Healing the Heart of Democracy: Parker Palmer on Holding the Tension of Our Differences in a Creative Way
“Full engagement in the movement called democracy requires no less of us than full engagement in the living of our own lives.”
By Maria Popova
“America, if eligible at all to downfall and ruin, is eligible within herself, not without,” Walt Whitman wrote in his timeless meditation on democracy. A century and a half later, as we find ourself amid the terrifying testing ground of Whitman’s wisdom, we would do well to remember that whatever redemptions democracy may have must also come from within, not without. Leonard Cohen captured this brilliantly in his unpublished verses about democracy, which produced one of his most beloved and beautiful lyric lines: “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”
How to harness the redemptive light that comes through the fissures of democracy is what educator, activist, and poet laureate of the human spirit Parker Palmer (b. February 28, 1939) explores in Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit (public library) — a book originally published years ago, the timelessness and timeliness of which is being proven daily.
In a sentiment that calls to mind Leonard Cohen’s wonderful insistence that “a revelation in the heart” is the only force that moves minds toward mutual understanding, Palmer considers the deeper rationale for his title:
“Heart” comes from the Latin cor and points not merely to our emotions but to the core of the self, that center place where all of our ways of knowing converge — intellectual, emotional, sensory, intuitive, imaginative, experiential, relational, and bodily, among others. The heart is where we integrate what we know in our minds with what we know in our bones, the place where our knowledge can become more fully human. Cor is also the Latin root from which we get the word courage. When all that we understand of self and world comes together in the center place called the heart, we are more likely to find the courage to act humanely on what we know.
The politics of our time is the “politics of the brokenhearted” — an expression that will not be found in the analytical vocabulary of political science or in the strategic rhetoric of political organizing. Instead, it is an expression for the language of human wholeness. There are some human experiences that only the heart can comprehend and only heart-talk can convey. Among them are certain aspects of politics, by which I mean the essential and eternal human effort to craft the common life on which we all depend. This is the politics that Lincoln practiced as he led from a heart broken open to the whole of what it means to be human — simultaneously meeting the harsh demands of political reality and nurturing the seeds of new life.
Framing his central inquiry into “holding the tension of our differences in a creative way,” Palmer — who has lived through some of the past century’s most tumultuous and polarizing periods, from WWII to the Civil Rights movement to the plight of marriage equality — writes:
We engage in creative tension-holding every day in every dimension of our lives, seeking and finding patches of common ground. We do it with our partners, our children, and our friends as we work to keep our relationships healthy and whole. We do it in the workplace … as we come together to solve practical problems. We’ve been doing it for ages in every academic field form the humanities to the sciences…
Human beings have a well-demonstrated capacity to hold the tension of differences in ways that lead to creative outcomes and advances. It is not an impossible dream to believe we can apply that capacity to politics. In fact, our capacity for creative tension-holding is what made the American experiment possible in the first place… America’s founders — despite the bigotry that limited their conception of who “We The People” were — had the genius to establish the first form of government in which differences, conflict, and tension were understood not as the enemies of a good social order but as the engines of a better social order.
A large part of that capacity for holding differences creatively, Palmer argues, comes down to all of us — “We The People,” in our dizzying diversity — learning to tell our own stories and listen to each other’s. (Lest we forget, Ursula K. Le Guin put it best in contemplating the magic of real human communication: “Words are events, they do things, change things. They transform both speaker and hearer; they feed energy back and forth and amplify it. They feed understanding or emotion back and forth and amplify it.”) Palmer himself awakened to the power of this simple, enormously difficult act of mutual transformation when he took part in the annual three-day Congressional Civil Rights Pilgrimage from Birmingham to Selma, led by Congressman John Lewis. Palmer encapsulates the story of one of humanity’s greatest moral leaders:
On Sunday, March 7, 1965, six hundred nonviolent protesters, many of them young, gathered at the foot of Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge to begin a fifty-mile march to the Alabama State Capital in Montgomery, a protest against the ongoing exclusion of African Americans from the electoral process. When they reached the other side of the bridge, the marchers were brutalized by state and local police, mounted and on foot, with billy clubs and tear gas. This atrocity, witnessed on television by millions of Americans, scandalized the nation. It also generated enough political momentum in Congress that President Lyndon Johnson was able to sign a Voting Rights Act into law five months after the march.
Leading that historic march was 25-year-old John Lewis, one of the first to be brutalized by police, his skull fractured and his body scarred to this day. Echoing Rebecca Solnit’s increasingly timely insistence that the most hope-giving movements of social change often begin in the shadows and the margins, Palmer writes:
The twenty-five-year-old John Lewis and his age-mates in the Civil Rights movement were the descendants of generations of people who had suffered the worst America has to offer, but had not given up on the vision of freedom, justice, and equality that represents this country at its best. Those people nurtured that vision in their children and grandchildren at home, in the neighborhood, in classrooms, and especially in churches, creating a steady multigenerational stream of “underground” activity that was largely invisible to white Americans until it rose up to claim our attention in the 1950s and 1960s.
Decades later, on the bus to the airport after the endpoint of that commemorative Civil Rights Pilgrimage, Palmer found himself seated behind 71-year-old Lewis — a “healer of the heart of democracy,” by then recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom — and overheard him telling a remarkable true story that stands as a powerful moral parable:
In 1961, [Lewis] and a friend were at a bus station in Rock Hill, South Carolina, when several young white men attacked and beat them bloody with baseball bats. Lewis and his friend “did not fight back, and they declined to press charges.” They simply treated their wounds and went on with their Civil Rights work.
In 2009, forty-eight years after this event, a white man about John Lewis’s age walked into his office on Capitol Hill, accompanied by his middle-aged son. “Mr. Lewis,” he said, “my name is Elwin Wilson. I’m one of the men who beat you in that bus station back in 1961. I want to atone for the terrible thing I did, so I’ve come to seek your forgiveness. Will you forgive me?” Lewis said, “I forgave him, we embraced, he and his son and I wept, and then we talked.”
As Lewis came to the end of this remarkable and moving story, he leaned back in his seat on the bus. He gazed out the window for a while as we passed through a countryside that was once a killing ground for the Ku Klux Klan, of which Elwin Wilson had been a member. Then, in a very soft voice — as if speaking to himself about the story he had just told and all of the memories that must have been moving in him — Lewis said, “People can change… People can change…”
Palmer reflects on the enormous legacy of Lewis’s moral leadership:
During the three days of the Civil Rights Pilgrimage, I was reminded time and again of the themes that are key to this book: the centrality of the “habits of the heart” that we develop in the local venues of our lives; the patience it takes to stay engaged in small, often invisible ways with the American experiment in democracy; the importance of faithfully holding the tension between what is and what might be, and creating the kind of tension that might arouse “the better angels of our nature.”
Palmer returns to the central premise that the act of listening to each other’s stories is our only vehicle to common ground, however small the patch. With an eye to his notion of “the politics of the brokenhearted” — a term particularly apt today — he writes:
Hearing each other’s stories, which are often stories of heartbreak, can create an unexpected bond [between those with opposing political views]. When two people discover that parallel experiences led them to contrary conclusions, they are more likely to hold their differences respectfully, knowing that they have experienced similar forms of grief. The more you know about another person’s story, the less possible it is to see that person as your enemy.
With an eye to what is often referred to as “politics of rage” — topics of especially charged polarity — he adds:
Rage is simply one of the masks that heartbreak wears. When we share the sources of our pain with each other instead of hurling our convictions like rocks at “enemies,” we heave a chance to open our hearts and connect across some of our greatest divides.
In a sentiment of particular poignancy and resonance today, Palmer writes:
We do violence in politics when we demonize the opposition or ignore urgent human needs in favor of politically expedient decisions.
The democratic experiment is endless, unless we blow up the lab, and the explosives to do the job are found within us. But so also is the heart’s alchemy that can turn suffering into community, conflict into the energy of creativity, and tension into an opening toward the common good. We can help keep the experiment alive by repairing and maintaining democracy’s neglected infrastructure… the invisible dynamics of the human heart and the visible venues of our lives in which those dynamics are formed.
It is well known and widely bemoaned that we have neglected our physical infrastructure — the roads, water supplies, and power grids on which our daily lives depend. Even more dangerous is our neglect of democracy’s infrastructure, and yet it is barely noticed and rarely discussed. The heart’s dynamics and the ways in which they are shaped lack the drama and the “visuals” to make the evening news, and restoring them is slow and daunting work. Now is the time to notice, and now is the time for the restoration to begin.
For those of us who want to see democracy survive and thrive … the heart is where everything begins: that grounded place in each of us where we can overcome fear, rediscover that we are members of one another, and embrace the conflicts that threaten democracy as openings to new life for us and for our nation.
Half a century after Eleanor Roosevelt made her eloquent case for the power of personal conviction and our individual responsibility in social change, Palmer adds:
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.
Healing the Heart of Democracy remains an indispensable read, immensely emboldening at this particular moment in time. Complement it with Palmer on the elusive art of inner wholeness, education as a form of spirituality, and his magnificent Naropa University commencement address about the six pillars of the wholehearted life, then revisit Mencken on reclaiming the spirit of democracy from the conformity that passes for it.