On April 19th Parker Palmer spoke on “Healing the Heart of Democracy” at Minneapolis’ Westminster Town Hall Forum. This Forum was co-sponsored by United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities. A video of the Forum is available on the web.
The talk was drawn from his 2001 book, Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit. “Heart” for this purpose means the core of the human self and includes all human faculties, not just emotions. Palmer then identified five “habits of the heart” (a phrase coined by Alexis de Tocqueville in the early 19th century) that help make democracy possible.
The first such habit was an understanding that we are all in this together. All of us need to embrace the fact that we are dependent upon, and accountable to, one another, including the stranger.
The second habit was an appreciation of the value of “otherness.” Although we are interdependent with everyone, we spend most of our lives in “tribes” or lifestyle enclaves. Thus, when we encounter people who are not part of our “tribe,” we need to practice the ancient tradition of hospitality to the stranger and see strangers as opportunities to learn about other aspects of human life, as ambassadors from different circumstances.
An ability to hold tension in life-giving ways was the third habit of the heart Palmer described. Our lives are filled with contradictions that we can use to expand our hearts and open our lives to new understandings of ourselves and our world.
The fourth habit was developing and using a sense of our own personal voice and agency. We need to be participants, not spectators in the issues of our day. Speak out and act out your own version of the truth while checking and correcting it against the truths of others.
Palmer’s final habit of the heart was developing a capacity to create community. Communities do not come ready-made. We must create community in the places where we live and work.
In the U.S. today, however, Palmer asserted, we are engaged in the politics of the broken-hearted. Sometimes this erupts in rage and violence. Violence happens when people do not know what else to do with their suffering. Other times the broken heart can cause new capacity for change.
Palmer concluded his remarks by saying he will always put his money on hope. Hope always gives him something to do.
Parker Palmer is a writer, activist and founder of the Center for Courage and Renewal. He is the author of nine books. He holds a B.A. degree from Minnesota’s Carleton College and a Ph.D. from the University of California at Berkeley.