To honor the ending of another year in my life, I re-read one of my favorite books last week. I first read Palmer’s book (subtitled Listening for the Voice of Vocation) on a train from New Jersey to Maryland in early 2001. This was during a year that my former husband and I had made one big vocational jump and at a time when I was considering the next one. Palmer’s words, written simply and with great personal honesty, spoke loudly to me at the time (though I’m not sure how well I listened).
A pocket-sized book, this gem can be read on a Sunday afternoon (or a short train ride). But its big heart and deeply felt ideas invite me back again and again. Palmer examines the metaphors by which we live — do we make our decisions or allow them to grow? Do we struggle against the odds or move with the changing seasons? He addresses the various faces we try on and the ways in which the roles we play drive us crazy or deepen our joy.
Because he speaks primarily through his personal experience, sharing the ups and downs of his own journey through vocational changes, Palmer never comes across as didactic or as one who has the answers for the reader’s life. Reading the book is more like having a wonderful conversation with your favorite uncle as he tells you about his own mistakes and what he managed to learn from them.
I love that Palmer doesn’t see vocation as a clear or easy path. He writes early in the book of a period of his life when he made big changes in his career direction and reflects, “What I learned about vocation is how one’s values can do battle with one’s heart.” Palmer, a Quaker, spends a fair amount of time on the necessity of facing our shadows and limits courageously. He does this in the context of great faith. “Our created natures make us like organisms in an ecosystem: there are some roles and relationships in which we thrive and others in which we wither and die.” Knowing our place in our own ecosystems saves us and those around us from unnecessary pain.
I could go on quoting Palmer, but better that you should read for yourself. This book, my favorite of his, is a quick, good read, but one that will stay with you long after you’ve turned the last page.