Parker Palmer on Healing the Heart of Democracy
I know this is a tremendously long post, but I found it of value and hope that you might, too. If you are too busy to read it now, consider bookmarking it to read later.
by Kate Moos, executive producer
Parker Palmer is the founder of the Center for Courage & Renewal and the author of nine books, including well-known titles such as The Courage to Teach and Let Your Life Speak. He is the recipient of many awards and honorary degrees, perhaps most recently the Utne Reader’s 2011 Visionaries, 25 People Who are Changing the World.
His new book, Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit, takes a deep and wise look at the loss of values that have impoverished American democracy and public life. Palmer proposes ways to rediscover what the great political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville called “habits of the heart” that are essential to a democracy.
“The human heart, this vital core of the human self, holds the power to destroy democracy or to make it whole. That is why our nineteenth-century visitor, Alexis de Tocqueville, insisted in his classic Democracy in America that democracy’s future would depend heavily on generations of American citizens cultivating the habits of the heart that support political wholeness.”
We corresponded by email over the course of several weeks for this interview.
Parker, you cite five habits of the heart you feel are necessary to moving forward as a democracy: understand that we are all in this together, develop an appreciation for the value of “otherness,” cultivate the ability to hold tension in life-giving ways, generate a sense of personal voice and agency, and strengthen our capacity to create community.
In and of themselves, none of these habits seem too complex or difficult for us to achieve, and I’m guessing most people would find it easy to embrace them, at least conceptually. What prevents us from becoming better at practicing these habits?
You’re right, Kate, of course. Saying the thing is always easier than doing the thing! So it’s important to understand why we have trouble embracing good ideas and allowing them to animate the way we live.
We resist the first habit of understanding that we are all in this together because it’s easier to pretend that we live in individual silos than to allow ourselves to get the fact. To take but one example, that the large and tragic achievement gap in public education between white kids and kids of color is something we all pay a price for sooner or later. If my son is doing well in school, great; I’m happy. But if his black and Latino classmates are doing poorly, I need to be unhappy about that, very unhappy, and advocate for the changes in public education that would help close the gap.
Among other things, that gap helps explain the fact that we now have more African Americans somewhere in the judicial and penal system than we had in slavery ten years before the Civil War. And that’s not only costly to this society in terms of the threat of crime, the cost of incarceration, etc., it’s flat-out evil in the way it crushes the spirits of young people who have just as much promise as my son does.
So, when you step outside your silo and understand your interconnectedness, life becomes more complicated and ethically demanding. But the bottom line is, what do you stand for: narrow self-interest or the common good? And do you understand that narrow self-interest can be self-defeating while caring about the common good can be a way of caring about yourself and those you love?
I’m 72 years old, so I reflect more often on the fact that I’m going to die than I did when I was 30, or 40, or 50. On that day, I’m pretty sure I’m not going to be saying to myself, “Boy, am I glad that I spent all my years on Earth feathering my own nest and not giving a hoot about anyone other than my family and friends!” I’m pretty sure I’d rather be saying, “I’m glad I did what I could during my brief sojourn on this planet to help bring a caring community into being, to love my neighbor as myself.”
As you know, Kate, I say quite a lot in the book about each of those five habits, but let me say a few words about one more: “Cultivate the ability to hold tension in life-giving ways.” This one is right at the heart of our democracy, both institutionally and personally. America’s founders, for all their blind spots, gave us a set of governing institutions whose genius lies in their ability to hold tension creatively over time. Democracy is all about taking the tension of our differences and using it as an engine to keep moving us forward on important social issues. So why is it hard to live this one? Because it requires us to resist the ancient and well-known “fight or flight response” that kicks in when we find ourselves in a tension-ridden situation. Our instinct is either to run away or to punch out the source of the tension!
We all know at some level that if we can hold tension creatively — in the family, in the workplace, in the larger community — we often emerge with a better solution to the problem than if we ran away or used force to control the situation. My favorite close-to-the-bone example involves raising a teenager. Good parents can see their teenage child’s potential and “true self” while they also see that child making some bad choices and perhaps even going off the rails. But good parenting means holding our children in a way that both acknowledges their long-term possibilities and their current realities, knowing that the worst thing we could do is to try to force the outcome. Many of us know how to do that kind of “holding” in our private lives, so we have the capacity to do some of the same in our public lives.
The key, of course, is love. Love leads us to hold the tensions we experience as parents in a creative way. Of course, the kind of love we have for those close to us cannot be replicated in the public realm. But can a different form of love — love of the promise of the human spirit, love of the common good — lead us to hold political tensions creatively? I’m not sure, but I sure hope so, because a politics rooted in greed or hunger for power rather than love of the commonweal is a politics headed toward self-destruction.
I’d like to devote much of my remaining time and energy toward helping to make our public life more compassionate and more generative — and I know many, many people who share that vision and that desire.
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