On the Brink of Everything, Parker J. Palmer. Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2018.
Summary: A series of reflections on aging, living with grace and vitality as we age, and facing our deaths.
Perhaps one of the greatest unknowns that shape our lives either by denial, or conscious reflection is our own deaths. Like so much else, we have no clue what to expect until we get there. For some of us, our religious beliefs offer the hope of life beyond taking our last breath, or perhaps a return in another incarnation, or a oneness with the universe. We believe, perhaps with good reasons, but none of us knows. We wonder if death is going over the brink of nothingness. For Parker J. Palmer, at the end of his eighth decade, death is the “brink of everything.” This work consists of collected reflections around the question both of “how shall we die?” and how consequently we live, particularly in the autumn years of our lives, a season he believes has its own beauty.
Palmer had me from the “Prelude” where he writes: “Age brings diminishments, but more than a few come with benefits. I’ve lost the capacity for multitasking, but I’ve discovered the joy of doing one thing at a time.” In seven chapters, Palmer organizes his reflections and poetry around several topics. In “The View from the Brink: What I Can See From Here” he proposes that instead of asking “What do I want to let go of, and what do I want to hang on to?” that we ask “What do I want to let go of, and what do I want to give myself to?” Like Erikson, he sees that living generatively and giving ourselves to rising generations is essential to our vitality. That leads into a chapter on “Young and Old” A highlight in this chapter was a letter to a collaborator in the “On Being” program, Courtney Martin, and his observations about gender relationships. The chapter also includes one of the pithier and substantive commencement addresses I’ve heard or read.
“Getting Real” recounts the influence of Thomas Merton on his life and the journey from illusion to reality in his own life, from false self to true self. He describes an epiphany when a therapist observed about his perception of his struggle with depression (qualifying this as applying only to his own experience):
“You seem to image what’s happening to you as the hand of an enemy trying to crush you. Would it be possible to image it instead as a hand of a friend pressing you down to ground on which it is safe to stand?”
The chapter concludes with journal reflections from a winter retreat week, which includes more Merton.
His chapter on “Work and Vocation” centers on his life as a writer. He confesses, “I became a writer because I was born baffled.” It was helpful to find someone else who thinks this. I often find myself writing to find words to express an “inchoate something” that is rumbling around inside. “Keep Reaching Out” speaks to the necessity of remaining engaged with our world, which he models in how he wrestles what that means in a country led by a president whose character and values are at utter odds with his. As a Quaker, he wrestles through the question of how to be angry and yet live one’s commitments to non-violence. A short essay in this section on “The Soul of a Patriot” included a succinct statement from William Sloan Coffin that expressed with precision something I’ve been groping for:
“There are three kinds of patriots, two bad and one good. The bad ones are the uncritical lovers, and the loveless critics. Good patriots carry on a lover’s quarrel with their country, a reflection of God’s lover’s quarrel with the world.”
We also need to “Keep Reaching In,” His insights on the connection between pain and violence were thought-provoking to me, reminding me of Henri Nouwen and how wounds can become toxic or sacred to us, depending on the inner work we do:
“What can we do with our pain? How might we hold it and work with it? How do we turn the power of suffering toward new life? The way we answer those questions is critical because violence is what happens when we don’t know what else to do with our suffering.”
This relates to his final chapter “Over the Edge,” in which he calls out the great challenge of wholeness, which is to live with and embrace all the contradictions of our lives–our noble and petty qualities–saying “I am all of the above.” He reminds us that we are never other than beautiful and broken persons and to face the truth about ourselves allows us both to live and die well. As for what is “beyond,” the most he will cautiously advance is that he believes that somehow body and spirit are intertwined and indivisible, whether in simply making new life possible or something more.
In this last, it is clear that this is not a book that presents an orthodox Christian view of death and future hope (although the resurrection is a marvelous expression, I think, of his intuitions of the indivisibility of body and spirit). Rather his reflections, the questions he explores in his writing, as well as the bonus downloadable music by retreat collaborator and musician Carrie Newcomer, explore how we might grow old with grace and generativity, rather than crankiness and frustration and sadness. His insights about anger and pain, and the temptations to violence seem very relevant whether we are old or young in this angry and violent culture.
I live in a place of seasons and I love the approach of each one and think each has its own beauty. Palmer helps me to see this in life, that the approach of autumn, and the winter to follow have their own beauty. Contrary to Dylan Thomas, Palmer suggests that we can go gently into the good night. He proposes that this is a season that has its own richness, that he invites us to join with him in exploring as we all approach the brink of everything.