Thursday, September 27, 2012

Healing the Heart Two

Prelude . . .

            “Hearing each other’s stories, which are often stories of heartbreak, can create an unexpected bond between so-called pro-life and pro-choice.” (p. 5)

This is a key assumption of Palmer’s work – not only do we need to be “in touch” with our soul within, our authentic self, but also with others, especially, perhaps the “others” who are not like us.   The walls that we build so quickly and so well rest upon false ideas of who the “other” is.  Talking to one another (and that requires patient, careful listening to the other) is the means by which we hear the stories of those we think to be our enemies.   
Palmer will talk more about that:  listening to their stories without judgment,  and in an attitude of unconditional acceptance not of their ideas (which may be radically and dangerously opposite of ours), but of the person – a “child of God” we would say, giving them the ultimate praise.   When we listen, and then are listened to, there is an opening for understanding and for peace.

Chapter 1 . . .

            Palmer talks here about the “confusion” that is necessary in a democracy.  A dictatorship has the attraction of order in a society.  A citizen may not like that order (especially if the order rigs the odds against them), while another may like it a lot – if they are near the top of the heap held in place by the power of the dictator.  There is some comfort in having one’s options limited, or decided by others.  Indeed some people coming out of oppressive regimes my at times wish for the days when they didn’t have to think very much.  The Israelites, once they had escaped the slavery of Egypt, had times when they longed for the days of slavery when at least they had food to eat.
            So democracy is “less efficient” and full of tension, not unlike a prairie.  The trick is handling that tension.   Here Palmer distinguishes between good bad stress (“distress”) and good stress (“eustress”).  The former is negative and destructive, while the later is healthy – so long as we learn to use it for dialogue and for growth.
            On page 14 he lists “our key civic capacities.”  How many of those do we live out in our political process? 
            Palmer’s book is not about mere “techniques,” as helpful as they can be at times.  Instead of those, he says, “we need insights into ourselves and our world.” (p. 15).
            At the end of Chapter One he sketches out the structure of the book, beginning with . . .

Chapter 2 . . .

            A starting place is the truth that “Whatever is in the common good is, in the long run, good for me and mine.”  (p. 31)   One wonders, then, at the key question that many politicians use in their campaigns:  “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?”   Shouldn’t a better question be, “Are WE better off now than WE were  four years ago?”   A nation of individuals concerned primarily about their own lives, it seems to me, is a nation destined to decline.  It seems inarguably clear that unless we all prosper, none of us will in the end.  That is Judeo-Christian principle, and a perfectly reasonable one too.
            The story about the Sunday School class Palmer witnessed in 1974 is a moving one about people who value deeply and seek to live out the gift of political freedom – “Learning how to listen well, speak clearly, and follow procedures in the larger, more diverse, and conflicted world of American politics.”  (p. 38)
            The chapter ends with Palmer’s “Five Habits of the Heart” that he says we need to cultivate in our community and political life.   They are under two general categories:  Humility and Chutzpah.  See the first blog on this book for more on the habits.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Healing the Heart of Democracy -- One

Parker Palmer's book, Healing the Heart of Democracy, is a provocative and I would say even profound analysis of our nation's present toxic political landscape.  Provocative because of his observations about "the things we do" like our most cherished pastime, namely, amassing possessions.  He writes well, with sharp wit and also humility that admits his own complicity in the faults of American society.  Profound because he is asking deep questions about us . . . about our hearts and the habits of the heart we cultivate.  He does not offer quick, and surely not easy answers to the divisions that hobble us.  He does invite us to ask some difficult questions of ourselves.

Palmer is big into "paradox" -- holding in tension seemingly opposite views and values, rather than siding on one side or the other.  Out of that tension, he says, comes creativity and new life.  Breaking the tension (denying the other's perspective and needs) brings death, to the individual and to society.  But the holding of that tension -- over a long period of time, decades even -- requires diligence, patience, courage, and hope.  All of which most of us are in short supply these days.

So his call is to a new way of doing our politics, and really community in general.  He calls for us to cultivate new "habits of heart," ways of being and doing and relating to one another:

Three have to do with "humility:"

            1.  Believe that we're all in this together -- we need each other, all of us.
            2.  Develop an appreciation of the value of "otherness" -- in people different from us we learn not only about them, but about ourselves too.
            3.  Cultivate the ability to hold tension in life-giving ways -- learning how to stay with a difference of opinion, of culture, of value long enough for a new understanding, new life, to emerge.

Two habits of the heart have to do with "chutzpah," or personal confidence and action:
            4. Generate a sense of personal voice and agency -- to be able to speak, and to be an agent of change.
            5.  Strengthen our capacity to create community -- for it is in community that we can go forward  as a society, with everyone on board.

A key image throughout the book is that of a "broken heart."  The heart, he says, that center of our being where our truest self lives, is often broken.  But it can be "broken apart," leading to disintegration, separation, and ultimately death, or, it can be "broken open," to embrace others, to live compassionately and in hope.  Which way the heart goes, he counsels, depends on the habits of the heart we have been nurturing through our years as a person or as a society.  

While Palmer is always concerned with the heart of the individual, he doesn't leave it there.  The healthy soul, with a heart that is broken open, expresses itself in compassion toward the "other," toward the needs of the world.  This book includes very practical suggestions about how we can create again community -- public spaces -- where the private and the political realms can meet, where we can practice basic skills of listening to one another and to our inner Teacher, and together renew our culture and "create a politics worthy of the human spirit."