Healing the Heart of Democracy -- Book of the Year Review

HEALING THE HEART OF DEMOCRACY:  The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit.  By Parker J. Palmer.  San Francisco:  Jossey-Bass, 2011.  219 pages.

            Most Americans are proud of their democratic institutions, despite the many imperfections and stains on the nation’s record as a democracy.  The freedoms enshrined in the Constitution of the United States have given hope to men and women of every race, ethnicity, religion, or social class, of a better future.  Over time, we have developed a national mythology to give voice to these aspirations, including the declaration of the first of our two founding documents that “all [men] are created equal.”  We have not always lived up to this premise, indeed, rarely have we done so, but it is there to remind us of who we might become, should we choose.  Although Americans have an individualistic side to them, the Preamble to the Constitution begins with the words “We the People,” words that remind us of our interdependence as well as our independence.

In recent years the emphasis on independence has overwhelmed the concern for our interdependence.  We have placed our own individual “pursuit of happiness” above the corporate good described in the words “we the people.”  As we have pursued the private good over the public good, we have also lost confidence in the structures and institutions that embody America’s democratic principles and ideals.  Faith in the competence and wisdom of America’s leaders, from local to federal, is at an all time low, which leads many to call for the ousting of everyone in power, but surely healing this national crisis of confidence will take more than simply changing out those in power.  Instead, it will come only as “we the people” take responsibility for the common good. 

            In need of prophetic words of wisdom in this difficult time, we are blessed to receive this tome from Parker Palmer, a Quaker, writer, teacher, and activist.  It is a book that every American needs to read, because it offers resources that can help us discern a path toward healing the broken heartedness that so many Americans are feeling.  Palmer speaks of the politics of our age as the “politics of the brokenhearted.”  By heart, Palmer means, the “core of the self, that center place where all of our ways of knowledge converge – intellectual, emotional, sensory, intuitive, imaginative, experiential, relational, and bodily, among others” (p. 6).  The American heart is broken, but will this be experienced as a shattering of our national self, or as a breaking open of the self to new possibilities for the nation to live into the aspirations that are embedded in our national myth?    

            Palmer’s Quaker identity, with its emphasis on public service, nonviolence, listening, consensus-building, and commitment to the common good undergirds this conversation about reclaiming and healing our political and public life.  This conversation is rooted in a very deep Christian spirituality, even though religion is rarely at the forefront of the discussion.   Because this is a book about democracy, it deals with politics.  Unlike many writers today, Palmer doesn’t believe that politics is evil or unredeemable.  Our politics may be broken, but politics is a necessary part of the democratic ethos.  Indeed, partisanship isn’t the problem, instead it is our tendency to demonize the other, engage in scapegoating, and neglecting the political infrastructure. 

Although we tend to seek to eradicate stress, conflict, and tension, Palmer reminds us that tension is an essential component of our democratic infrastructure.  It is a reflection of our diversity as a nation, and the Founders of the nation sought to create structures that would allow for this tension and conflict to be converted into energy that would lead to social progress.  For healing of democratic heart to take place, we will need to form “habits of the heart” that will enable us to embody the principles inherent in our identity as “we the people.” Again, the focus isn’t on “them” (the politicians), but on the populace as a whole. 
In the course of eight chapters, Palmer invites us to reconnect with what Lincoln called our “better angels,” and discern what it means to be citizens of a democracy.  In these chapters he describes democracy’s ecosystem, citizenship, politics, what he calls the loom of democracy, life among strangers, the role of classrooms and congregations in developing the democratic heart, and the creation of safe spaces for democracy.  In the concluding chapter he speaks of the “unwritten history of the heart,” in which he points us toward true social transformation, which is  “sparked by people who are isolated, marginalized, and oppressed but who do not fall into despair” (p. 184).  This transformation happens because such people have done the kind of “heart work” that enables their hearts to break open, rather than break apart.  This can happen when we open ourselves to others, and bring about both inner and outward transformation.  Transformation is judged by our faithfulness to the community upon which we depend.  To get there, we must be intentional about our heart-work.

This process perhaps begins with a definition of citizenship, which Palmer defines as “a way of being in the world rooted in the knowledge that I am a member of a vast community of human and nonhuman beings that I depend on for essentials, I could never provide for myself” (p. 31).  Note that this definition says nothing about national structures or patriotism, but instead speaks of interdependence and awareness of the other, including the stranger.     

In an increasingly individualistic and privatized age, we are seeing the demise of a robust public life.  This privatization of society is exemplified in the belief among many today that the nation’s sole reason for existing is to “secure such a self-contained private realm that we can pursue our own happiness without regard for the needs of others, even at their expense” (p. 92).  Perhaps it’s no wonder that there is a libertarian embrace of the Declaration of Independence and its call for the “pursuit of happiness.”  As a result of this privatization of society, there is less room for the stranger to be present in our midst, for they are allowed into this sphere only by invitation.  If the private layer is designed to exclude the stranger, then so is the political realm, wherein the governmental and financial institutions restrict access to the corridors of power, effectively restricting the stranger.  Therefore, it’s only in the public realm that allows for us to freely encounter the stranger, the other.  The public is “we the people,” and as Palmer notes, only when we truly understand that we are in this together can we hope to hold the political realm accountable.  That is, we must have institutions and spaces where we can gather together and experience each other in public ways.  This can involve such spaces as neighborhoods, community gardens, city streets, parks, libraries, classrooms and even congregations.  These are spaces where we discover our interdependence and connections.   But for us to get to this place, we must stop equating the stranger with the enemy. 

As noted earlier, there is a deep spirituality undergirding this book, but for the most part this spirituality lies below the surface, becoming explicit largely in a later chapter where Palmer deals with the role of classrooms and congregations in forming the “habits of the heart” that enable democracy to flourish.  At their best, congregations contribute to the development of two key characteristics necessary for democracy to thrive – compassion and trust.  Although congregations have a less than stellar record at living out these characteristics, they are part of the ethos of faith.  Therefore, while our congregations also need to experience healing, they can also provide spaces where we can experience compassion for the diversity present in our communities.  To get there, Palmer suggests that we develop a theology of hospitality that speaks to our national illusion of self-sufficiency, and invites us to break open our hearts to the stranger. 

There is a deep and disturbing cloud hanging over the United States.  It is a malaise that is leading to cynicism and self-centeredness.  The antidote is to be found in the healing of the heart of our democracy, so that we might emerge from this private focus to a public one, which recognizes our interdependence.  I know of no better guide to discerning the problem and the solutions, than this book by Parker Palmer.  It is a prophetic book, one that needs to be taken with all due seriousness, if we are to emerge from our malaise stronger and healthier than before.   

Note:  This review was originally published in the Print Edition of Englewood Review of Books (Ordinary Time 2011, Volume 1, Number 4) p. 26.


Teetho said…
To get there, Palmer suggests that we develop a theology of hospitality that speaks to our national illusion of self-sufficiency, and invites us to break open our hearts to the stranger.

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