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Palmer served for fifteen years as Senior Associate of the now defunct American Association of Higher Education. He is the founder and Senior Partner of the Center for Courage & Renewal, which oversees the “Courage to Teach” program for K-12 educators across the country and parallel programs for people in other professions, including medicine, law, ministry and philanthropy.
He has published a dozen poems, more than one hundred essays and eight books. Palmer’s work has been recognized with ten honorary doctorates, two Distinguished Achievement Awards from the National Educational Press Association, an Award of Excellence from the Associated Church Press, and grants from the Danforth Foundation, the Lilly Endowment and the Fetzer Institute.
An overview and critical review of Palmer's written work on education can be found at infed.org, an open, independent, not-for-profit site established in 1995 to explore educational theory and practice
In March 1992 he gave a talk at a United Methodist Church on “Faith or Frenzy.” He opened with a comparison between a historical perspective on the contemplative life vs. an active life. In earlier centuries contemplation was the preferred life, one followed by academic or religious scholars. An active life was one of tedious toil where one did not have the time to reflect on a higher plane. Over time that changed. An active life became more prominent as technology progressed and the power associated with it. Man was playing God. A pendulum effect between the two has swung back again as limits to technology have not provided a solution and the lure of a contemplative life and its seclusion has taken hold.
Palmer suggests that a hybrid between the two is the mix where spirituality finds a balance, because “before you can have a spiritual life, you must first have a life,” - a life immersed in the active world. It is a world where one is alone and also part of a community. A spiritual life is not one which flees the world of action. He contends that when one becomes disillusioned by an experience or false value system, that person experiences reality. He believes disillusionment is the journey life takes us on, away from fiction and fantasy toward reality and truth. These experiences can be very painful. Five examples of illusion he covered during the talk are: the world as a battleground, scarcity, I am what I do, only cultivating rewarded talent, and finally that everything must be measurable.
Palmer launched into a discussion of faith as a misunderstood word. Faith is not a set of beliefs we are supposed to sign up for he says. It is instead the courage to face our illusions and allow ourselves to be disillusioned by them. It is the courage to walk through our illusions and dispel them. He states the opposite of faith is not doubt, it is fear - fear of abandoning illusions because of our comfort level with them. For example, not everything is measurable and yet so much of what we do has that yardstick applied to it. Another illusion is “I am what I do .... my worth comes from my functioning. If there is to be any love for us, we must succeed at something.” He says in this example that it is more important to be a “human being” rather than a “human doing.” We are not what we do. We are who we are. The rigors of trying to be faithful involves being faithful to one's gifts, faithful to other's reality, faithful to the larger need in which we are all embedded, faithful to the possibilities inherent in our common life.
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