Exploring Selfhood in Let Your Life Speak

There are many resources available for engaging undergraduates in vocational exploration. I have found Parker Palmer’s Let Your Life Speak to be an abundant source, full of passages that engage students and which easily serve as the basis for journal prompts that can be met with authentic response, leading students into rich vocational exploration and discernment. Palmer provides personal stories and invites readers to engage in their own vocational discernment in a stepwise manner. By first exploring authentic selfhood, he then asks the reader to search the depths of their inner life prior to exploring how to live and serve others within their community—to serve in a way that is authentic to your true self. He then calls them to step forward to lead within society. Finally, Palmer leaves readers with the idea that the vocational journey follows a process akin to the cycles of the seasons. As the first in a series on using Palmer’s book as a resource, in this post I will highlight the first step: exploring selfhood.

At Muskingum University in a 300-level biology course, I have introduced passages from Let your Life Speak to a group of students for whom this may be their first exposure to vocational exploration. Not surprisingly, the passages I utilize in the first few weeks of this course focus on the first step along Palmer’s guided vocational exploration—the quest for selfhood. In this class, students are given a reading passage along with multiple journal prompts from which to choose.

Using precious class time, I give them the gift of time for quiet reflection. This creates the space and time few students would carve out for themselves to engage in vocational exploration. At the beginning of each week, students are given time to both read the passage and journal. The journals are due on Friday in class allowing students to indulge in continued journaling—enabling those who are ready to thoroughly and authentically reflect. The journal entries are required elements of the class, with grades assigned for completion. Each week, I read their entry and provide a hand-written response. This has allowed me to engage at a deeper level with students having additional knowledge of their passions and interests. 

I first engage students in shaking expectations many others may have of them, allowing the students to uncover or rediscover their authentic self. The first chapter opens with William Stafford’s poem, “Ask Me” which includes the provocative statement: “Ask me whether what I have done is my life.” This pushes students to consider that they may have ignored their own passions to pursue those strongly recommended by well-meaning family or friends. Palmer takes this concept and shares unflattering recounts of his life—how he “wore others’ faces.” The Quaker saying used as the title of his book tells us to eliminate whatever mask is hindering and “let your life speak.”

Palmer even calls out a time when he did his best to live a virtuous life that was not his own:

So I lined up the loftiest ideals I could find and set out to achieve them. The results were rarely admirable, often laughable, and sometime grotesque. But always they were unreal, a distortion of my true self—as must be the case when one lives from the outside in, not the inside out.

Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation

It is a regular occurrence for students to sit in my office and tell me they chose their major because it will lead to a good job, or rather their family told them it would lead to a good, stable job. One student explained he really had no interest in being an orthodontist but work would just be 8 hours out of the day. We have done students a disservice by having them declare their job of interest in our local school district as their 8th grade project. This all before they have uncovered their selfhood—their true authentic self. Have students read and relate to Parker Palmer’s raw truth of travels down others’ paths prior to recognizing his own path of authenticity, helps them see how this might be operating in their own lives. Let them journal about where this may have happened within their journey, where others have unknowingly guided them to take on a face that is not their own. Let them first realize this has happened and then begin to uncover elements of their selfhood.

Within the quest for selfhood, students (and we) must appreciate that mistakes and hardships are useful. As Palmer instructs,

An inevitable though often ignored dimension of the quest for “wholeness” is that we must embrace what we dislike or find shameful about ourselves as well as what we are confident and proud of.

Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation

Passages like this from Let Your Life Speak provide raw honesty that may lead students to admit their hardships and even mistakes, critical elements of their selfhood.

Click here to listen to a recent interview with Parker Palmer on The Good Life podcast.

It is important to allow students to have time and space to read, to reflect and to journal, so as to uncover the truths and learn from what has been pushed aside or ignored. Palmer’s honesty about his own “mediocre grades” and related misery may allow our students to understand what their poor academic performance might mean. Often a students’ underachievement is due to a lack of passion or misunderstanding of where their passion lies. Recognizing that is an important first step in realizing how their passion can be lived out more authentically.

The rich resource of Palmer’s Let Your Life Speak offers numerous accounts and uses helpful metaphors to consider this quest for selfhood. Used well, this book can serve as a potential guide for undergraduates to remove the masks and begin to explore their authentic selves beneath, to explore both the beauty and the hurt and hardship of their lives, and to point them toward the path that has been less traveled—their journey of authentic selfhood.  

Related posts: On authenticity and vocation, see Coming Out Into Vocation and Conviction and Covering, both by Kathy Talvacchia. On the courage to be one’s self, see Seeking the Courage to Know What Matters by Esteban Loustaunau. For more on Parker Palmer, see Vocation, Art, and Activism: Parker Palmer and Carrie Newcomer by Shirley Showalter.

Amy Santas is Professor of Biology at Muskingum University in New Concord, OH. She presented on a panel at the 2021 NetVUE UnConference titled “Good Enough Pedagogywas a member of the 2019 cohort of NetVUE’s Teaching Vocational Exploration Seminar. Click here to read her other blog posts on this site.

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