Withering Into the Truth

Wednesday, February 22, 2017 - 5:00 am

Withering Into the Truth

Though leaves are many, the root is one;
Through all the lying days of my youth
I swayed my leaves and flowers in the sun,
Now may I wither into the truth.

William Butler Yeats

In a few days, I’ll turn 78. When friends say they don’t know what to give me for my birthday, I always respond with the same tired old joke they’ve heard from me before, which causes them to sigh, roll their eyes, and change the subject. (Here’s a perk that comes with age: repeat yourself so often that folks think you’re getting dotty, when in fact you’re fending off unwanted conversations.)

Q: What do you give a man who has everything?

A: Penicillin.

I don’t need gifts of a material nature. But I do need to remember a few things I’ve learned during my nearly eight decades on earth — well, mostly on earth. So here’s a collection of six lessons as a birthday gift to myself. If one or two of them turn out to be gifts for you, my birthday will be even happier.

—One—

The Yeats poem at the head of this column names something I don’t want to forget. Actively embracing aging gives me a chance to move beyond “the lying days of my youth” and “wither into the truth” — if I resist the temptation to Botox my withering.

My youthful “lies” weren’t intentional. I just didn’t know enough about myself, the world, and the relation of the two to tell the truth. So what I said on those subjects came from my ego, a notorious liar. Coming to terms with the soul-truth of who I am — of my complex and often confusing mix of darkness and light — has required my ego to shrivel up. Nothing shrivels a person better than age: that’s what all those wrinkles are about!

Whatever truthfulness I’ve achieved on this score comes not from a spiritual practice, but from having my ego so broken down and composted by life that eventually I had to yield and say, “OK, I get it. I’m way less than perfect.” I envy folks who come to personal truth via spiritual discipline: I call them “contemplatives by intention.” Me, I’m a contemplative by catastrophe.

—Two—

Poetry has redemptive power, or so it has for me. Poets like Rilke, Mary Oliver, Wendell Berry, and Naomi Shihab Nye, have provided life jackets to keep me from drowning, ballast to keep me from gaining altitude, and maps to keep me from getting lost in the woods. By following Emily Dickinson’s advice to “tell the truth but tell it slant,” good poets have snuck up on me to deliver messages I would have evaded if I’d seen them coming.

I write poetry as well as read it not because I’m a pro, but because it’s the best form of self-therapy I know. Here’s a poem that came to me some years ago while trudging down a country road past a plowed field, deeply depressed and wondering if this was the day. It’s a poem that, over time, helped me find my way back into life:

“Harrowing”

The plow has savaged this sweet field
Misshapen clods of earth kicked up
Rocks and twisted roots exposed to view
Last year’s growth demolished by the blade.

I have plowed my life this way
Turned over a whole history
Looking for the roots of what went wrong
Until my face is ravaged, furrowed, scarred.

Enough. The job is done.
Whatever’s been uprooted, let it be
Seedbed for the growing that’s to come.
I plowed to unearth last year’s reasons—

The farmer plows to plant a greening season.

“Harrowing” doesn’t merit a place in the Western literary canon. But because it helped me emerge from a deadly darkness into a “greening season,” it’s canonical to me.

—Three—

If all the sentences I’ve published in nine books and hundreds of periodicals were laid end-to-end, they’d almost equal the longest sentence James Joyce wrote. But perhaps the most important sentence I’ve ever written is that one word, “Enough.”

Said on the right occasion, that word can safeguard one’s soul, and saying it comes more easily with age. These days I say “enough” without hesitation to anything that’s not life-giving for me and for the people and world I care about — whether it’s frenzy and overwork, a personal prejudice, an unhealthy relationship, a societal cruelty or injustice, the feckless exercise of power in fields from religion to politics, or the crypto-fascism sickening the U.S. body politic.

When I was young, saying “enough” often seemed risky. I know people who lost favor, friends, reputations, livelihoods, and even their lives for saying, “This far and no more.” But risk looks different from the vantage of old age. More than fearing the cost of taking risks for the things I care about, I fear aging into irrelevance.

I’m among the fortunate ones who has what he needs, so I don’t need to worry about losing things that some folks require for survival. For people like me, the notion that old age is a time to dial it down and play it safe is a cop-out. We should be raising hell on behalf of whatever we care about: freedom’s just another word for not needing to count the cost.

—Four—

One thing I care about is the younger generation and the world they’re coming into, a world they’re helping to remake as they come. To care about them, I find, is also to care for my own wellbeing.

The psychologist Erik Erikson said that en route to old age we face a choice between “generativity” and “stagnation.” “Generativity” means more than creativity. It means turning toward the rising generation, offering whatever we know that they might find useful and, even more important, learning from them. So I spend as much time as I can talking with young people, and always come away the better for it.

A couple of years ago, I met with a group of young adults less than half my age. For two days, I listened as they talked about the emerging world as it looks from where they stand. Early in our meeting, I said something like this:

“I feel like I’m standing somewhere down the curvature of the earth, while you’re close to the top of that curve looking at a horizon I can’t see. But I need to know what you’re seeing. Whatever’s on that horizon is coming at me, as well. So please let me know what you see, and when you do, please speak loudly and clearly so I can understand what you’re saying!”

Hint to my age-mates: Next time you think, “I’m over the hill!”, say to yourself, “Nah, I’m just standing farther down the curvature of the earth!”

—Five—

Most older folks I know fret about unloading stuff they’ve collected over the years, stuff that was once useful to them but now prevents them from moving freely about their homes. There are precincts in my basement where a small child could get lost for hours.

But the junk I really need to jettison in my old age is psychological junk — such as long-time convictions about what gives my life meaning that no longer serve me well, notably my work. Who will I be when I can no longer do the work I love that’s helped me hang onto a sense of self for the past half-century?

I won’t know the answer until I get there. But on my way to that day, I’ve found a question that’s already giving me a new sense of meaning. I no longer ask, “What do I want to let go of, and what do I want to hang on to?” Instead I ask, “What do I want to let go of, and what do I want to give myself to?”

The desire to “hang on” comes from a sense of scarcity and fear. The desire to “give myself” comes from a sense of abundance and generosity. Those are the kinds of truths I want to wither into.

—Six—

Sooner or later, “withering into truth” culminates in death, the ultimate form of withering and perhaps the ultimate source of truth. Who knows? Maybe death will be as it was for the husband of poet Lucille Clifton, according to the words she put in his mouth in her poignant poem, “The Death of Fred Clifton”:

I seemed to be drawn
to the center of myself
leaving the edges of me
in the hands of my wife
and I saw with the most amazing
clarity
so that I had not eyes but
sight,
and, rising and turning,
through my skin,
there was all around not the
shapes of things
but oh, at last, the things
themselves.

I have no idea what, if anything, I will learn from dying. This is all I know for sure: I have no bad memories of wherever I came from when I arrived on this planet, so I have no good reason to fear where I’m going when I depart.

Besides, I know exactly where I’m going: to the Boundary Waters up along the Minnesota-Ontario border, a wild and holy place where I’ve spent summer’s end every year for the past two decades. Each time I’m there, I think, “This is heaven, and I’m heavenward-bound!” (All that’s left is to figure out how to bring a canoe along.)

I may not have the latitude and longitude of heaven exactly right. But one way or another, we’re all going to end up in the arms of Mother Nature as our atoms recombine with the stuff from which they came. As I said in another On Being column:

“It matters not to me whether I am resurrected in a loon calling on the lake, a sun-glazed pine, a wildflower on the forest floor, the stuff that fertilizes those trees and flowers, or the Northern Lights and the stars that lie beyond them. It’s all good and it’s all gold, a vast web of life in which body and spirit are one.

I won’t be glad to say goodbye to life, to challenges that help me grow, to gifts freely-given, to everyone and everything I love. But I will be glad to play a bit part in making new life possible for others. That’s a prospect that makes life worth dying for.

Twenty annual pilgrimages to this holy place called the Boundary Waters have convinced me that Julian of Norwich got it right: ‘All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.’”

Share Post

Contributor

is a columnist for On Being. His column appears every Wednesday.

He is a Quaker elder, educator, activist, and founder of the Center for Courage & Renewal. His books include Healing the Heart of Democracy, A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life, and Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation.

Share Your Reflection

Reflections

  • Donna n.vt

    Thank you, Parker. This is just what I needed as I celebrated my 76th birthday yesterday. “It’s all good, and it’s all gold, a vast web of life in which body and spirit are one”.

    • Lorrie o

      I will be 85 soon. The thing that has sustained me has been my curiosity about this time on earth. I am still in love with life but am comforted that it is coming to a conclusion. Thanks Parker. Your journey with depression has helped me not get bogged down. There is always another page to turn. Happy Birthday.

  • Dale Skaggs

    Thank you Parker, and Happy Birthday! May your day be full of Joy and Laughter and Gratitude!

  • Kate

    thank you.

  • Cyndy Noel

    Thank you for your inspiring and thoughtful words. This is beautiful. I will especially treasure the idea of deciding what I want to hold onto vs. let go of. We’re still a “work in progress” for sure, and having just turned 70 and lost my husband to Alzheimer’s, I’m learning to cherish each moment.

  • Rebecca

    This post truely is a gift and my day (and beyond) will be better for it. Thank you as always, for your wisdom and insights! Reflecting on the word “enough”; I find it is not only an effective boundary word, but also a most essential self-affirmation (“I am enough”). Many blessings on your birthday!

  • Myrrhis

    My sister forwarded this to me. We are not quite “close to the top of that curve” but our mother, who just recently lost our father, is. A lot of this either resonated with me or made me want to wrap it up and gift my mother with it, or both. As a side note re the power of poetry, Yeats is, in the most affectionate way, a bastard. He always makes me cry.

  • Ellen Collins Schaffer

    Your points are full of gems for contemplation.

  • David Atwood

    Thank you, Parker Palmer. We’ve met only once, when you were a visiting fellow or whatever it was called at Woodbrooke back in the early 80s. You did a series on community. I can still remember the opening of your first session when you said something like, “Community. What is community? Community is the place where the person you would least like to be with is.” May these wise words today on being this age (I too am far older now than I was then, although you’ve got me beat by a few years) stick with me so well. I think they will. Wishing you well.

  • Screenwhizard

    I too am a proud “poetry whore” who cannot get enough of the richness of “truth told slant.” Thanks for some new lines to savor…You have made it into my personal canon.

  • Marlene

    This post seeped into parts of my being that were finding themselves cold and terrified of the intensity and uncertainty inherent in life. I am so grateful for your wisdom and way with words. My heart is full, my eyes watery, and my entire self uplifted by your offerings. Much love, light, and soul-nourishing growth to you on your 78th trip around the sun.

  • honey butter

    Happy Continuation Day, Parker, and thank you for being an inspiration to so many of us. “Let Your Life Speak” continues to be one of my all-time favorite books, and one that guided me on a transitional passage in my own career and work. deep bows. -Maia Duerr (aka honey butter!)

  • Gabby

    Of all the things I appreciate about you, this sort of statement is what I appreciate the most: “For people like me, the notion that old age is a time to dial it down and play it safe is a cop-out. We should be raising hell on behalf of whatever we care about: freedom’s just another word for not needing to count the cost.” I think too many people of all ages feel drawn to dialing it down, not recognizing that it is only privilege that makes this choice possible. When the comfortable dial things down and rest into their security, those who can least afford it are left to do all the heavy lifting.
    There were two other things I could really relate to in this writing. One is the question, what can I give myself to? Like you I feel like I don’t know how much time is left- none of us does, but I know how I want to live- giving myself everyday to the things that matter. No long term objectives anymore. Only this.

    • Cindi L Hunter

      Beautifully said!

  • Nickie

    Thank you for “Harrowing” which resonates with my soul. I keep reading and re-reading, and finding hope and renewal in its truth.
    And..thank you for “Enough”, a word I will try to use, if only inwardly at times. God bless and Happy Birthday!

  • wesroberts

    Parker, you are only three years ahead of me, but time and again, the books you’ve written reside on one of my bookshelves…and a good number of your articles are kept in my files. Your generous wisdom has been shared with my mentoring of emerging leaders from around the globe…sincere humbled, am I, be every one of those sacred, surprising encounters. People often ask me, “When are you going to retire?” Your wisdom and well crafted humor have me further saying to them, “Why should I retire…I’m dead yet!” How much more of life is there to be lived, neither you nor I know. And though we will never have met in our lifetimes, I can now say I have a distance friend who has given me further permission to not dial down, and with even sacred delight raise some hell where it needs to be raised. Thank you for even being a distance mentor to me on living life to the full.

  • Judith Reynolds

    Happy Birthday soon, Mr. Palmer. I am two year’s younger than you, but greatly appreciate your wisdom. It was much needed.

  • Evita Jung

    Thanks Mr. Palmer for your soul- rending verses & poetry. It really jarred my consciousness and inspired me to embrace amusing realities.

  • Kelly Erin Dinneen

    Wow…this is so deeply inspiring!!! Thank you! My body turns 49 next month. I LOVE the idea of “what do I wish to give myself to?” Just love this paradigm!!!! I will embrace this next decade from that perspective! Mahalo!!!!

  • Ana Kling

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. At this moment, I would like to give you a BIG HUG…and keep you in my arms for some minutes. This way your energy and my will meet. A hug is not wiser, but it is very rewarding.

  • Carrie Newcomer

    This is such beautiful, wise, human reflection on the experience of years. Thank you for this eloquent blog. What will we release and what will we embrace? How important it is to share with and to learn from the coming generations. And yes, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

    • Reggie Marra

      I’ll risk saying that I love “A Gathering of Spirits” among others — if that makes no sense, I apologize and rejoice in there being at least two Carrie Newcomers on the planet.

  • Happy Birthday Parker! I so love your words of inspiration and deep truth, and this article is one of the best. Please continue to share them with all of us who can hear. Every day you are on the planet is a gift. Thank you.

  • Tracey AnnLee

    You have been my inspiration for years -more years than I can count. You walked with me when I wrote my Masters and Doctorate thesis on education, you became an unexpected mentor on the inner landscapes of my students’ lives, your books tucked under my arm and on my shelves, guiding me into becoming the educator I knew I needed to be. Your influence has been paramount for me. I have urged countless students to read your work when they have stood on the end of throwing it all in. And now, as I age, your words urge me to think again, to muse, to aspire, to reconsider, to accept, to reevaluate the way I look at my ageing process. May your 78th be full of peace. And all shall be well. Thank you. Tracey.

  • riverwalker

    Beautifully aged reflections. Thank you.

  • Jere Martin

    Thank you Parker for your every wise and deep musings that always make me think and feel in expanded ways. Happy Birthday dear friend. May your coming year be fecund with growth, solace and continued adventures in nature and soul. Ron and I are celebrating on either side of you and a few years behind…dealing with many of the same issues although deep in our grand parenting of young children stage right now. And looking for the next anchor in nature as we leave behind our beloved annual renewal site (for the last 40 years) in the Colorado mountains as the altitude has become tricky at this age. I find the leaving behind of cherished old friends, much enjoyed old places and familiar counted on old parts of myself (and functions…like abilities in hearing, sight and ambulation) with whatever grace I can muster to be a big part of my spiritual practice these days. Blessed be Parker.

  • Jim Quay

    Happy birthday, Parker. Your gentle wisdom, grounded in experience, has the welcome ring of truth, especially welcome in this season. Getting to know you in person and in print has been one of the great gifts in the past decade of my life. You may observe a harrowing, but you also express a hallowing. My deep thanks. Enjoy our celebration of you….

  • bumis smichele

    I love this whole column, but that poem… I have read it three time, and I’m going to print it out and read it again and again. It’s just too perfect for where I’m at right now!

  • Lesson Three — echoed by T S Eliot in East Coker: ”
    Old men ought to be explorers

    Here and there does not matter
    We must be still and still moving
    Into another intensity
    For a further union, a deeper communion
    Through the dark cold and empty desolation,
    The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
    Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning.”

  • Chet

    HAPPY BIRTHDAY Parker…you’re an inspiration…and as Allen Ginsberg used to say, a Dharma Lion!
    Next Friday I will complete my 71st lap around the sun. It’s been a long journey to say the least.
    In reference to the Yeats poem, I do struggle (less and less)..or I should say that I am saddened that I wasted so much time in my youth…so completely unaware and ego driven. Being mindful was as remote as a distant galaxy. I didn’t “wake up” until my 40s and I’ve been playing catch up since working to understand

    Thanks for all that you do to help this process along.
    Chet

  • Aimee Reau

    “Whatever truthfulness I’ve achieved on this score comes not from a spiritual practice, but from having my ego so broken down and composted by life that eventually I had to yield and say, “OK, I get it. I’m way less than perfect.” I envy folks who come to personal truth via spiritual discipline: I call them “contemplatives by intention.” Me, I’m a contemplative by catastrophe.”

    I can certainly relate. I’m forever grateful for your gorgeous words here. Thank you!

  • Thank you and thanks to Carrie for guiding me here and to Kathy for reminding me there are webstrings of connections and serendipity even in comments. I will be coming back. Smile, breathe, celebrate and rabble your rousing. Peace.

  • Joyce

    Been reading and reading, looking for meaning and solace only to become more and more confused, confounded and distressed. The stuff of religion, filled with fire and brimstone, paralyzing rather than praise worthy, scares me to death just when I want to make peace with “the mystery of life” and embrace it as the next big adventure. Asked a friend about my readings and she linked me up to you. Thanks for calming me down and reminding me that we are all connected to each other and each is connected to the universe. Whether future surf or turf, I hope we meet in the compost heap or the exquisite starry night….Thanks for the life tonic.

    • Jill

      Joyce,
      I, too, have been reading and reading, looking for meaning …..and I go back yet again to Palmer’s work. I read it years ago and now I am back. It is grounding. It is what I need. It is a life tonic.

  • ThomasDixon

    If you take a deep quiet look at death you’ll realize that it is more normal than life for there are more on earth who have died than live. It’s true this is just a blip on the span of our time. Who knows what the next will be but like you I have no bad memories before this one.

  • Judy Montel

    contemplative by catastrophe!! I love it!

  • Thank you for this reminder of the vastness of life, of all that can be, all that will be, and it all shall be well.

  • Pilgrim Norma

    All IS well… whether we have eyes to see it, or not.

  • Susan

    Happy birthday! I can not thank you enough for your gift, for sharing your gifts.

    I grinned at your use of Emily Dickinson’s poem, as I have never thought of it before: “By following Emily Dickinson’s advice to “tell the truth but tell it slant,” good poets have snuck up on me to deliver messages I would have evaded if I’d seen them coming.”

    You are a good poet.

  • Dennis Slattery

    Your book, The Courage to Teach, helped me immensely when I had just begun teaching. One insight I have held on to for decades. The good teacher is one who brings out the teacher in the student and allows the student in the teacher to come forth. Brilliant. Thank you Parker for all the wisdom, including the gems in this essay. I will be 73 this year so not far behind you. Many blessings

  • Thank you Parker. I change decades on this year’s birthday and am like a moth to light with your words: “Nothing shrivels a person better than age: that’s what all those wrinkles are about!” And

    Whatever truthfulness I’ve achieved on this score comes not from a spiritual practice, but from having my ego so broken down and composted by life that eventually I had to yield and say, “OK, I get it. I’m way less than perfect.” I envy folks who come to personal truth via spiritual discipline: I call them “contemplatives by intention.” Me, I’m a contemplative by catastrophe.

  • Pingback: Meeting Truth with Focus and Humility | On Being()

  • Ashton Gustafson

    PJP is our village elder. Love this man dearly.
    Had him on my podcast last year. Thought you all may enjoy it.
    https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/a-conversation-with-parker-j-palmer/id982221063?i=1000368435133&mt=2

  • Kathleen Schomaker

    A Hidden Wholeness is one of the books on my short shelf where I can pick it up, open to a familiar chapter or page, and be inspired anew. Thank you for mentoring me through that book in your writings, shared poems (some of which I have memorized) and simple callings to authenticity. Blessings.

  • Rose Andrews

    As Peter wrote, thanks be to God who has given us a lively hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead to an inheritance that fades not away reserved in heaven for you. I Peter 1:3 & 4

  • Mac

    As are you, I’m right smack in the middle of the cross hairs. A “younger,” friend sent me this reflection. I need all the wise reflections I can get, also I have a canoe. The Greeks or maybe the Egyptians believed we were just as afraid of being born as we are now afraid of dying.

  • Pingback: A Friday farrago – breezes at dawn()

  • Pingback: On being human. Seeing the world from our knees. | 2:23AM()

  • Pingback: On being human. Seeing the world from our knees. | 2:23AM()

  • Pingback: On being human. Seeing the world from our knees. | 2:23AM()

  • Pingback: Bits and Clips for March 2017 | Polly Castor()

  • Pingback: 7 ways to weekend Zen – 70 magazine()

  • Pingback: TIM MADIGAN: Anything Mentionable — Composted By Life – UNHERALDED.FISH()

  • Pingback: Trusting in the Natural Order of Things — Parker Palmer | On Being()