Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit
by Parker Palmer (Jossey-Bass, 2011)
What are the big take-aways?
In Healing the Heart of Democracy, educator and sociologist Parker Palmer (no relation) deeply investigates the powers of heartbreak and courage in American democracy, with a focus on the cultural systems and attitudes that can help us work through national crises. Distinguishing between a heart that is able to break open rather than break apart, Palmer argues that it is broken-open hearts that most effectively serve democracy in periods of strife (pp. 60-61):
We are now at such a place in our nation: we must restore the wholeness of our civic community or watch democracy wither. Hearts opened by the many sources of heartbreak in American life have the potential to heal our political process. Such hearts are the source of what Lincoln called “our bonds of affection.” That sense of unity among strangers that allows us to do what democracy demands of its citizens: engage collectively and creatively with issues of great moment, even – and especially – in times of intense conflict. If we cannot or will not open our hearts to each other, powers that diminish democracy will rush into the void created by the collapse of “We the People.” But in the heart’s alchemy, that community can be restored.
Several months ago, I chose this book for the third and final reading in my three-month fall Leadership Book Group, which is exploring "The Leadership Skill of Raising Consciousness in Ourselves and Others: Moving Forward with Hope and Resilience.” I could not have known then how tender, urgent and timely its call-to-action for unity and healing would be by the time November arrived.
Why do I like it?
I like Palmer’s humility and his profound belief that Americans need healthy, counter-balancing political philosophies in order to have a robust democracy. I also like this book’s pragmatic strategies for exercising communities of dialogue that are already inherent and accessible in American culture (neighborhoods, classrooms, faith-based communities and other “congregations”) to strengthen our democracy’s heart muscles. The techniques are simultaneously time-tested and refreshing.
I also like the practical ideas Palmer advances for embracing the “endless challenge” of transcending the private self to enter – again and again and again – into the difficulties of public life encountered by all citizens. He’s a realist. He understands that political circumstances can be sad and overwhelming, and that it can be tempting to withdraw entirely (in fact, Palmer himself has struggled with clinical depressions that have, at times, removed him from participation in public life). His approach is highly developmental, spiritually-informed but never dogmatic, and emphasizes how critical it has become for Americans to give ourselves more practice with functioning creatively inside the paradoxes of our political system. This means stretching our collective capacities for working productively within atmospheres of intense discomfort and disagreement, as well as stretching our individual abilities to listen carefully to our inner voices of wisdom. The book underscores how these tasks can be both aided and hindered by the dynamics of modern communication, such as social media and the 24/7 barrage of news and “infotainment.”
In what situations would this be useful?
The situation we are in right now as a country makes this book useful to all U.S. residents – of all party affiliations – who could use a blueprint for activating their courage to help heal our political process after such a destructive and heart-rending election cycle. This book will be useful to you if you are seeking pathways forward beyond the despair you may feel at this national moment, and are willing to consider doing what it takes to let your heart break open rather than apart.
As Parker Palmer writes (p. 193),
Full engagement in the movement called democracy requires no less of us than full engagement in the living of our own lives. We carry the past with us, so we must understand its legacy of deep darkness as well as strong light. We can see the future only in imagination, so we must continue to dream of freedom, peace, and justice for everyone. Meanwhile, we live in the present moment, with its tedium and terror, its fears and hopes, its incomprehensible losses and its transcendent joys. It is a moment in which it often feels as if nothing we do will make a difference, and yet so much depends on us.
That is leadership, in a nutshell.
What other resources might “pair” well with it?
I enjoy Parker Palmer’s regular contributions as an “On Being” columnist, and if you’re intrigued by his words above you might want to browse his articles here. Other interesting pairings could be the political spectrum-spanning “Reading Guide for Those in Despair about American Politics” from The Atlantic, here and “10 Learnings from 10 Years of Brain Pickings: Fluid Reflections on Keeping a Solid Center” by Maria Popova, found here.
Another suggestion, from my own playbook, is to immerse yourself in poetry or other works of art that you find both poignant and transporting. As the 13th-century Sufi mystic Rumi observed, “The wound is where the light enters you.”