On Being with Krista Tippett

Parker Palmer

Repossessing Virtue: Economic Crisis, Morality, and Meaning

Last Updated

July 23, 2009

Original Air Date

December 11, 2008

We explore human and spiritual aspects of economic downturn with a wise public intellectual of our time, the Quaker author and educator Parker Palmer. He works with people from all walks of life at the intersection of spiritual, professional, and social change, and stresses the need to acknowledge the inner life of human beings as a source of reality and power.

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Parker J. Palmer is a teacher, author, and founder and senior partner emeritus of the Center for Courage & Renewal. His many books include Healing the Heart of Democracy, Let Your Life Speak, and On the Brink of Everything. He's also a contributor to the book, Anchored in the Current: Discovering Howard Thurman as Educator, Activist, Guide, and Prophet.


July 23, 2009

KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: I’m Krista Tippett. Today, “Repossessing Virtue.” With Quaker author and educator Parker Palmer, we explore human and spiritual aspects of economic downturn and life beyond it. Of recent upheavals in the economy Parker Palmer has written, “At some level, most of us knew they were coming. Who doesn’t know that an economic system that encourages us to live beyond our means and refuses to regulate greed is one in which our avarice will come back to bite us?”

MR. PARKER PALMER: I think there is a new awareness that what got us into this mess is not only the lack of regulation of the lesser angels of our nature, but the fact that we have those lesser angels and that they have enormous power. You know, we’re at one of those interesting points in history where self-interest and idealism converge.

MS. TIPPETT: This is Speaking of Faith. Stay with us.

This is Krista Tippett. A significant portion of our public radio service actually takes place online now in our podcast and on speakingoffaith.org. The MP3 download you are listening to right now is free, but it costs money to produce and distribute. If you’re able, help us shoulder the costs and donate what you can, even if that’s only a few dollars. Go to speakingoffaith.org and click on the “contribute” link. Thank you.


MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett. Coverage of the unfolding economic crisis is often framed in terms of predators and victims, greed and gullibility. Yet in a global economy, to take a phrase of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, some are guilty while all are responsible. For myself, I’ve been longing for fresh thinking and language about that. To reflect on what has happened and why in human and cultural terms, to summon practical wisdom and collective courage to live beyond this moment differently. This hour, we explore such ideas with a wise public intellectual of our time, the Quaker author and educator Parker Palmer. He works with people from all walks of life at the intersection of spirituality, professional life, and social change.

From American Public Media, this is Speaking of Faith, public radio’s conversation about religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas.

Today, “Repossessing Virtue: Parker Palmer on Economic Crisis, Morality, and Meaning.”

Parker Palmer is best known perhaps as the author of seven books, including Let Your Life Speak and A Hidden Wholeness. He worked as a community organizer and sociologist in early adulthood. He became Quaker in midlife and spent 10 years as a dean, teacher, and writer-in-residence at the Quaker retreat center Pendle Hill. Parker Palmer’s 1998 book, The Courage to Teach, broke new ground in exploring how the inner life of educators shapes teaching and learning. He also founded the Center for Courage and Renewal, which explores this principle with K through 12 teachers across the U.S. The program has since expanded to include retreats for people in other professions such as law, medicine, and business. In fact, just after the Dow Jones experienced a historic drop this past September 29th, one of those days, in other words, when we all realized our collective economic reality had changed, Parker Palmer was beginning a retreat with leaders from the worlds of business, philanthropy, and financial services.

of the economic present. He’s also reflected on experiences in his early life that formed his attitudes towards wealth and identity. Parker Palmer’s father was a successful businessman.

MR. PALMER: I grew up in a very affluent all-white upper-middle-class suburb of Chicago on the North Shore, but my dad had grown up in a blue-collar family in Iowa and came to Chicago at age 19 to get a certificate in accounting. He never went to college. And he raised my two sisters and me as if we were somehow a blue-collar family who had landed accidentally in this very well-off suburb, and that had very practical implications. It was as if we had parachuted in from some other planet and just happened to land in this place.

When I was 12 years old, Dad announced that this would be the last summer we would take a family vacation, because when Park, as I was called, turned 13 and my sisters in turn, we would need to go to work for the whole summer and we would need to save our money and we would need to learn some values. And, by the way, no, we weren’t going to join the country club where all of our friends were lounging at the pool and their fathers were playing golf. In fact, Park would be caddying for their fathers …



MR. PALMER: … rather than enjoying the perks of that life. So people asked me in later years, ‘Didn’t you feel deprived?’ and I said on the contrary, I felt like a grown-up at an early age. I felt responsible, mature. That kind of formation really — and that’s what it was, it was a kind of spiritual formation — gave me eyes to see the emptiness of materialism and of affluence, and I felt larger as a result of some of the loving demands that my father placed on my life which translated into material terms.

MS. TIPPETT: You know, you and I have spoken before about your experience of depression, which came in midlife, and I have to tell you something interesting as this economic crisis has unfolded. You know, we’ve had these days and days where the stock market continues to fall and continues to fall, and the experts express such shock. And I will say right here that I don’t understand much of this, which I don’t think makes me that different from most of the people hearing the news, but somehow it hasn’t seemed counterintuitive that it continued to fall, because one thing I do know is that it was at such an artificially elevated level.

MR. PALMER: Mm-hmm.

MS. TIPPETT: And what I kept thinking of was actually my conversation with you and you talking about how in the middle of a depression, a psychological depression, you had a therapist who said, “Parker, could you think of your depression as a friend, which is bringing you down to earth, ground on which it is safe to walk?”

MR. PALMER: Mm-hmm. That’s a wonderful connection. And in fact, I have had some of the same thoughts, Krista, the parallels between psychological depression and economic depression. I finally learned, with the help of this therapist, that depression didn’t need to be pictured as the hand of an enemy trying to crush me, but rather the hand of a friend trying to press me down to ground on which it was safe to stand. And through that realization, I understood that part of what took me into depression was that I was living life at artificial heights, at untenable elevations, so that the elevation involving a kind of inflated ego or a free-floating spirituality or a detached sense of “oughts” and in that sense a false ethic, or simply living intellectually in my head more than in my feelings and in my body, that all of those things put you at such altitude that if you trip and fall, which you’re inevitably going to do …


MR. PALMER: … you have a long, long way to fall, and it might kill you.


MR. PALMER: But if you are in fact on ground where it’s safe to stand, you can fall and get up and fall and get up again, which most of us do every day. And, yes, I do feel that we all knew at some level, if we took a moment to think about it, that there was a huge amount of artificial altitude, elevation, inflation in this society, that housing prices were ridiculous, that stock prices were way beyond value. And we now know in fact that a lot of that was a purposely contrived illusion.

MS. TIPPETT: But in which we all happily colluded, because they were many of them pleasant illusions.

MR. PALMER: Yeah, exactly. I’ll give you a quick example. I spoke at a recent retreat I did with the CEO of a very, very large publicly traded firm. This was on the day after the Dow Jones first fell to its new all-time low, a year to the day after it set its all-time high.


MR. PALMER: And I said, ‘Help me. Help me understand what’s happening here.’ And I think this is a very interesting parallel. He said, among other things, all of the markets in which the U.S. operates primarily are what he called mature markets. He said 25 years ago they were not mature markets, they were markets in which real growth was possible. And during that 25-year period, stockholders became accustomed to rapidly rising rates of return and they kept demanding that, despite the fact that these markets were maturing to a place where no more growth is possible. I know what that means. I’m almost 70 years old and I’m starting to shrink.


MR. PALMER: I’m not growing anymore. But he said when shareholders continue to demand the same kind of growth in a mature market that they experienced before it matured, there are only two possible ways to create the illusion of growth. One is to cook the books. That’s the Enron answer. And the other is to gobble up some portion of a competitor’s market, claim it for a while, telling your stockholders that this is real growth, knowing all the while that sooner or later another competitor is going to gobble it back up from you. So you create the illusion of growth by in effect sort of eating your young. And those were among the market illusions that all of us bought into because why? We enjoy feeling fat and happy even if we really aren’t? Because of the same reasons I guess that I allowed myself to get so inflated in various ways that a fall was inevitable.

[Sound bite of music]

MS. TIPPETT: Of recent upheavals in the economy, from financial services to housing to retail sales, Parker Palmer has written this: “At some level most of us knew they were coming. Who doesn’t know that a society in which the rich get richer while the poor get poorer is a society that will some day have to pay the piper? Who doesn’t know that an economic system that encourages us to live beyond our means and refuses to regulate greed is one in which our avarice will come back to bite us? Who doesn’t know that at every level of life, from personal to global to cosmic, what goes around comes around?” He continues, “The problem is not that we don’t possess a capacity to know these things. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t have all the colloquialisms I just used. The problem is that the knowledge we need, like the seismic shifts that create eruptions, originates underground. It comes from a place within us deeper than our intellects.”

So I asked Parker Palmer about this insistence that most of us knew our economic life of recent years was not sustainable. Why, I wondered, do we suspend this kind of knowledge? And how did we suspend it in this particular economic moment, bringing on a crisis that threatens to be all-encompassing?

MR. PALMER: It seems to me that one of the commonest features of human life is what I sometimes call secrets hidden in plain sight, things we know but don’t want to know and thus find systematic ways of evading or ignoring or denying. And I suppose the fundamental answer as to why we do that is that if we knew these things we would have to change our lives, and we don’t want to change our lives.


MR. PALMER: And the same is true, I think, on a societal level, on an institutional level. Change is painful, and we don’t want to know what we know, because it would take us right up to the edge of change. And a lot of this kind of knowledge is, in fact, I think secrets hidden in plain sight.

I’ll give you a quick example from another realm. One of the breakthrough studies recently done in what makes schools successful on behalf of kids is a factor they call “relational trust.” They found that if a building is full of people who trust each other, you’re going to get great outcomes for kids even if that school is unfairly deprived of the resources it needs. Because if people trust each other, they will come into community, they will generate abundance, they will love the kids and love each other, and good education will emerge. If a building is full of people who don’t trust each other, you can throw a lot of money at them, state-of-the-art curriculum and teaching technique, and not much good will come out the other end. Well, this is a breakthrough study done by two scholars from a notable university …


MR. PALMER: … and you have to say, well, duh.


MR. PALMER: Who doesn’t know that?


MR. PALMER: Well, we don’t know it collectively, because trust building is hard to do. It requires an investment of the heart.

MS. TIPPETT: Another kind of investment.

MR. PALMER: Yeah. It’s a lot easier to try to get a grant or beg the feds for more money or bring in the latest dog and pony show from the curricular experts. A lot easier to do that, because it’s all arm’s-length stuff. But when we’re challenged to invest ourselves, we shy away from that challenge because it means taking risks. It means making ourselves vulnerable. It means trying to speak the truth. It means a whole lot of things that we don’t want to do. And so we’re being looked at, we’re being seen into, by these great and fundamental forces that challenge us to change, and those forces are forces of the heart. They’re forces that involve us coming closer to our own reality and closer to our responsibility for one another. Obviously, the same thing applies in this economic situation.


MR. PALMER: I actually see an opportunity in this economic crisis for people to become more mutually resourceful, one with another.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. Something that struck me as so ironic and is really coming back to me as I listen to you, I mean, when you talk about investments like knowing ourselves, like investing in relationship trust, what is communal, you know, those words don’t settle very well in our culture. They can easily sound squishy and abstract and touchy-feely and not as real as something like economics, as facts and logic. But I think one of the great ironies, or, again, you know, to use the phrase used a moment ago, one of the great secrets hidden in plain sight of what’s happening now in the economy is the economic concepts and theories, when it was presented as fact and logic was as fanciful as Narnia. I mean, we have been dealing in a world of illogic and illusion presented as fact and logic, and I wonder if we take that seriously, if some of these concepts that you’re talking about of the heart and of community, of trust, of relational trust, can we begin to see some of those things as more real.

MR. PALMER: Well, yes. I think that that’s absolutely an opportunity here. And let’s probe a little bit on that one, because the astonishing fact is that we have a lot of facts backing up the reality and power of the emotional, the intuitive, the nonrational, as well as those objective empirical factors that we’re so dependent upon or that we constantly turn to. You know, the emotional component in any workplace is very real and very powerful and often works to our disadvantage.

Let me give this example from corporate life and the world of high finance and indeed the world of government itself. There are a lot of people working those territories who knew, not just instinctively, but factually, what was going on. There were people who actually understood the mathematics behind these bogus subprime mortgages. What was it that kept those people from saying the emperor has no clothes?


MR. PALMER: Well, I can name at least two emotions. One is fear of what happens to whistleblowers in our institutions and our society, which is that they get marginalized at least and they lose their jobs and all future opportunities in that line of work at worst.


MR. PALMER: And the other emotion of course is the emotion called greed, which is that somehow I have not only a right, but an absolute need to claim more than my share out of this, and if someone else suffers I really don’t give a hoot. Let the devil take the hindmost. Now, those have to do with the inner dynamics of a person’s life, and it truly baffles me as to why in this society we continue to think that all reality and all power in terms of what drives human affairs lies in these external objective factors like policy and institutional arrangement and money when in fact there is an equally real and powerful set of drivers of human history that reside within us in the dynamics of the human heart. Which to me is not a vague and abstract phrase or a sentimental phrase or mere metaphor; it’s actually something that you can work with, that you can discipline, that you can form, that you can focus, and you can deploy to good or bad effect in the world.

MS. TIPPETT: Quaker educator and author Parker Palmer.

[Sound bite of music]

MS. TIPPETT: I’ve spoken a lot over the years with people who recall how in the 1960s, 1970s, as American culture grew more diverse than it had ever been before, an expression of tolerance was kind of compartmentalizing, leaving your ethical values, your religious values, your spiritual sensibility, kind of checking it at the door of common spaces, like our places of work. Do you think that the realm of business, because I know you’ve worked with a lot of people in many kinds of places of work over the years, do you feel that what we’re seeing now in terms of the economic meltdown is kind of the end of one phase? Is there some kind of evolution taking place where this inner life also assumes a new place in our working lives?

MR. PALMER: I believe that, but I believe that in the world of business what you can point to at the moment is not a large-scale grassroots movement. You can rather point to the harbingers of a new awareness, kind of straws in the wind. I would say that in academia this awareness of the power of religion, the power of spirituality, the power of the inner life, has rather been forced upon people, because if you’re a historian these days or a political scientist or a sociologist, you really can’t do much work without coming to terms with the relevance and fundamental power of those factors in moving all of the systems that you’re looking at. And, you know, academia is struggling to take off the blinders. So in the business community, I think there is a growing awareness that a lot of the literature that has had to do with business ethics and a lot of the education in business schools that’s had to do with ethics has been frosting on the cake. And I think there is a new awareness that what got us into this mess is not only the lack of regulation of the lesser angels of our nature …


MR. PALMER: … but the fact that we have those lesser angels and that they have enormous power. At the same time, once you see that, you also start to see the possibility that the better angels of our nature that Abraham Lincoln talked about and tried to invoke and evoke as the Civil War came to a close, that those angels are real too and that we have some very fundamental groundwork to do in our culture about the notion that you can educate the heart as much as you can educate the mind. I have real hope, and part of the reason for my hope is that there is at least one other very hard-nosed field where these lessons have already been taken to heart and rather thoroughly implemented and that’s the world of medical education.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. Right.

MR. PALMER: There is absolutely no question that the best medical educators — and there are lots and lots of them in this country — now understand that …

MS. TIPPETT: The human spirit is a factor …

MR. PALMER: The human spirit is a factor.

MS. TIPPETT: … that must be what connects.

MR. PALMER: Exactly. And that a doctor who is heartless, who treats patients as objects or machines to be fixed and repaired rather than as human beings whose full spiritual, psychological, and mental powers need to be invoked in the healing process, that such a doctor is not a real healer.


MR. PALMER: There is clinical evidence to that effect. Well, if it can happen in medicine, which is a notoriously hard-nosed, show-me-the-facts field, I believe it can happen in business as well. And at this point, you know, we’re at one of those interesting points in history that I’ve always been fascinated with where self-interest and idealism converge.

[Sound bite of music]

MS. TIPPETT: Parker Palmer. We’re calling our ongoing exploration of the economic crisis “Repossessing Virtue.” As part of that, we’re asking several of our former guests how they’re experiencing our economic present in moral, ethical, and spiritual terms. Religious historian Martin Marty sees all crises as moral crises. Esther Sternberg, a scientist who researches stress, reflects on our economic present in biological terms. Swiss banker Prabhu Guptara says that a whole industry was created that should never have come into being. And all of them see the economic downturn as an opportunity to revisit fundamental questions of how we conduct our lives.

Hear physician and author Rachel Naomi Remen identify some of these questions.

DR. RACHEL NAOMI REMEN: The thing that interests me about this are the questions that are coming up in the minds of people. People haven’t thought about these things quite in this way, and the questions are very interesting questions. You have questions like this: What can be trusted? What can be trusted? What will sustain me? What do I really need in order to live? These are questions that you ask yourself almost on a daily basis these days because of the economy, but what’s so interesting to me is these are profoundly spiritual questions. These are the questions one asks to one’s self just before you initiate a spiritual search.

MS. TIPPETT: Listen to all of these perspectives online at speakingoffaith.org and add your own. What moral and spiritual resources, what virtues, do you bring to approaching the economic crisis in your own life with colleagues at work, in your family, in your religious or other community settings? We’ll be selecting some of your essays to record and presenting them within our broad collection of wisdom and lived experience, “Repossessing Virtue.” Look for that series and the “Share Your Story” link on our homepage, speakingoffaith.org.

[Sound bite of music]

MS. TIPPETT: After a short break, Parker Palmer on how spiritual traditions might distinctively inform and enrich our common life as we move through and beyond economic upheaval.

I’m Krista Tippett. Stay with us. Speaking of Faith comes to you from American Public Media.


MS. TIPPETT: Welcome back to Speaking of Faith, pubic radio’s conversation about religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas. I’m Krista Tippett. Today, “Repossessing Virtue: Parker Palmer on Economic Crisis, Morality, and Meaning.”

Parker Palmer is an author and public intellectual. He works with people from all spheres of life at the intersection of spirituality, professional life, and social change. We’ve been exploring human and spiritual aspects of economic downturn and life beyond it. Parker Palmer believes that now as much as ever before, Western culture must acknowledge that the inner world, the inner life of human beings, is a source of reality and power.

MS. TIPPETT: I think for the rest of our time that’s what I’d like to talk about, is not narrowly speaking the realm of business, but how this realm of spirituality, spiritual traditions — which you — you’re Quaker but you speak about these things very broadly and you’re always in conversation with many different kinds of people — how this can be an edifying part of our individual and communal discernment in terms of what has happened to us economically and how we move forward from here. And, you know, just in terms of community, you know, you’ve often used this word the “art” of community, and I do think that is one thing that our religious traditions at their best have cultivated across the centuries and bring us back to. I’ve also been, just for myself as I watch this very frightening thing unfold in economy, I’m wondering do we all need to start preparing to help pick up the people around us who fall — who fall through? Because as much as you and I can have a beautiful conversation about the virtue that might come out of this, there is going to be such real suffering around us.

MR. PALMER: Yeah, there already is, isn’t there?

MS. TIPPETT: And there is, yeah. Yeah.

MR. PALMER: Yeah, there already is. When you realize how many American families are in default on their mortgages, how many jobs are being lost, how many kids are not going to be going to college in the fall …


MR. PALMER: … because the money isn’t there, you start to get a measure of the suffering that’s already happened. And that’s going to have downstream consequences for who knows how many years. It’s going to be more than one or two. And so, absolutely, it falls to all of our communities, I think, our religious communities, our educational communities, our civic communities, to finally take small steps towards measuring up to that great definition of a great society, that a society’s greatness is not to be measured by how well the strongest in its midst can do, but by how well it takes care of the weakest in its midst. And we have a lot of people who have now been weakened by forces beyond their control, sometimes by bad decisions of their own making. But those decisions were often made in the midst of smoke and mirrors that were created by powerful institutions and individuals in our society. So there is this collective responsibility.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. As a Quaker, the concept of nonviolence is important to you, and I wonder how you think about violence and nonviolence as a very kind of ordinary part of our economic life and how is this concept of nonviolence coming to you in terms of thinking about where we’ve gotten to in our economy and again how we move forward out of this.

MR. PALMER: What I learned early on from some great teachers is that violence is not just a matter of dropping a bomb on someone or shooting a bullet at them or hitting them in the face. Violence is done whenever we violate the identity and integrity of the other. Violence is done when we demean, marginalize, dismiss, rendering other people irrelevant to our lives or even less than human. Violence is done when we simply don’t care or don’t look hard enough to evoke our caring for another.

So for me, living a nonviolent life means, first of all, doing what’s within my reach so that every day in every way in every relationship I have, I’m trying to ask the question how is it that I am called to honor the identity and integrity of this person? Whether that’s a person less powerful than I am or a person more powerful than I am. Sometimes that’s as simple as being called to listen to this person’s story. Sometimes it’s a more complicated matter of finding a student, as happens to me from time to time, who can’t take a next step in life because they don’t have the $500 they need to make that experience possible and knowing that I do have $500 that I could live without and finding a way to make a gift that doesn’t impose a burden on that person. I just think there’s a thousand different ways that we can practice nonviolence in this fundamental sense of honoring the other’s identity and integrity without having to be Rockefellers or Fords or big-time philanthropists in the world, and without having to have traditional political power. Now, I think it’s urgent that we keep working with each other to reframe politics as a very local act, as simple acts of relationship building and community building that empower people, because there’s more power in coming together than there is in hiding out all alone.

MS. TIPPETT: Quaker author and educator Parker Palmer. I’m Krista Tippett and this is Speaking of Faith from American Public Media. Today, “Repossessing Virtue: Parker Palmer on Economic Crisis, Morality, and Meaning.”

[Sound bite of music]

MS. TIPPETT: You know, the terms “scarcity” and “abundance” are also words, concepts, you’ve reflected on across the years. These are more spiritual terms, a way in which language can take us out of our boxes of just talking about poverty and wealth. So reflect with me on how you’re thinking about scarcity and abundance and how we imagine those things and how we live them as virtues for this time we’re moving into now.

MR. PALMER: Well, I told you a little bit of the story of growing up in an affluent suburb with a father whose not only attitudes, but behavior and way of forming my sisters and me was very countercultural to that affluence. And one of the things that he gave me eyes to see, even when I was young, was that just because you had a bank account full of money and a larder full of food, didn’t mean that you had abundance or experienced abundance, because a lot of people in that community, I started to see at a young age, were running scared. They were running scared that as much as they had they needed more. And beneath that was the fear that if their bank account ever emptied or their larder ever ran out, there would be no one there for them. And they were right, because they weren’t in that constant daily act of reweaving community of mutual aid, mutual knowing, mutual assistance, which is itself the abundance that we seek.

I think the story of human greed is very simple. It’s the story that you can never have enough stuff. Once you go down the path that stuff is where my meaning lies, you can never have enough of it. But what we’re really looking for, I think, is the kind of abundance that comes from knowing that we are willing to feed one another, knowing that we are in those generative relationships where when you need my support, I’m there to offer it as best I can and when I need yours, the same is true of you.

MS. TIPPETT: But no one wants to — you know, that’s not a place — and I think this is humanly understandable — that we want to go. But I think of the post-war years in which my parents grew up, the point was not to be needy. And that is understandable. I think that one thing I’ve come to appreciate very much about spiritual traditions having a role in human life and therefore in our culture, is that they take mortality and finitude and frailty seriously and assume that they will be there, that those things are part of life. And our culture and I think our economy colluded in this, not for everyone, but for many people, in recent years in this illusion that things could just get better and better, that you could be safe from need.

MR. PALMER: Yeah. Isn’t it amazing that we do have a tendency to buy into the illusion that if we can just keep making more money we’ll never die?


MR. PALMER: It’s very odd, the power of that illusion over our lives. You know, I think you’re absolutely right, that many of us, certainly of your age, of my age, grew up in a time when need was not cool.

MS. TIPPETT: To be avoided at all cost.

MR. PALMER: Right.


MR. PALMER: Self-sufficiency …

MS. TIPPETT: Right. Self-made man, the American ideal. Yeah.

MR. PALMER: Exactly. That’s the model. That’s where you need to be going with life. But the truth of the matter is that underneath that patina of self-sufficiency, there has always been profound need. That’s why we sell so many antidepressants and tranquilizers in this society. There is huge need under that illusion …

MS. TIPPETT: Our affluence, yes.

MR. PALMER: … of self-sufficiency. And there’s as Leonard Cohen song of fairly recent vintage that has a great lyric in it that actually simply updates in more contemporary musical terms what the spiritual traditions have said for a long time. The lyric goes like this. “Forget your perfect offering. Ring the bell that still can ring. There’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” And it’s in those cracks that we connect with each other. It’s in the brokenness that we connect with each other and that we generate very mysteriously the abundance called hope that actually can make us move our feet and move our hands and move our minds towards something better in very practical terms.

MS. TIPPETT: You know, you note that there is a core message in all the great spiritual traditions and that is “Be not afraid.” Wouldn’t that be folly now not to be afraid?

MR. PALMER: I actually think it would be folly not to hear that message properly.


MR. PALMER: I think what the message says, and it’s actually one, Krista, as you know, that I’ve thought about a lot.

MS. TIPPETT: I think what the message says, and it’s actually one, Krista, as you know, that I’ve thought about a lot.

MR. PALMER: “Be not afraid” is something I’ve thought about a lot in my life. When I first heard that biblical admonition “be not afraid,” I really found it very condemning of me because I have fear in me. I always have and I suspect I always will. I know I always will. At age 70, you know certain things about yourself that you can no longer pretend that you can go to a workshop and change.

MS. TIPPETT: That you might outgrow it. Yeah.


MR. PALMER: Yeah, right. So I have that fear. When I listened more carefully to the words “be not afraid” I realized that they didn’t say you can’t have fear. They say instead you don’t need to be your fear. And I think there’s a big, big difference. That if you learn your inner landscape well enough you realize yes, there’s a piece of turf in there called fear. And you can choose to stand there if you want, but there are other places in that inner landscape where you can stand as well if you work at it. You can stand in a place of hope. You can stand in a place of fellow feeling. You can stand in a place of appreciation of beauty. You can stand in a place of being aware of your own mortality, mindful of the simple fact that you are going to die, which, as you cultivate it, kind of relativizes a lot of other things.

You can choose where you stand within yourself if you know your inner landscape, where you stand as you move toward other people, the news of the day, the events of your own life, the situation of the moment. Those are actually choices that you can make. They’re not always easy, but they’re impossible if you’re not reflective about your own inner dynamics. Once you become reflective there comes with that the possibility of making choices and then the next frontier is the courage to make good choices about that, to move from a place in yourself, and the way I like to say it to myself is to choose to move from a place of myself that is more likely to have life-giving results for me and other people than death-dealing results. There’s no perfection in that. You screw up. But you can also stand in a place of self-forgiveness, which is also somewhere in there, and cut yourself some slack and try it again.

[Sound bite of music, Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem”]

LEONARD COHEN: [Singing] Ring the bells that still can ring Forget your perfect offering There is a crack in everything That’s how the light gets in.

MS. TIPPETT: You told me when we spoke a couple of weeks ago that you had this retreat right as the economy started to falter, and there were people there who were leaders, were business leaders, and part of the dialogue that’s taken place in this immediate period is a blame game, right? And it’s easy to fall into characterizing this as predators versus victims and the greedy leaders versus the innocent. You said to me that it had been very important and instructive for you, that you saw the human dynamics of this crisis differently. And so I’m just curious about what you learned and how that changed your perspective even as you thought about the ethical and moral and spiritual implications of this economic crisis.

MR. PALMER: My perspective on these leaders and their work in the world?

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm. Or what you heard from them, what you learned from them that shifted your perception, you know, as you started to make sense of it for yourself.

MR. PALMER: Well, they came into that retreat, I thought, very anxious, some of them. And even on the edge of a kind of, not clinical, but just situational, existential depression …


MR. PALMER: … as they were watching their world fall apart and surely thinking about the stockholders back home with whom they’d have to be dealing next week or in the case of one person the multimillion dollar cuts that this person was going to have to make in their operation along with lots and lots of staff. These are heavy burdens on a thoughtful individual.


MR. PALMER: And so I saw this anxious kind of defensive closed-down set of hearts really open to each other during the course of this weekend. And I will read just very briefly a couple of lines from a journal that one of these leaders kept and gave me permission to publish in the article that you mentioned earlier. This person says: “Arriving at the retreat, my heart was agitated. As I leave, it is still. Arriving at the retreat, I was blaming. As I leave, I am accepting responsibility. Arriving at the retreat, I was angry. As I leave, I have a sense of peace. Arriving at the retreat, I was focused on my own distress. As I leave, I am seeing beyond myself again. Arriving at the retreat, I was running from my pain. As I leave, I am allowing it to live in me. Arriving at the retreat, my angst was palpable. As I leave, I have hope about the present and the future.”

Now, I just want to say that I don’t know what this person will go ahead and do ethically, but I recognize in those words the foundations for ethical action, which are the foundations, for example, of a stilled heart or the foundations of no longer blaming, but accepting responsibility. And you know what’s interesting about the economic ecology, or any ecology of our lives, is that there’s always someone to blame, no matter what place you occupy in the ecosystem.

So what I’ve just read to you gives me hope, because in the short period of about three days, people carrying huge burdens given circumstances that allowed the heart to show up, the soul to show up, that allowed that shy soul, shy even in the most powerful and well-to-do people in our society to come out and speak a word of truth. And when that word of truth takes us back to the ground of our own being, back to our own responsibility, back to our own culpability, back to our own possibility of doing something life-giving rather than death-dealing, then I think we’ve taken at least a baby step towards what we all want, which is a society that works well for everyone. And we’ve made a contribution to it.

MS. TIPPETT: Parker Palmer is founder and senior partner of the Center for Courage and Renewal. He speaks widely and lives in Madison, Wisconsin. His most recent book is A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life.

[Sound bite of music]

MS. TIPPETT: Read Parker Palmer’s essay on his recent conversations with business leaders and his own reflection on the economic terrors of our day. It’s called “Trusting Our Deeper Knowing,” and you’ll find it on our Web site, speakingoffaith.org.

Trust is a word that has recurred and permeated all of our conversations for our ongoing exploration of the economic crisis, which we’re calling “Repossessing Virtue.” And we want you to share your ideas for that. What are you doing now that is different? How is it different and why? What kind of wisdom and leadership are you looking for close to your life, and where are you finding it? We read every one of your reflections, and we’d like you to hear what others are saying. Look for the “Repossessing Virtue” series on our Web site at speakingoffaith.org.

[Sound bite of music]

MS. TIPPETT: The senior producer of Speaking of Faith is Mitch Hanley, with producers Colleen Scheck, Shiraz Janjua, and Rob McGinley Myers, with assistance from Amara Hark-Weber. Our online editor is Trent Gilliss, with Web producer Andrew Dayton. Kate Moos is the managing producer of Speaking of Faith. And I’m Krista Tippett.

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