On the Brink of Everything:
Grace, Gravity, and Getting Old
By Parker J. Palmer
Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., 2018
$19.95 198 pp.
This is the 10th book by Parker Palmer, PhD, an award-winning educator, writer, and activist. It was suggested by his long-time editor, Sheryl Fullerton, who noticed that much of his recent short-form writing was about getting old. It is a collection of 24 brief essays and several poems, with a prelude and a helpful introduction to each of the seven chapters. It is not a guide to getting old but “a meditation on aging in which I’ve tried to be true to gravity, to grace, and to the voice of my own experience in a way that invites the reader to listen to his or hers.” For me, at least, mission accomplished. Palmer’s reflections on incorporating aging into his spiritual journey encouraged me to do the same.
Palmer discovered his “friend” Thomas Merton about a year after Merton’s tragic death at a conference in Bangkok, Thailand. He felt Merton was such a kindred spirit that he decided to read everything Merton had written, which is an ongoing lifetime project. (Palmer says Merton’s posthumous literary output is the first known case of “perish and publish.”) Several of the themes woven through the book are lifeways learned in part from Merton. One is that there is a “hidden wholeness” in the brokenness of our world. Our personal wholeness depends on our ability to integrate our brokenness—our shadow side, our weaknesses, struggles, and failings—into our life. Thus Palmer’s mantra: “Wholeness is the goal, but wholeness does not mean perfection. It means embracing brokenness as an integral part of life.” This truth frees us to live well, love well, and die well.
This is related to two other lifeways garnered from Merton: the quest for the true self and the promise of paradox. Palmer says, “The quest for the true self and the quest for God: it’s a distinction without a difference.” This eventually led Palmer to Quakerism, with its conviction that “there is that of God in every person.” Living paradoxically means adopting the perspective of “both-and” rather than the logic of “either-or.” Paradox opens us to mystery, wonder, and surprise. Palmer quotes physicist Neils Bohr: “The opposite of a correct statement is a false statement. But the opposite of a profound truth may be another profound truth.” Paradox allows us to embrace our self-contradictions.
Palmer distinguishes between work (our role, how we survive) and vocation (our passion, what gives our life meaning). We are blessed, and privileged, if these two correspond. Palmer’s grandfather was a machine tool operator for John Deere tractors, but his vocation was turning raw material into things of use and beauty. Palmer’s vocation is writing, and he does it well, with clarity, insight, and humor.
According to psychologist Erik Erikson, one of the tasks of later life is generativity. If we are to contribute something positive to the future, it helps to ask, “What do I need to let go of?” We need to say “enough!” to anything that is not life-giving, both in terms of stuff and psychological junk. And we should ask, “What do I need to give myself to?” Generosity stokes generativity. Palmer repeatedly suggests that elders stay in touch with youth. Mentorship is a two-way street: elders can share their experience and wisdom, and they can be inspired by the energy, vision, and hope of the young. Palmer also proposes that we seek sanctuary—a safe place, person, or activity where we can nurture our soul, heal wounds, and return to the world as a wounded healer. For Palmer, sanctuary includes nature, which has taught him how to heal, and poetry, his own and that of others.
A spiritual journey toward a satisfying aging and a good death requires staying engaged with our soul (an inner journey) and staying engaged with the world (an outer journey). We should develop a supple heart that breaks open to new life, and we should work to create a better future rooted in well-integrated persons, a diverse and inclusive community, and a healthy earth. If you share this vision, Palmer’s meditation on aging will likely spark probing reflections on your own experience.
Milburn Thompson is professor emeritus of theology at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Kentucky, and author of the third edition of Justice and Peace: A Christian Primer (Orbis Books, 2019).