Thursday, September 10, 2009


What if our thinking, seeking, and problem-solving started with compassion?

“KNOWLEDGE IS POWER.”  I’ve been thinking lately about all the facts and theories and perspectives my university-immersed children are taking in and processing these days.  Jared is a senior, Molly is a Freshman and Abby is a grad student.  I am so proud of them and looking forward to the contributions they—along with Sam, who is a junior in high school—will make to life.  “Knowledge is power,” someone said.  Ah, yes, but what kind of power?  What kind of knowledge and how is that knowledge used?  If knowledge is sought and received coldly and mostly for gaining control/acquisition of things and/or people, that seems sad, even sick, to me.  But is it possible to learn and know and exercise the power of knowledge out of love and in a loving way?  This is what I desire and pray for my children.  And so I point them and all to Parker Palmer.

AT-A-DISTANCE MENTOR. Parker Palmer is one of my mentors-at-a-distance.  Over the years of my adult life, no one's thinking and writing has so challenged and inspired me to move beyond my typical ways of thinking, relating to others, and relating to God.  The Company of Strangers became a watershed for my work at the intersection of public life and faith.  The Active Life offered an "engaged monasticism" for those of us not called to withdraw from the world's problems and possibilities.  Let Your Life Speak helped me find guidance and courage to navigate gracefully amid vocational questions and transitions.  But Palmer's contributions to the arena education are perhaps his greatest.  Of his books on the educational process, I most recommend To Know as We are Known and The Courage to Teach.

THE PROBLEM WITH EDUCATION FOR CONTROL.  In his 1983 book To Know As We Are Known (reissued in paperback in 1993 by Harper San Francisco), Palmer challenges the core of mainstream educational process and institutional goals.  He points out that education applied exclusively for curiosity or control are leading us down a self-destructive path. “If curiosity and control (which is power tending toward corruption) are the primary motives for our knowing, we will generate a knowledge that eventually carries us not toward life but death.” He cites nuclear physicists’ laments in the documentary "The Day After Trinity" and others.

KNOWLEDGE ARISING FROM COMPASSION. Palmer believes that a knowledge that originates in compassion, or love, needs to be explored and integrated into our teaching and learning processes at every level. This knowledge base is not a soft, sentimental virtue, not a fuzzy feeling of romance, but “tough love, the connective tissue of reality.” Unlike curiosity and control that distance us from each other and the world, “a knowledge that springs from love will implicate us in the web of life, it will wrap the knower and the known in compassion, in a bond of awesome responsibility as well as transforming joy, it will call us to involvement, mutuality, accountability.”

RECONCILING THE WORLD TO ITSELF. Palmer writes: “The goal of a knowledge arising from love is the reunification and reconstruction of broken selves and worlds. A knowledge born of compassion aims not at exploiting and manipulating creation but at reconciling the world to itself. The mind motivated by compassion reaches out to know as the heart reaches out to love. Here, the act of knowing IS an act of love… In such knowing we know and are known as members of one community, and our knowing becomes a way of reweaving that community’s bonds.”

PRAYER AS A GATEWAY TO SUCH KNOWLEDGE. In developing this capacity, or beginning to go to the core of this way of knowing, of seeing, of interacting, Palmer challenges us to pray. That’s right, prayer is an essential component in transforming our knowledge base from fragmenting and divisive applications of knowledge. Palmer writes “The mind immersed in prayer no longer thinks in order to divide and conquer, to manipulate and control. Now, thinking becomes an act of love, a way of acknowledging our common bonds and assuming our rightful role in the created community.”

BEYOND FACTS INTO TRUTH. He continues: “As long as we stay locked in a closed logic, allowing self and world to circle each other in an endless quest for power, we have little choice but to dominate or be dominated. But when we know self and world from the vital center touched in prayer, and when our prayer allows us to be known, then we are free from the cycle of dominance, free to love the world, each other, and ourselves. And education in transcendence prepares us to see beyond appearances into the hidden realities of life, beyond facts into truth, beyond self interest into compassion, beyond our flagging energies and nagging despairs into the love required to renew the community of creation.” 

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