A few days ago, I travelled to DC and Baltimore to visit friends. While sharing thoughts about life changes, I mentioned Parker Palmer’s The Active Life. Some books are worth revisiting, and for me Palmer’s book is one of them.
I first read The Active Life in the mid-90s when I was in my early forties and newly divorced. Upon turning 50, a little over a decade ago, I read the book again. After 25 years teaching at the same school, I had taken a new job. I sold my house and moved half way across the country. Since my two children had graduated from college and high school respectively and both had left home that year, I would live by myself for the first time in my life.
An age milestone, new job, new location, new living situation – except for the march of time, these changes were mostly my choice. Even so, I needed help making sense of it all, you know, the LIFE thing, and as long as we’re being honest here, the DEATH thing, too. Change like this means the end of an earlier stage of life and brings us closer to our mortality.
I knew my new job and living situation would bring creativity and risk. If I didn’t embrace both, I wouldn’t experience a truly active life. Before the change, life was busy, exhausting, work-filled and without much time to think. This new, more balanced life allowed me to integrate action with more contemplation.
In The Active Life, Parker Palmer writes that the tug-of-war between action and contemplation in Western culture is long-standing. He notes the ancient Greeks’ reverence for contemplative philosophy and the story of Mary and Martha, then the shift towards action with the Age of Exploration and Enlightenment, the rise of science, the Industrial Revolution, urbanization and technology.
Why this historic tension? “Contemplation and action ought not to be at war with one another,” Palmer writes, “and as long as they are, we will be at war within ourselves.”
Now in retirement, I watch the sunset at Vanaprastha. Action has shifted towards contemplation. I have time to pursue my curiosities and to write. It is a mission that not only nurtures me but also nurtures others when I publish – at least that is my goal.
In the coming weeks, I plan to write more about Parker Palmer’s The Active Life, a book rich in metaphors about what Palmer calls a spirituality of work, creativity and caring. I hope to integrate contemplation with action in these posts, fulfill my mission and share the active life.