near Philadelphia, which is an intentional Quaker community that’s arranged kind of like an ashram, kind of like a kibbutz, kind of like a commune, kind of like a monastery, but sex was okay,  [laughter]  and lived there under conditions of radical equality.  With a PhD from Berkley, I was dean of studies, but I made the exact same base salary as an 18-year-old coming to cook in the kitchen or work in the garden because he or she didn’t know what to do next.  One of the great gifts that brought to me in the middle of struggle was an understanding that the value of a person has absolutely nothing to do with status, power, income, leverage.  The point is, we’re constantly shaping reality and the world, and shaping ourselves in a simultaneous act, and these are the things that have led me to rebel, against… standard images of why people are or are not valuable, how it is we’re called to live together rather than apart, what it means to change the world, which is something that can be done on a moment by moment basis, as well as in establishing organizations, creating inventions, etc. etc.

[7:13] Crista Tippett: Courtney, what has rebellion come to mean for you, where did you start with that?

Courtney Martin:  I grew up in Colorado Springs, Colorado, which you know is a religious sort of town, but I grew up with these progressive parents who were sort of a product of that social movement era.  I grew up with stories about my parents taking over the student union and getting beer in the student union, which to them seemed very important, in addition to diversifying  the student body.  But my dad used to always jokingly say, you know, we wanted to change the world and instead we just got rich. which was sort of tongue in cheek, we weren’t exactly rich, but we were comfortably middle class, and so I kind of grew up with this sense of rebellion as kind of my birthright and birth burden.  Somehow, you know, my parents had these big ideas and they in some ways was able to realize them, but in some ways didn’t.  And so here I was, you know, was now something I needed to carry on with me, and I think I really internalized that in a deep way.  But what I sort of came of age especially in college and post-college thinking about was that the script around rebellion that I had inherited, not just from my parents but sort of the world at large was too simplistic.  It was too flattened out.  As kind of a white privileged American, it was this ‘save the world’ rhetoric that we referenced; and who are you saving in that scenario, and why do they need saving, and what form of saving?  And as I left college, I became very disillusioned with a lot of what I’d heard, both about the world at large but also about my role in it, sort of questioning who am I to save anyone and what is that all about, so one of the things I feel like my parents really trusted me with was this idea that you should trust your own outrage.  And sort of being able to honor that anger to me is one of the most important muscles of a rebel.

[9:07] Crista Tippett: Um, you know, you’ve written about your generation.  You said, that we are the most wanted, educated, diverse generation in history and the most conscious of complexity.  And that one of the things you came to understand also as you became a journalist is that doing social justice entails a huge psychological risk.  I wonder if you would explain what you mean by that: about what you discovered there.

Courtney Martin: I think, you know, I’ve heard that phrase about simplicity on the other side of complexity…


Crista Tippett: …Oliver Wendall Holmes…

Courtney Martin: …much deep respect for that idea, like, that is what I crave, more than anything, is, and I think part of why Parker’s  writing is so beautiful and influenced me so much is he such a genius at the simplicity on the other side of complexity, but that is hard earned.  And I think that’s part of what I mean is, you know, there are really simple ways to be just force in the world.  And I think they are, you know, honoring the dignity of each human being you encounter, etcetera, but there’s so many complexities also, and so it’s about  you’re trying to create systemic change, you have to think about all those complexities, you have to think about yourself within those complexities, and that is exhausting.  And I’ve had moments in my life where I’ve thought that way where I just totally paralyzed, but there’s such a powerlessness in that too.  So I think there’s something, you have to have this robustness about holding that complexity, and being able to acknowledge that it’s kind of beyond your comprehension, and yet you still have to keep trying to do it, and do it in the most ethically honorable way.

Crista Tippett: I think you’ve pointed out not only for your generation, (but) directed to any generation, we’re so bombarded with facts, hales, and complexities, and usually a dark side of the complexity, which is what comes to us as news for the most part.  And that whereas your generation people are accused as being apathetic–disengaged–you’re saying, you know, –overwhelmed–that in fact, that very empathy becomes a liability because of what’s laid upon it.

Courtney Martin: I think there’s another part of our generation when you have so much privilege, and you don’t want to sit around feeling guilty.  You want to do something productive with it, to want to run out and make solutions happen.  But the dark side of that instinct is that it just doesn’t acknowledge that complexity and it can use a lot of resources in a way that ultimately is not benefiting/honoring the humanity of the people that you are supposedly trying to help.

[11:49] Parker Palmer: Well on the complexity subject, I think Courtney has said some very important things, and I’ve been very influenced by her to ‘do it anyway’ which helped me understand that my generation did it because they wanted to ‘save the world’, and when within five years the world hadn’t changed one whit, and there’d been a lot of blowback, they gave up on that and turned to something banal or worse.  Um, I want to throw in the word “community”.  I think complexity can only be held by community, and I think one of the most important things that needs to happen right now, is if I may say so, by your invitation being modeled right here, is inter-generational community.   I–a few years ago–invited Courtney and a bunch of her friends, who are some of the most remarkable people I’ve ever met, these thirty-something folk who are “doing it anyway”, and who give to me every sign that they’re in it for the long haul, not just for the short ride.  I invited them to  my home in Madison, Wisconsin to help me and some of my colleagues at the little non-profit I founded, the Center for Courage and Renewal, understand the digital revolution–how our work might be enhanced and amplified through that because my generation knows very little about that.  So we spent three days in the living room and I was learning so much and –I was seventy at the time, I’m seventy-five now–and I said, I feel like I’m standing somewhere on the curvature of the earth.  I cannot see the horizon.  You folks see where you’re standing, higher on that curvature.  I need your eyes and I need your ears, and I need you to tell me what it is you’re seeing, because that same horizon is coming at me even though I don’t know it . My point is, I’m standing here having figured some things out, having education, social engagement,  risk-taking, rebellion.  Although  I think you can claim the rebel state is only in retrospect and only very lightly, because as soon as you start thinking  in this moment consciously “I’m a rebel”, you screw it all up.  Self-labeling is dangerous stuff; just do what you do.  I mean, the bird doesn’t think “I’m a bird, I can fly, what am I doing sitting here on a branch”. [laughter] They do what they do, and so I would just say one more thing about Courtney’s wonderful on humility.  My last book is called “Healing the heart of democracy”  and in that book I talked about five habits of the heart, but when I give talks about it, I say if five is too many for you to hold onto, you only really need two, you need hutzpa and humility.  You need the hutzpah to know that you have a voice worth speaking and things worth saying and you need the humility to know that it’s vital to listen, because you may not have it right at all, or only a very partial grasp on the truth.  So I think it’s in holding these paradoxes that we start to figure this out.  There’s so much about this life that’s not either/or, even though we’ve been trained to think in binary code, right, I mean in the larger sense, in the metaphorical sense.  I breathe in, I breathe out.  It would be really dangerous for me to say “I think I’m basically a breathing out kinda guy, so that’s what I’m going to devote my life to”.  I am an individual with a voice, I am also embedded in a community on which I am highly dependent, to which I came and to which I will return, and I include the community of the natural world in that, and I need both the hutzpa and the humility to be there fully, to be there now, and to be there in a life-giving way.

[16:04] Crysta Tippett: I’m Crysta Tippett and this is “On being”, today a cross-generational conversation with thinkers and writers Parker Palmer and Courtney Martin.  We’re at the 2014 Pop Tech conference at Camden, Maine, with the theme of rebellion.

So, there’s a phrase of Thomas Merton, in everything there is a hidden wholeness, that you both have reflected on in your writing, and I wonder if you’d just talk a little bit about what you think that has to say to twenty-first century people.  And with this theme of rebellion kind of in mind.

Courtney Martin: Well, I think it’s an act of rebellion to be a whole person, right? It’s an act of rebellion to show up as your whole self and especially the parts that are the complex, that are unfinished, that are vulnerable, you know, in part, because of the internet and we’re talking sort of living “online” versus living “on land”, and who you sort of create yourself to be, etcetera. I think there’s never been more pressure to parcel yourself, to sociologist talked about formative selves, and it’s like it’s never been more kind-of asked of us to show up as only slices of ourselves in different places.  So I think to feel like you’re showing up as your whole self in different settings is a pretty rebellious act. But I also think it’s really something deeper about discomfort was mentioned earlier and I think it’s not a word that has come up enough in our time together.  In a time that I think can create too much comfort, if you let it, and so there’s something about being whole, but being comfortable in that wholeness holding those things together.  You know, I mean, Parker, I’m trying to like grapple it: relationship between discomfort and wholenessness,

[17:56] Parker Palmer: Oh yeah, I think you’re right on target Courtney, you know I was listening to you with great appreciation and thinking I love your phrase,  you know, “It’s an act of rebellion to show up as someone trying to be whole”, and I believe that there is a hidden wholeness beneath the very evident brokenness of our world. And somebody that wants to say that somehow part of that hidden wholeness is love, part of that hidden wholeness is our fellow feeling for each other, part of that hidden wholeness is a desire to make this thing work, and to work it out together.  The act of persisting in those fundamental beliefs that something better is possible, I think this is courage.  And I try to myself every day and some fail, but against a tide of cynicism or against a tide of scarcity, trying to witness to that in your life, day in and day out, and it can really really make you hurt.  As I’ve said in my writing and in my talking, three times in my adult life I have been plunged into deep depression for six, eight months at a time.  Depression isn’t the cost that everyone pays, but I’m working with some people now in the world of internet startups who are very very concerned about the rash of suicides that happened a few years ago, among relatively young and some middle aged internet startup folks where the success rate is only ten percent and a lot of money is at stake and a lot of people’s jobs are at stake.  And they’re taken this all on themselves, and they’re not getting any sleep, and they can’t find any peace, and so, you know, we really need to be talking with each other about these things.  We need to go public with it, because we are each other’s health care workers.

Crista Tippett: Yeah, and I think, and not just people who are successors but people who are trying to make a difference in the world.


Courtney Martin: …grew out of an experience for me was, you know, leaving college, I went to Bernard College and was kind of pumped up on my human rights education. I went to go do something in the world.  This was 2002 and it was a really rough time to be a young idealistic person …

Crista Tippettt: You were a senior in college, starting your senior year when September 11th happened…

Courtney Martin: Yeah, experience of September 11th, I was part of the war marches, I woke my friends up out of their superance, I was like you’re coming to this march, no we gotta be there, we gotta be  bodies on the street.  I actually got to this place of deep desperation.  l wouldn’t  call it depression necessarily,  because I haven’t had the same kind of clinical experience, but I had this actually very funny, my family went to this totally depressing documentary, which is our favorite thing to do when we all get together.  [laughter] It’s a lovely tradition, and we came home and we were all totally upset, and I said, you know, we’ve had this fantasy of lighting myself on fire on the White House steps, like, writing a letter about why war is wrong, and lighting myself on fire, and I realized it was totally over-dramatic and ridiculous, but it was speaking to this thing of, like, here is this white woman in American with a safety net and all kinds of privilege and I feel so powerless that that’s what I want to do, like, something’s going on here.  And that’s when I started to deconstruct the narratives I was holding onto and the ideas I had about what successful rebellion looked like, right, like I wanted to do the march and have the worst stop, I wanted to canvas for the president, I wanted to win and I wanted him to win. I had this very transactional relationship with the idea of rebellion. And so, part of what I understood through that low was that I needed to re-orient myself, have a totally different relationship with the rebellion that would last me a lifetime and was honoring of the lifetimes of rebellion that have come before me.  Here I thought was just going to graduate and, like, head out into the world, and like, be super efficient. I’m a little suspicious of efficiency, in part because I crave it so much, and I think that that’s a very generational thing, like, we’re really obsessed with efficiency.  And emotions aren’t efficient  and rebellion in many ways isn’t efficient, and never will be.

[24:00] Crista Tippett: I’m Crista Tippet and this is On Being.  Today disruption, innovation, and rebellion as meaningful acts of creation, the inner work of sustainable resilient social change.  Parker Palmer is an esteemed Quaker author and educator, well known in recent years for his book “Healing the heart of democracy”.  Courtney Martin is Editor Emerita at, co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network, and the author of “Do it anyway: the new generation of activists”. And both of them are columnists for the “On Being” blog.  We sat down for a cross-generational conversation onstage at the opera house in Camden Maine, as part of the 2014 Pop Tech conference on the theme of rebellion.

[24:51] Crista Tippett: Parker, there’s something that your wrote, a piece about the modern violence of over-work, which is a wonderful phrase, and I think it applies not only to overwork in the literal sense of how we do our jobs but also to this over extension of what we can achieve in everything we do. I’m just going to read it.  “There is a pervasive form of modern violence to which the idealist most easily succumbs: activism and overwork.  The rush and pressure of modern life are a form perhaps of common form of its innate violence: the frenzy of the activist neutralizes his or her work.  It destroys the fruitfulness of his or her work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.”  And then you talk about how this came to you the hard way, as an activist who burned out, and you said, “There’s a critical question you ask yourself: what do I need to do right now, to tend the root of inner wisdom that makes work fruitful.”  I think fruitful not necessary being efficient, or even evidently effective.

Parker Palmer: So, just to be clear, the first part of what you read actually comes from Thomas Merton, who’s one of my heroes, and Douglas Steer from whom Merton got it. We stand on the shoulders of giants, right? But I love the quote, I love the insight, and I do try to ask myself on a regular basis and sometimes I lose the need for the question, “what do a need to do right now to water the root of inner wisdom that makes work fruitful?” And I will say that one of the things that I think about a lot, I mean, I could talk about practices I have, like walking in the woods, or reading a lot of poetry, or sitting in silence alone,  or with other people: those are helpful to me in sort of letting the waters still, and coming back to myself and learning more about where it is my life is taking me, rather than where I want to take my life.  But there are some important frames around that for me, and I’ll mention just one of them.  We are in a society that is obsessed with effectiveness, with outcomes, with results.  And efficiency is very much attached to that, which Courtney wisely pointed to. I want to be clear that I’m not against effectiveness and getting results.  I work hard on writing books or on creating a non-profit, and on propagating programs though our 220 facilitators around the country.  I want that work to be effective, just as everyone in this room wants to be effective.  But I am very clear, for myself, that the tighter we cling to the norm of effectiveness, the smaller and smaller tasks we’re going to take on, because they’re the only ones with which you can be effective. But there has to be a standard that trumps effectiveness.  And I have a word that I use for myself that helps me walk this path, and that’s the word “faithfulness”. Faithfulness has to trump effectiveness.  I don’t mean anything high and mighty about that, remember, I’m the guy that God kicked out of seminary.  By faithfulness, I mean am I being faithful to my own gifts, am I being faithful to the needs I see around me, within my reach, and am I being faithful to those points which my gifts might intersect those needs in some life-giving way.  At age seventy-five, I think about my mortality more than I did when I was thirty-five, or forty-five.  And one of the things that’s very, very clear to me, is that when I’m drawing my last breath, I will not be asking did I sell enough books, did I get good enough reviews, what are the numbers look like, you know.  I’m going to be asking, given my limitations, given my fallibilities, cutting myself a lot of slack, for my failure to do so, did I use my limited lifetime to show up fully with what I’ve got.  That’s what I call faithfulness.  And I think it’s a matter of framing what we’re doing, as well as those particular practices, like walking in the woods, like silence, like reading poetry, that can bring us back to those points that you might call true north.

[29:40] Crista Tippett: So I think that I would just like to open this up now and see what’s on your mind and what you might want to discuss with these two. If you have a question you can raise your hand and someone will come to you.

(Several questions follow.)

The “safe space” question:

[32:30] Question from Emily: Picking up a little bit on the theme, I’m curious: I think we all develop out of necessity the  tools for navigating our inner and outer worlds, and you’ve spoken very eloquently about that, but I’m curious if you could talk a little bit about any ways in which both of you have learned to do that in community, and some of the ways that we can actually replicate that ourselves.

Parker Palmer: Yeah, can I take a crack at that?  I wrote a book about it, I hate to pull that ploy, but its called “The hidden wholeness: the journey toward an undivided life” and in a lot of ways, the central theme of that book is how we create safe spaces for the kinds of conversations that you’re referring to and that we’ve really been talking about up here.   One of the things the society is most deficient in is safe spaces for  truth telling about the condition of our souls.  And if the word ‘souls’ doesn’t work for you it’s “identity and integrity” in the language of secular humanism, it’s “the spark of the divine” in the language of Hassidic Judaism, it’s “big self or no self” in the paradoxical language of Buddhism.  Everybody has a name for it, a different name, and nobody knows its true name. So I think there is, to use language that’s familiar to all of you, although it makes me a little nervous, there is a technology of creating “safe space”.  The reason technology makes me a little nervous, is that I think at bottom, this journey is not about techniques; I think it’s about existential immersion. I think it’s really important in the context of a technological conference to remember that there’s a substrate of trying to be human that lies beneath any particular methodology, but …

Courtney Martin: …I like the phrase “spiritual technology ” and I think…

Parker Palmer: …I know you’ve used it…

Courtney Martin: …yeah, but say a little bit about what the ‘spiritual technology’ would be for creating safe spaces.

Parker Palmer: So first of all, safe space needs a facilitator.  I don’t think it happens automatically.  And I think the role of the facilitator is to keep the space safe, even when someone tries to break the safety. I think there are some simple rules, there are some not-so-simple rules, but one of the simplest is “no fixing, no saving, no advising, and no correcting each other”.  Well, what we’re gonna do in the absence of those behaviors is we’re going to learn to listen deeply to each other, and we’re going to learn to ask honest open questions to “hear each other into speech”, which I think is another of the most critical tasks of our time.  So many people unseen, unheard, they need to be heard into speech.  So there are things we can do, but it’s a discipline, it’s a discipline.

Crista Tippett: Courtney, you wrote a column or a blog somewhere about listening as a social technology as an innovative technology of the twenty-first century.

Courtney Martin: I probably did. but the point is, it is an art, and it’s not something we…[unintelligible]…

Crista Tippett: Right , they are sometimes about waiting your turn until the other person has finished what they have to say so you can speak , which is not listening…

Courtney Martin: I’m actually on the board of the Center for Creative Renewal so I’m deeply invested in the practice that Parker’s talking about and was part of this group of young activists who got together and went through this process, and for a lot of us, it was so jarring, in the best possible way we realized how little of that  kind of listening we were doing and how little of that kind of listening we were being listened to, how rare that was for us.  I don’t think unless you create those spaces, you don’t have a place to grapple with your own power.  I mean you talk about rebellion and we talk about the powerless rebelling against the powerful right? But the people in this room are generally holding a lot of power.  And where are the spaces where you are able to tune in and question how you’re actually using that power, whether it’s money or time or networks or whatever it is, I think it was a sort of soul-shaking experience for me to have a moment to pause and go “wow, I’ve been working so hard to make a life, to be able to pay my rent, and you know create a life”, that I haven’t paused to go “I actually have a little bit of power now, what am I going to do with that?”  And are the things I’m doing with that in line with my ethics and who I am in the world.  I think a lot of very powerful people have no time to pause, they don’t create those spaces, and I think the most unethical things that happen in the world is because of that cacophony.


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