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."

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