Education leader, founder of the Center for Courage Renewal, and beloved and prolific author Parker J. Palmer returns with an inspiring guide to the joys of aging, On the Brink of Everything. He talks with PW about what the old can learn from the young, the power of education, and getting older in contemporary America.
Do you think people today are thinking differently about death than they used to?
American culture—smitten as it is with youth—seduces many of us into harboring the illusion that we’re bulletproof. I’m interested in two questions: How can we learn to face into our own mortality? How do we hold the reality of death in a life-giving, not depressive way?
What have you found most “life-giving” about old age?
Old age allows me to look at my life from a vantage point where I can see how everything belongs. Threads I once wished I could pull out of the fabric of my life now reveal themselves as part of that fabric’s resilience and as part of the beauty of the weave. I am one of the lucky ones to have come this far, and with that good fortune comes an imperative to use the gift of age well.
Would you advise younger readers to read this book about being old?
I know how much I can learn from the young—if I ask good questions and listen with care, which some elders fail to do in their rush to give unsolicited advice. I won’t tell younger folks, “Read this book!” I’ll simply say that getting old is something all of us are doing all the time.
Do you feel that people can find new kinds of mentors in old age? Do the young ever mentor the old?
If I want to be a good mentor to the young, I need to be mentored by the young. I need not only to help them explore the questions they are holding but also to ask them to help me understand the context of their lives. That becomes a path to better questions and deeper listening, as well as to updated knowledge. Mentoring, rightly done, is always a two-way street.
Do you feel that contemporary America is good at talking about old age and death?
I think there’s a sad paradox here. Americans are afraid to talk with each other about old age and death. However, America “sponsors” death, as in our acceptance of guns galore. If we could face death more squarely, maybe we would no longer need to manifest our fear in verbal and physical violence and the politics of rage.
Writing and thinking about education have been central to your work. Are there better ways to think about this book’s subject matter in an educational setting?
An education that focuses on external knowledge and skills to prepare people for employment is half an education at best. The better half is about the inner growth of the human self. If we want to be fully human, we must reclaim literature, music, and art and refuse to let them be marginalized by our obsession with testing and bottom-line results.
Can you say a bit about how people of different faiths and spiritual practices—and even political leanings—might go about embracing the ideas and attitudes you discuss in this book?
I try to respect the fact that there’s a massive mystery at the heart of life by viewing it from many perspectives. Readers looking for confirmation of a codified belief system will not find it here, but those who are pilgrims and explorers might find companionship.
Is there a particular audience you like to imagine reading On the Brink of Everything?
The world’s a big and complex place, so I can’t possibly know whom I’m writing to. All I can tell you is where I’m writing from. If I write from a place of depth in myself, I might reach that same place in others.
On the Brink of Everything: Grace, Gravity Getting Old
Berrett-Koehler (Penguin Random House, dist.)
Also listen to our podcast interview with the author.