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On the Brink of Everything

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Aging as a passage of discovery and engagement

From bestselling author Parker J. Palmer comes a brave and beautiful book for all who want to age reflectively, seeking new insights and life-giving ways to engage in the world. “Age itself,” he says, “is no excuse to wade in the shallows. It's a reason to dive deep and take creative risks.”

Looking back on eight decades of life—and on his work as a writer, teacher, and activist—Palmer explores what he's learning about self and world, inviting readers to explore their own experience. In prose and poetry—and three downloadable songs written for the book by the gifted Carrie Newcomer—he meditates on the meanings of life, past, present, and future. “The laws of nature that dictate sundown dictate our demise. But how we travel the arc toward the sunset of our lives is ours to choose: will it be denial, defiance, or collaboration?”

With compassion and chutzpah, gravitas and levity, Palmer writes about cultivating a vital inner and outer life, finding meaning in suffering and joy, and forming friendships across the generations that bring new life to young and old alike.

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I. The View from the Brink: What I Can See from Here

ePub

Check the Cambridge Dictionary online, and you’ll find the phrase on the brink defined as “the edge of a cliff or other high area, or the point at which something good or bad will happen,” followed by this example: “The company was on the brink of collapse.”1

I’m not sure why most uses of the phrase are negative—as in on the brink of giving up, or losing my mind, or going to war—even though it can be used positively. Perhaps it’s because, deep in the reptilian brain, we’re afraid of falling from heights or crossing boundaries into the unknown. But isn’t it possible that we’re on the brink of flying free, or discovering something of beauty, or finding peace and joy?

As I said in the Prelude, I like being “on the brink of everything” because it gives me new perspectives on my past, present, and future, and new insights into the inner dynamics that shape and drive my life. The essays in this chapter explore a few inner-life findings that have taken me by surprise in recent years. Some of them have been humbling; all of them have been life-giving.

 

II. Young and Old: The Dance of the Generations

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Since my mid-twenties, I’ve been lucky to work with people younger than I. When I began teaching college, I had only a few years on my students—but for some inexplicable reason, the age gap between us grew wider as time went by. For the past three decades, as a workshop and retreat facilitator, I’ve often worked with people twenty to forty years my junior. Without these relationships across the generations, my life would have been so much poorer, and my aging would have been deprived of a source of vitality.

When young and old connect, it’s like joining the poles of a battery. Together, we generate energy for personal and social change that an age-segregated society cuts off. The social conditions that keep us apart aren’t going to change any time soon. But elders can reach out to the young, many of whom yearn for us to take an interest in them, their fears, their dreams, and their futures.

The first essay in this chapter, “The Music of Mentoring,” comes from my own experience of being a mentor. But its roots reach back to the years when I was mentored, to the elders who graced my life and helped me find my path when I was young. Mentors kept showing up for me until I was in my mid-thirties—then they stopped coming.

 

III. Getting Real: From Illusion to Reality

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I took a run at “becoming spiritual” in my early thirties. Raised in the mainline Protestant tradition, I had studied religion in college, theological seminary, and graduate school. Intellectually, I had no problem embracing some of Christianity’s key tenets, such as grace, forgiveness, incarnation, and life overcoming death. Nor did I have any problem taking a pass on the arrogantly judgmental parts of some streams of Christian tradition, or affirming the vital role of science in our lives. I’ve always understood faith and reason to be partners, not enemies.

But I yearned for something deeper and truer than a head full of religious ideas, no matter how sound. I wanted a lived experience of a life that was less messy than the one I had, full as it was of confusions and contradictions that fell far short of “spiritual.” Or so I thought.

One day, I listened to a taped talk that Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk, had given to a roomful of would-be monks at the Abbey of Gethsemane, where Merton was novice master. Addressing the super-pious young seekers in his care, Merton said, “Men, before you can have a spiritual life, you’ve got to have a life!”

 

IV. Work and Vocation: Writing a Life

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I began working at age thirteen as a “landscape architect.” For three long, hot summers, I mowed lawns. But I moved up in the world by working as a caddy, public beach house maintenance man, research assistant, community organizer, consultant, professor, dean, writer, founder of a nonprofit, and workshop and retreat leader. And yet, naming the jobs by which I’ve made a living is not the same as naming the vocation by which I’ve made meaning.

The way I’ve earned my keep has changed frequently, but my vocation has remained the same: I’m a teacher-and-learner, a vocation I’ve pursued through thick and thin in every era of my life. Even when I was cleaning restrooms at a public beach, I was learning a lot about the human condition—mostly things I didn’t want to know! But my vocation has found its clearest expression in writing, which I did for many years without compensation.

As we grow older, it’s important to get clear about the difference between a job and a vocation. Too many older folks, especially men, fall into despair when their jobs end, because they lose not only their primary source of income (and often have to pick up part-time and poorly paid work) but their sense of identity as well. They had a job to make their living, but they didn’t have a vocation to make meaning of their lives, the kind of vocation a person can pursue to the end.

 

V. Keep Reaching Out: Staying Engaged with the World

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In 1974, when my family and I moved to the Quaker living-learning community called Pendle Hill, I knew only a little about Quaker faith and practice. Hoping to learn more, I attended a large annual gathering of Friends at the historic Arch Street Friends Meeting House in Philadelphia.

As I walked into the growing crowd, I noticed half a dozen elderly women chatting with each other. Every one of them had her white hair tied up in a bun, the way my grandmother wore hers. I smiled and thought to myself, “How sweet to have memories of Grandma rekindled! I can even catch a faint scent of the apple pie that often filled the kitchen of her simple home . . .”

In the midst of my reverie, one of the women looked my way, broke off from the group, and walked directly to me. Without any preliminaries, she grabbed my arm as if to keep me from fleeing, and said, “I’ve just returned from a meeting in Des Moines about Native American rights, and I want to tell you what I learned”—which she did, in considerable detail, as she tried to recruit me for her project.

 

VI. Keep Reaching In: Staying Engaged with Your Soul

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Some people don’t know what “reaching in” means, despite the fact that for millennia the world’s wisdom traditions have majored in mapping various pathways to the soul. The clueless ones are not to blame. From elementary through graduate school, we receive little guidance for the inner journey, even though Socrates—the patron saint of education—regarded self-examination as key to a life worth living.

When we’re young and wholly engaged with the external world, we may manage to feel “alive” for a while without an inner life. But when we experience diminishments and defeats—the kind that can come at any age and are inevitable when we get old—we run the risk of feeling dead before our time if we lack inner resources. Yet, not all is lost. As the poet Rilke says:

You are not dead yet, it’s not too late

To open your depths by plunging into them

and drink in the life

that reveals itself quietly there.1

What do I mean by an “inner life”? I mean a largely silent, solitary process of reflection that helps us reclaim the “ground of our being” and root ourselves in something larger and truer than our own egos. Only so can we put our lives in perspective, embrace our shadow and our light, transcend the regrets and fears that often come with age, and reconcile ourselves to what the poet Stanley Kunitz calls the heart’s “feast of losses.”2

 

VII. Over the Edge: Where We Go When We Die

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At some point in my forties, I was introduced to the Rule of Saint Benedict, a spiritual classic, “written by Benedict of Nursia (c. AD 480–550) for monks living communally under the authority of an abbot [or abbess].”1 The Rule became the basis for the Order of Saint Benedict, a community very much alive today around the world.2

One of Benedict’s precepts instructs the monks to “keep death daily before one’s eyes.”3 The first time I read that line, it struck me as a bummer. Why should I look away from my vital and engaged life to contemplate my mortality? Now that some years have passed, I know at least two good answers to that question.

One comes from Brother David Steindl-Rast, himself a Benedictine monk:

The finality of death is meant to challenge us to decision, the decision to be fully present here now, and so begin eternal life. For eternity rightly understood is not the perpetuation of time, on and on, but rather the overcoming of time by the now that does not pass away.4

 

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