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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.”

Healing the Heart of Democracy: Parker Palmer on Holding the Tension of Our Differences in a Creative Way

“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 Leonard Cohen captured this brilliantly in his unpublished verses about democracy, which produced one of his most beloved and beautiful lyric lines: “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”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.

Art by Oliver Jeffers from The Heart and the Bottle

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.

Parker Palmer

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.

John Lewis leads peaceful marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, Selma, Alabama, 1965
John Lewis leads peaceful marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, Selma, Alabama, 1965

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.

John Lewis (front, right) being beaten by police, Selma, Alabama, 1965.
John Lewis (front, right) being beaten by police, Selma, Alabama, 1965.

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.


In the Company of Women: Wisdom and Advice on the Creative Life from Beloved Women Artists, Makers, and Entrepreneurs

Neko Case, Nikki Giovani, Tavi Gevinson, Maira Kalman, Debbie Millman, Carrie Brownstein, and more.

In the Company of Women: Wisdom and Advice on the Creative Life from Beloved Women Artists, Makers, and Entrepreneurs

“Women had always made a significant contribution to the development of human civilization, but these were consistently ignored, denied, or trivialized,” artist Judy Chicago wrote at the height of the women’s liberation movement in her iconic 1979 celebration of women’s place in creative culture. Exactly half a century earlier, Virginia Woolf had famously insisted that a woman must have money and a room of her own in order to create. Today, as we awaken to a world in which equality is in real and imminent danger of being tossed into a time machine, we have to wonder what it takes to counter the forces determined to ignore, deny, or trivialize women’s work. A powerful counter-force of visibility is to be found in shining a light on the rooms — the studios, boardrooms, showrooms, classrooms, and mansions of the mind — in which today’s creative women make their work, make their money, and make themselves.

That’s what Design*Sponge founder Grace Bonney offers with In the Company of Women (public library) — an invigorating and empowering collection of life-earned wisdom and practical advice from more than one hundred diverse women artists and entrepreneurs: painters, poets, designers, ceramicists, illustrators, actors, chefs, typographers, tattoo artists, and other creative mavericks from a kaleidoscope of ethnicities, orientations, and backgrounds spanning four generations.

Grace Bonney (Photograph: Christopher Sturman)
Grace Bonney (Photograph: Christopher Sturman)

Echoing pioneering astronomer Vera Rubin’s poignant words about the importance of cultural modeling, Bonney writes in the introduction:

Activist Marian Wright Edelman said, “You can’t be what you can’t see.” Visibility is one of the most powerful tools we have in inspiring people to pursue their dreams and educating them about all the amazing options that exist.

Swiss graphic designer, entrepreneur, and Swiss-Miss creator Tina Roth Eisenberg attests to this sentiment with her own formative experience:

When I was about seven, on vacation in the South of France, I watched my uncle draw type. I asked him, “What are you doing?” And he said, “I am working!” I was confused, as in my understanding he was just doodling, drawing, having fun. So I followed up, saying, “Working as in making money?” And he just said, “Yep!” I was a kid who was never not drawing. It was as if a lightbulb went off in my head. “I can make money off drawing type? Drawing can be my profession?” This makes me understand how important it is to expose my kids to as many different “worlds” as possible.

Nearly a century after Virginia Woolf captured the perennial specter of self-doubt in creative work, author and television host Janet Mock offers:

A consistent fear is: Am I doing enough? Does my work really matter? These thoughts plague many people, and I see it as common. What I always have to remind myself is that it is okay to recognize [such] doubt but that it cannot stay for long. It’s a visitor that ensures I am always cognizant of where I am with myself and my work.

Like John Steinbeck, artist, architect, sculptor, and designer Maya Lin folds that inevitable self-doubt into the creative process itself and uses it as fuel for work:

My process in creativity has always been about doubt and worrying about the project, then exploration, then finding and making the work — I tend to take myself and the work apart a lot in the process before finally figuring it out.

Nikki Giovanni (Photograph: Christopher Bonney)
Nikki Giovanni (Photograph: Christopher Bonney)

Poet Nikki Giovanni echoes Sister Corita Kent’s famous assertion that “there’s no win and no fail, there’s only make,” and offers a grounding, elevating perspective on the fear of failure that lurks beneath self-doubt:

Mistakes are a fact of life; they are building blocks, stepping-stones, the way we learn new things. Columbus wasn’t looking for a New World, he was searching for a route to spices. All mistakes teach us something, so there are, in reality, no mistakes. Just things we learn.

Artist, educator, and radio host Debbie Millman shares her professional motto:

Busy is a decision. We do the things we want to do, period. If we say we are too busy, it is just shorthand for the thing being “not important enough” or “not a priority.” Busy is not a badge. You don’t find the time to make things, you make the time to do things. If I want to do something, I don’t let busy stand int he way. I make the time to do it.

She reflects on the words of wisdom that most inspire and motivate her:

I was interviewing the great writer Dani Shapiro, and we were talking about the role of confidence in success. She stated that she felt that confidence wasn’t as important as courage, and that the action to do something was much more critical to success than the idea that you feel confident about doing it. The notion that courage is more important than confidence has stayed with me ever since.

She builds on this sentiment when asked about her definition of success:

I think success is a practice, sort of like love or happiness.

Reflecting on what she most admires in other creative women, musician Thao Nguyen echoes Georgia O’Keeffe’s immortal words on success in creative work and offers:

I admire their fire and their empathy, their devotion to what they make and the consistent return to work, no matter the perceived success or failure. I admire these things because I believe them to be what is most important about creativity, and at my best, they are what I strive most to meet and inhabit.

In answering a question about learning from a mistake that led to success, Nguyen embodies one of the most rewarding aspects of the book — the women’s courageous willingness to inhabit the vulnerability of discussing the darkest and most difficult aspects of their professional, and often personal, lives:

My greatest professional mistake has been complacency. At the time in question I was dissatisfied and depressed with my work and my professional progress in general. I just sank into a sort of lulling lament. I had to learn that complacency got me there, and the only thing to do was shut up and get it together. Also, a huge thing I had to learn was not to compare my career to the careers of others. Compare and despair. It’s helpful to take note of other people’s success and funnel it into motivation, using their successes as examples and benchmarks.


My self-worth is separate from my creative work and any response it may or may not elicit.

Artist and illustrator Ping Zhu echoes Thoreau’s definition of success and approaches the question from a similar angle:

Success is contextual and fleeting, so when things are harmonious, even for a moment, I try to savor it.

Neko Case (Photograph: Rick Levinson)
Neko Case (Photograph: Rick Levinson)

Musician Neko Case looks back on her semi-accidental trajectory away from the mainstream music industry:

The thing I’m most grateful to have missed out on was being signed by a major label… Having people near who won’t be yes-men can be your biggest asset.

Louise Fili (Photograph: Sasha Israel)
Louise Fili (Photograph: Sasha Israel)

Pioneering graphic designer Louise Fili, who has paved the way for women in design, reflects on a defining choice she made when she was first starting out — a choice that stands as a testament to the power of personal integrity in effecting cultural change:

When I started my business, it was the pre-Google era, which meant that when you named your company, you couldn’t get too creative. After all, people had to find you. I knew I had to name it after myself, which could have been a liability. I suppose that I could have come up with something like “Fili Associates” to look bigger and more important. In the end I chose Louise Fili Ltd because I really wanted to send a message, which was this: If you have a problem with my being female, then I don’t want you as a client.

Maira Kalman (Photograph: Sasha Israel)
Maira Kalman (Photograph: Sasha Israel)

Artist Maira Kalman shares the best piece of advice she was given when starting out — advice she has been putting into practice for forty glorious years of creative work:

I was told to do what I loved and not to veer from that.

Musician Carrie Brownstein makes a case for building pockets of stillness into one’s daily routine and shares hers:

I have always been a morning person, but now I find myself getting up between five and six a.m. every day. I feel like I am stealing daylight hours being awake so early, and even the largest metropolises are quiet at this hour. The stillness helps me to think. The first thing I do is make coffee and read the paper; feeling engaged and part of the world allows me to orient myself, it posits me in the here and now, it wakes me up. Then I head out on a hike or walk. I don’t bring my phone, but I bring a small notepad. I jot down ideas. Or I don’t. It’s like meditation: there are no wrong thoughts, just being. Then I come home and write.

Tavi Gevinson (Photograph: Sasha Israel)
Tavi Gevinson (Photograph: Sasha Israel)

When asked about the best piece of business advice she was given while starting out, writer, editor, and media entrepreneur Tavi Gevinson offers a sort of modernist Zen koan with a dual meaning:

Own everything.

To a question about the character trait of which she is proudest, she answers:

I have a physical aversion to wasting time. It helps to recognize self-doubt as such.

Samin Nosrat (Photograph: Sasha Israel)
Samin Nosrat (Photograph: Sasha Israel)

Chef and author Samin Nosrat reflects on the formative dreams and experiences that coalesced into becoming who she is:

As a little girl, I adored and admired by aunt Ziba, who lived with us while she was in college. She had a part-time job shelving books in the university library. So I wanted to be a librarian, just like her, when I grew up.

In high school, my English teacher and cross-country coach changed my life. Tom Dorman was the first feminist I ever met. He taught me to change a tire, to love the natural world, and to question authority. He also gave me a subscription to The New Yorker and told me that I could write. Ever since then, I’ve wanted to be a writer. Even as I began my cooking career, I never abandoned the idea that one day I’d write books.

When asked what she thinks the world needs more of and what less of, Nosrat replies with an homage to artist Susan O’Malley, who died suddenly just before giving birth to her twin girls:

In the words of the tragically late, luminous artist Susan O’Malley, “Less Internet, More Love.”

Art by Susan O’Malley from Advice from My 80-Year-Old Self

Reflecting on her coping mechanism for setbacks and moments of self-doubt, author and activist Dominique Browning shares her seven-step toolkit for resilience — one as applicable to our personal struggles in life and work as it is to our shared cultural predicaments:

  1. Let yourself boil over with fury, and vent, rage, curse, rain down wrath, and tear out your hair. (But try not to do it publicly. And certainly not online.)
  2. Let yourself mourn. Setbacks are sad. Maybe even depressing — but don’t confuse the two. Let yourself feel the sadness of loss.
  3. Get moving. You don’t want that sadness to tip into a paralyzing depression. So get out and take a walk, several times a day. Feel the air move against your cheeks. Feel forward momentum.
  4. Learn to ask for help. Most successful people get there by being strong and independent. We help others. It is harder to learn to ask when we need help — and to realize that admitting it is not a sign of weakness. It is a sign of respect for what others can contribute to your life.
  5. Turn your thinking upside down: That wasn’t a setback. It was an opportunity to re-create.
  6. Know fear, and honor it. When you feel fear, that’s when you are growing.
  7. Stop negative thinking: Just stop. Force it. Including the arrogance of thinking everything was your fault. You aren’t really in control of much. Bad luck happens. Now what are you going to do about it? That’s the really interesting — and even thrilling — part.

Complement In the Company of Women, which features more wisdom from such celebrated creators as Eileen Fisher, Julia Turshen, Thelma Golden, Roxane Gay, Mary Lambert, Carson Ellis, and Julia Rothman, with this illustrated celebration of trailblazing women in science and some of today’s greatest artists on courage, creativity, and success.

For the making-of story behind the project, itself a feat of entrepreneurial ingenuity and creative determination, listen to Bonney’s terrific Design Matters conversation with Debbie Millman:


Nobel Laureate André Gide on the Freedom of Expression and the Vital Role of Art as Both Insurgency and Acceptance

“The sole art that suits me is that which, rising from unrest, tends toward serenity.”

Nobel Laureate André Gide on the Freedom of Expression and the Vital Role of Art as Both Insurgency and Acceptance

“Art,” Jeanette Winterson observed in a terrific conversation about art and the human spirit, “pulls people up short. It says, don’t accept things for their face value; you don’t have to go along with any of this; you can think for yourself.” This function of art as a force of wakefulness — of wokefulness — is particularly vital and vitalizing at times of injustice and oppression, under regimes built on ideologies of mass coercion. But it comes at a price.

The complexities of that price and why it is worth paying are what the great French writer André Gide (November 22, 1869–February 19, 1951) explores throughout The Journals of André Gide (public library) — an abiding trove of wisdom from one of literature’s most luminous minds and the most cherished of young Susan Sontag’s favorite books.


In the summer of 1940, seven years after he received the Nobel Prize and just as the Nazi occupation was taking hold of France, Gide writes:

If tomorrow, as it is to be feared, freedom of thought, or at least of the expression of that thought, is refused us, I shall try to convince myself that art, that thought itself, will lose less thereby than in excessive freedom.

We are entering a period in which liberalism is going to become the most suspect and least practicable of virtues.

That fall, he supplements this sentiment with its counterintuitive conclusion:

The sole art that suits me is that which, rising from unrest, tends toward serenity.

In another entry from that year, which bears particular poignancy today, Gide writes:

To come to terms with one’s enemy of yesterday is not cowardice; it is wisdom, and accepting the inevitable. “Untersuchen was ist, und nicht was behagt” [“To investigate what is and not what pleases”], Goethe says excellently. Whoever balks at fate is caught in the trap. What is the use of bruising oneself against the bars of one’s cage? In order to suffer less from the narrowness of the jail, there is nothing like remaining squarely in the middle.

I feel limitless possibilities of acceptance in me… The much greater risk for the mind is letting itself be dominated by hatred.

Complement The Journals of André Gide with Gide on the paradox of originality, the vital balance of freedom and restraint, death as a mobilizing force for creative work, and what it really means to be yourself.


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