Vocation, Art, and Activism: Parker Palmer and Carrie Newcomer

Do you have students who agonize over how they can justify living-college-life-as-usual when so much is so wrong in the world? Likewise, do you find yourself conflicted about how to teach when your heart is troubled by hatred and violence directed at vulnerable groups, by the state of division in our country, and the degradation of our planet?

If so, the concert of song and spoken word by Parker J. Palmer and Carrie Newcomer at the Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College would have inspired and strengthened you. If you weren’t there, here are some reflections from someone who was.

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Parker Palmer

Chances are you have read at least one book by Parker Palmer. His many books include two that are included on many vocation course syllabi: Let Your Life Speak and The Courage to Teach.  His most recent book, Healing the Heart of Democracy, moves, as all of his work does, from the inner life to the commons, the public arena.

If you are a fan of folk music, you also know Carrie Newcomer.  And you probably know that Parker and Carrie are artistic collaborators. Here’s just one example of their vibrant, evocative blend of words and music, a song called Abide. Both Carrie and Parker have spent the last decade connecting with visionary leaders who are finding hope in the midst of despair, activism instead of apathy, and beauty in the belly of the beast.

Is this not what all of us long for? And what our students need even more than the right major, the right first job, and the right graduate school?

On Friday night at the festival Parker illustrated how to critique the manifest evil in the world without becoming hate-filled oneself. He did not mince words nor sweeten nor obscure them. He employed language as skillfully as a martial artist uses redirection of the opponent’s energy and a great teacher penetrates right down to the nub of a thing:

Violence is what happens when we don’t know what to do with our suffering. Love is what happens when we are supple enough to allow our hearts to break open instead of shatter.

Carrie addressed the temptation to give up when love doesn’t seem to be enough. Her song, “You Can Do this Hard Thing” offers concrete examples of how “holy grit” can counteract despair.

The sheer size of social problems can threaten to overwhelm any of us. Carrie and Parker both advocated focusing on small, everyday ways that we can all bring more love into the world. The area three feet around us is in fact powerful if we act with intention – take a listen to “Three Feet or So”. 

Many of Carrie’s new songs on her album The Beautiful Not Yet resulted from conversations with Parker. When she emailed him after an especially turbulent news day, “What do I do with a broken heart?” he responded “Sometimes you just need to seek sanctuary.” That one word immediately sent Carrie to her notebook and guitar.

The day after the concert I had the honor of interviewing Parker and Carrie. We talked about the themes above. Parker said something simple that students might need to hear and that Hannah Schell addressed in this space a few weeks ago: “Friends are part of our vocation.”

In other words, vocation shouldn’t be lonely. In the tradition of viewing vocation as a journey rather than a destination, our fellow pilgrims, activists or artists become essential. We can learn to recognize and include kindred spirits. Parker and Carrie have done this with each other, and they are generous to include many others in their vocation of friendship.

How do you know if a friend is a Friend in the sense of vocation? One great indicator is that you laugh fully and freely together.

Vocational friends: Parker Palmer, Shirley Showalter and Carrie Newcomer

Good news if you are intrigued by the above. Parker and Carrie are taking their friendship and artistic collaboration online. Beginning in June, they will engage with each other and with readers/fans on a new website called The Growing Edge.

Are your students attracted to activism or turned off by it?

Do they find solace and courage in the arts?

Are they finding friends of their vocation while in college?

Shirley Showalter is the former president of Goshen College. You can find her essay,  “Called to Tell Our Stories: The Narrative Structure of Vocation” in Vocation Across the Academy: A New Vocabulary for Higher Education, ed. David S. Cunningham (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017). For more of Shirley’s musings, please visit her website at www.shirleyshowalter.com. For more posts by Shirley, click here. For a link to the NetVUE podcast episode featuring Shirley Showalter, click here

Author: Shirley Hershey Showalter

New book coming in 2022: The Mindful Grandparent: The Art of Loving Our Children's Children. Author of memoir Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World. Blogging about Magical Memoir Moments and Jubilación -- vocation in the second half of life.

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