Skip to content

Dear Parker: Purpose with a Capital P

In the age of the Internet, what happens to the humanizing power of correspondence?

That’s what I began wondering after hearing Maria Popova of Brainpickings speak last week. Maria has gained so much wisdom from reading letters between searching, vulnerable people (and her readers, Parker Palmer and I among them, have gained so much from her translation of this wisdom). It occurred to me that Parker and I, dear friends despite the four decades that separate us, could reclaim that lost art of letter writing here in the special space that On Being provides us as weekly columnists. So, here is the first letter. Look out for Parker’s response on Wednesday.

October 16, 2015

Dear Parker,

It was such a pleasure being with you last weekend in Minnesota. Thank you for the conversation. I’m grateful beyond words to have you in my life.

I’m so excited we’re going to try this letter-writing thing. Here’s what’s on my mind…

I was talking to some friends the other night — a group of women in their 30s, dealing with the challenging mix of toddlers and careers they love, and we got on the topic of purpose. Some of us were lamenting that we don’t feel like we have Purpose, with a capital “P”, in our lives. We don’t wake up every morning and leap out of bed for work that is easy to express in a sound bite and directed and in pursuit of one clear goal. One friend brought up Bryan Stevenson, the amazing founder of the Equal Justice Initiative and author of Just Mercy. He’s a guy with Purpose; he’s trying to abolish the death penalty for minors.

Then we started to think about how big, visible, linear Purpose and small, invisible, diffused integrity sometimes seem at odds. Bryan Stevenson is, we hope, a guy whose inner life is as loving and thoughtful as his outer life, but there are plenty of men, in particular, who have had Purpose and have been total assholes to their wives, kids, collaborators, etc. Martin Luther King cheated on his wife. As did Nelson Mandela. Even Mahatma Gandhi has been called “a wily operator and tactician.” I have had many moments during Obama’s presidency when I’ve desperately prayed that I never find out that he’s violated Michelle’s trust in some way; it would truly break my heart. (Not that each couple doesn’t have their own agreements and we all shouldn’t have the capacity to forgive, of course.)

So is there something about Purpose that requires a level of egocentricity and single-mindedness that causes you to neglect, at best, and violate, at worst, your family, your community, your neighbors, your friends? Is this a “tragic gap,” to use your parlance, that we have to stand in with serenity, or can we insist that purpose and integrity co-exist, that people align their “soul and role” (again, your beautiful language)? Will “great men” accomplish less if we insist on integrity?

Can we tell a different public story about what it means to have Purpose? I was looking around this table at these women, all of them doing incredible work in the world while also being loving mothers, friends, partners, neighbors, and thinking, “It’s crazy that this group of women doesn’t see themselves as having purpose.” (They do, by and large, feel like they have integrity.)

Is there something about men that leads them to seize on Purpose more readily and compromise integrity more easily? And if so, how do we change that? It seems like a lot of leadership education is aimed at getting women to be more like men: to own their accomplishments out loud, to negotiate more fiercely, to power pose their way to more confidence. What about training men to do more self-examination (part of the purpose of the Center for Courage & Renewal, of course), to shut up sometimes, to spend more energy on care and interpersonal communication and less on accomplishment and attracting the spotlight?

On a personal note, my husband John is constantly getting recruited for leadership positions by various headhunters and boards of organizations. I’m happy for him, but part of me is confused. Why don’t I get those calls? Does he project leadership qualities in a way that I don’t? Or is it more benign — I am a writer so people just assume I don’t have the skills or experience to run an organization? They’re probably right. I don’t actually think I’d want to do that, but it makes me pause and wonder. Even as I love to be my nerdy self, alone with my books and my ideas, am I falling into some gendered trap by not pursuing institutional or organizational leadership positions? Is it those who aren’t as sure about those kinds of positions that might actually wield the power associated with them with more humility and humanism?

I’m sure I’m over-thinking all of this. Please make me wiser, my dear friend.

I love you. Take care.

Share your reflection