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A Secularist’s Perspective on Spirituality

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The Active Life: Unfrozen with Hard Commitment

Parker Palmer frames this matter of Hard Spiritual Commitment as a matter of engaging in an “Active Life.” He contrasts this frame with that of a contemplative notion of spirituality (Palmer, 1990, p. 2):

“In the spiritual literature of our time, it is not difficult to find the world of action portrayed as an arena of ego and power, while the world of contemplation is pictured as a realm of light and grace. I have often read, for example, that the treasure of “true self” can be found as we draw back from active life and enter into contemplative prayer. Less often have I read that this treasure can be found in our struggles to work, create, and care in the world of action. Contemporary images of what it means to be spiritual tend to value the inward search over the outward act, silence over sound, solitude over interaction, centeredness and quietude and balance over engagement and animation and struggle. If one is called to monastic life, those images can be empowering. But if one is called to the world of action, the same images can disenfranchise the soul, for they tend to devalue the energies of active life rather than encourage us to move with those energies toward wholeness.”

It is a personal matter for Palmer. He writers (Palmer, 1990, p. 4) about those moments “when I feel most alive and most able to share life with others.” Palmer goes on to say:

“I thrive on the vitality and variety of the world of action. I value spontaneity more than predictability, exuberance more than order, inner freedom more than the authority of tradition, the challenge of dialogue more than the guidance of a rule, eccentricity more than staying on dead center.”

While Palmer would certainly recognize that a monastic life is clearly evidence of Hard Commitment, he suggests that an active life oriented toward the promotion of specific values is just as “spiritual” as a life of contemplation. Furthermore, it is in the act of seeking to change something that we find significant illumination (perhaps as much as that found in several hours of mindfulness):

“There is an intimate link between risk=taking and our commitment to learning and growing. A risk is an effort that may not succeed, and the bigger the risk, the less the chance of success. So why would anyone take such risks? There are many reasons, but one of the most creative is that by risking we may learn more about ourselves and our world, and the bigger the risk, the greater the learning. If we do not value learning, we will not risk, and our actions will be limited to small and predictable arenas in which we know we can succeed.” (Palmer, 1990, p. 23)

Palmer (1990, p. 23) extends this analysis by offering an important distinction:

“Our capacity to take risks and learn from them depends heavily on whether we understand action as instrumental or expressive. The instrumental image, which dominates Western culture, portrays action as a means to predetermined ends, as an instrument or tool of our intentions. The only possible measure of such action is whether it achieves the ends at which it is aimed. Instrumental action is governed by the logic of success and failure; it discourages us from risk-taking because it values success over learning, and it abhors failure whether we learn from it or not.

Instrumental action always wants to win, but win or lose, it inhibits our learning. If we win we think we know it all and have nothing more to learn. If we lose we feel so defeated that learning is a hollow consolation. Instrumental action trans us in a system of raise or blame, credit or shame a system that gives primacy to goals and external evaluation, devalues the gift of self-knowledge, and diminishes our capacity to take the risk that may yield growth.”

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