on August 10, 2011
Parker Palmer's newest book, Healing the Heart of Democracy, has that distinction that most good books carry - it inspires me and indicts me. It inspires me with so much honest and genuine examination of what America can and has been and what I could be with it and it indicts what America hasn't been and, again, me with it. Every time he names a struggle in America he counters it with a habit of the heart I need to be developing to bring my best citizenship to that struggle; irritatingly, he takes away all the fun I have pointing my finger of righteous indignation at Washington or my state legislature or even my local city council and says over and over with story and insight as Gandhi stated long ago, be the change you wish to see.
Case in point, take his discussion of the interaction with a homeless person and the sociological imagination Palmer suggests reframing this engagement with compassionate imagination; it unsettles even though he refuses to take on the issue of whether we give money or not - which is where most of us stop - let's argue the particular; Palmer suggests there is a deeper or at least different way of interacting with "otherness" but doesn't dictate what that needs to be; he leaves that call to a higher interaction for us to define. Of course, this is the least acceptable approach for all of us because when someone tells us how we should use our sociological imagination to interact with homeless people we can run willy-nilly to our reasonable arguments for rejecting or affirming his proposal. Leaving the sociological imagination unspecified for us to define redirects us from the realm of logical thrust and parry and gently invites us to deeper reflection on what the individual - me - in community might mean for us.
When he turns to religious life in America and he discusses the lack of safety or trust that so many feel in their faith communities, it reminded me of a graduate student in one of my School Leadership classes after we had done a simple Courage to Lead (a part of Palmer's Circles of Trust work) exercise which invited inner work for these potential school administrators, one of them asked pointedly, "I want to know, Dr. Henderson, why we can have the conversation we just had in this class and we can't have it in our churches?" I didn't have a good answer - Palmer's book offers incisive insight into at least part of the answer.
As has always been true of Palmer's books, this one is rich with specific examples and stories which make his ideas more than lofty theorizing but instead courageous yet often simple realities of the capacity of our own hearts in action.
When discussing hospitality, he holds seemingly antagonistic ideological realms in the action of both/and rather than the reaction of either/or and demonstrates beautifully his willingness to discuss secular humanism and religion in the same context examining their common ground- it is this sort of holding of seemingly irreconcilable ideologies which models for us the community he calls us to.
This is an important book and comes at a time when a prophetic and deeply loving voice needs to call to America from its edge and at the same time its center regarding the ancient truth of how we have ever been remarkable, through the beauty, tragedy and capacity of our hearts. Palmer loves America enough to be honest and gentle with her and us.
on August 15, 2011
Concerned and frustrated about the condition of American political life? Weary of the self-righteous posturing and angry sound bites that characterize our debates? If so, I heartily recommend Healing the Heart of Democracy to you.
Parker Palmer looks for the cause of the anger, the demonization, and the strident rhetoric that characterize so much of our political conversation. What he finds is not ignorance or ideology or the influences of money and media, but something rather surprising -- heartbreak, heartbreak about the condition of our culture, our society, our body politic. "That shared heartbreak," says Palmer, "can build a footbridge of mutual understanding on which we can walk toward each other."
This central insight illuminates much that goes unexplained by the usual political analyses. By looking at our politics from the perspective of the human heart, Palmer reveals the vulnerability we share rather than the differences we so often display. We mask this heartbreak and suffering by retreating into silence or anger. We impatiently resolve the tensions between positions rather than sit with them and those who hold them. But there is a heavy cost for this impatience: "violence is what we get when we do not know what else to do with our suffering."
Tensions in political life are not a sign of failure, he writes, they are a sign of vitality. "Our form of government was designed not to suppress our differences, but to keep the energy of their tension alive so that it could animate the body politic." But such tension is not easy to live with and most of us seek to resolve it by collapsing toward one pole or the other. Palmer urges us to have the courage to live with this tension.
Palmer is hopeful, but not naïve. He recognizes that most of the spaces where public life is practiced have degraded or disappeared, but he finds examples of their resurrection and re-emergence as well. He shows how classrooms and congregations can be enlisted. But he insists that these spaces must be safe spaces, places where the heart is free to speak and be listened to. He points to circles of trust where 40,000 people have come together to share their stories and reflect on their values in safety.
Healing the Heart of Democracy gave me a new way to see our political democracy and my place in it. Palmer has turned his own heartbreak into inspiration for us all.
on August 1, 2011
Palmer's new book is a rare achievement -- idealistic yet pragmatic, deeply spiritual yet often entertaining, it is comfortably academic and at the same time wonderfully practical.
I suspect that Palmer's description of his own mindset, as he contemplates the current political, economic and social conditions of our democracy , very closely resembles that of many of us. He says that he did his best to resist writing this book because, "I felt too old, too weary, and disheartened to take the job on, let alone to do it well." One understands! We too grieve these conditions and may wonder about the future of our "great democratic experiment". Yet in the following paragraph Palmer shares this thought: "...writing this book has rejuvenated me ... I now feel better equipped to engage creatively in the conflicts of democracy as a citizen who cares about the common good." The careful reader may well experience a like transformation.
This book pushes us to the heart level as we consider the important issues/challenges/decisions of our age. Our HEADS are inevitably drawn into the fray - and in fact the "talking heads" that fill up our airwaves in these times would do the thinking for us! But herein we find a rationale and a plea to address "the visible political realities without losing sight of the HEART that animates them."
The focus is on the heart, on one hand, "broken-heartedness" (over the strife and intransigence among our elected leaders and among ourselves), and, on the other, "having our hearts broken open". This frame provides an insightful way to study and come to terms with our capacity to hold the tensions that confront us in life, and to use them toward "creative ends." We are perhaps more aware than ever of the tensions that democracy requires be held and lived with, among them the work of understanding one another's views and needs, and the work of consensus building and, yes, often compromise. But how to do this? This book is a thorough and approachable contribution which addresses this critical 21st century question on both the individual and communitarian levels. Palmer's remarkable ability to bring humor and deep wisdom together in service of truth is legendary, and is evident in this book. With Parker Palmer and the gurus he brings to the table -- from Abraham Lincoln and de Toqueville to Garrison Kiellor and Molly Ivins, I felt myself in enlightening and engaging company.
What else can I say about Healing the Heart of Democracy? This isn't light reading for the beach, rather it is enlightening reading for the tired and hungry citizen who seeks to contribute, relevantly, in this challenging age. I came away heartened!
While this book is obviously heartfelt, it is a dream; it is fantasy. The author has this notion - wishes for is more accurate - that people operating from their hearts can and will resurrect democracy in the US, with of course outcomes that just so happen to correspond with his ideals about America. The author is hardly ignorant of the actual nature of our society and its institutions, yet is scarcely deterred by the endemic isolation and huge resource differentials that practically guarantee that democracy in the US cannot work beyond the formalities of voting.
Operating from the heart involves intellect, but of more importance to the author are emotions, imagination, initiative, humility, compassion, and the like. He is almost Biblical in his call for the acceptance of strangers, of diversity, which reflects his religious roots and is necessary for democracy. For him, church settings are ideal for nurturing democratic instincts. However, he does not quite connect the togetherness that he finds in a small black church in Americus, GA with what is needed in a society of a few hundred million people.
The author is most assuredly correct to suggest that democracy requires practice on a small scale. Yet our major institutions, schools, churches, and workplaces, are rigidly hierarchical with virtually no chances to assert democratic initiatives. Beyond those places, the urban neighborhoods and small towns that facilitated face-to-face contact have largely disappeared. Sterile, tightly controlled malls have replaced main streets, automobiles are needed to drive from suburbs to shopping areas, and television and now the Internet with their highly packaged content have replaced the untidiness of the county fair and the raucous political rally.
Beyond a very few, short-lived examples there are no venues for wide-ranging discussion about issues in the US. The substitute is wildly inflammatory, distorting rhetoric that is usually privately received, misrepresents realities, and demonizes anyone not on board with the message. Invariably powerful, rich interests are behind those efforts to control thinking; it is essentially propaganda. The last thing that is wanted is open discussion of the issues.
The demonization of government, of the political realm, is especially interesting. The ancients, that is, the Greeks, considered those who remained in the private realm to be idiots. It was the responsibility of adults - only males in those days - to participate in the public realm, which directly under laid the political structure and gave them much control over the direction that their society would take. That is so in contrast to the modern political sphere. The only public/political role envisioned for most people in the US is to be bombarded by simplistic, obscuring sound bites for months on-end via various media outlets with no real way to respond, and after voting for a media-created person, leave governing to a distant bureaucracy that is largely infiltrated by powerful interests. Of course, they do not want day-to-day citizen oversight as done in a Greek democracy.
The author goes on endlessly about the genius of the creation of the US political system, which ignores the fact the founders, for the most part, were interested in curtailing the raucous democratic actions that had sprung up in several states after the War. Notwithstanding the fact that most democracies in the world have avoided incorporating the roadblocks of the US Constitution, in theory, the US system could be bent to the will of the people. But that is precisely the problem. There is no intelligent, coherent will of the people, because there is no public realm that has produced a governing philosophy. All that exists is the aggregation of private opinions that have been molded by outside authorities, whether it is through sterile curriculums of school systems or the more obvious propaganda of political campaigns.
The good thing about this book is that the author realizes that we do not have a functioning democracy. Beyond that, the book is simply wishful. He wishes that schools, churches, and workplaces facilitated democracy. He wishes that we were not isolated in our little rooms with our TVs and computers. He wishes that we actually have political discussion in public settings. He wishes for no less than personality changes in people, which is what his call for a heart-based approach really is. He really does not address what practical changes are needed in government or who should be in government. When fat cats are elected to Congress, how could it possibly be expected that the policies of the US government would address the needs of most Americans?
Ultimately, the book is totally frustrating. The author, a PhD social scientist, seems to think that his life as a sometimes activist translates into most Americans going down a similar trail of enlightenment. That is total fantasy. He really ignores the polarization and propaganda that permeates US society. He totally underestimates the lack of opportunities for significant democratic action in places that occupy most of our time each day. The actual fact is that, given our modern technological, isolated world, we may be further away from effective democratic action than at any time in our history and believing that there can be a democratic transformation based on a vague notion of heart-based actions seems almost ridiculous.
on July 24, 2011
This newest Parker Palmer book contains much of what I've loved about his others - a deep understanding of the human condition, and a hopeful and powerful approach to building community. But "Healing the Heart of Democracy" combines his thoughtful writing with a topic that feels quite topical - the sad state of our American democracy, and what we as citizens can do to reclaim it. Palmer writes about five "habits of the heart" that are required to be a constructive citizen in a democracy, and I found them thought-provoking and useful. They seem to me a sort of constructive antidote to the "fight or flight" reflex we see in so many today, who resist engaging with others different from themselves and who look at compromise as a dirty word. This book gave me hope where lately I have found little evidence for it, and for that reason alone it was worth reading. But in addition, as with all Palmer's books, it was inspirational, informative and beautifully written.
In times of national difficulty, it is both tempting and desirable to step back, reflect upon the situation, and see what might be done to make things better. The process might carry its own danger in the rush to either easy or impracticable answers. I took the opportunity offered by the Amazon Vine program to read Parker J. Palmer's new book "Healing the Heart of Democracy: the Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit" for the insight it might have on our national situation as witnessed by the recent budget and debt-ceiling deliberations and their aftermath. Palmer wrote his book before these events occured, but they make his examination all the more timely. Palmer (b.1939) received his PhD in Sociology from the University of California at Berkeley in 1970. This book was my first exposure to his work, but he is a noted writer on educational and social issues with a focus on spirituality.
I liked a good deal of this book especially its personal tone. Palmer tries to combine events and feelings in his life, and the way in which he reflects upon them, with our national experience as Americans. He uses throughout the figure of the "habits of the heart", the title of a book by Robert Beulah which derives from de Tocqueville's "Democracy in America". Palmer discusses his own experiences of loss, disappointment and "brokenheartedness" in his life. When these experiences occur, the spirit, or the heart can be shattered. The better course is to put the pieces together, use disappointment creatively, integrate conflicting feelings and move ahead from weakness to strength. So it is, for Palmer, in a democracy.
Palmer offers some inspiring stories to illustrate what he means. He describes meeting with members of a small African American church in rural Georgia in 1974 who showed the strength and discipline to carry on in hard times. He describes meeting a New York City cabdriver who, while navigating the city streets, explained that the attraction of his job was that it allowed him to hear and consider the varied opinions of the many different types of people who rode in his cab. He praises openness to difficulty and a willingness to accept tensions -- in the form of divergent opinions -- and work through them. Palmer also makes excellent use of historical figures. Abraham Lincoln emerges as the hero of the book for his ability to overcome his own demon of depression and for his attempt to reconcile tensions in a crisis as shown by both his First and Second Inaugural Addresses. Alexis de Tocqueville, for his diagnosis of the strengths and weakness of American democracy also receives valuable discussion. Palmer explains his own conclusions in a few words: "We must be able to say in unison: It is in the common good to hold our political differences and the conflicts they create in a way that does not unravel the civic community on which democracy depends."
There is an excellent focus in the book on commonality and civic life, as witnessed in the use of public streets, bookstores, pubs, libraries and other places where people of different backgrounds and persuasions can meet and get to understand one another. I am writing this review, as I generally do, in a public library, largely because I share Palmer's commitment to the use of public space. Palmer also emphasizes the value of people explaining to one another the reasons why the believe what they do on important, controversial matters, based upon their own experiences without attempting to demonize someone who thinks differently. I tried to follow this good advice after reading the book, as I exchanged lengthy emails with a close friend who holds an opinion different from mine on same sex marriage. Perhaps it helped to air the reasons for one's belief and to understand those of another person.
I liked aspects of this book less well. Palmer does not always handle well his own project of openness to ideas with which he disagrees. He frequently translates his project into support for his own distinct agenda and tends to belittle those who think differently. In a passage early in the book Palmer shows awareness that he does this as he comes close to demonizing his political opponents, perhaps by reducing them to straw men ("Get me going on politicians who distort my faith tradition to win votes or on racial bigots and homophobes who want to translate their personal shadows into public policy, and this nice Quaker boy from the Midwest does a passable imitation of the Incredible Hulk") before half-heartedly catching himself and falling back. There is a good deal of cliche and half-formed ideas in this book intertwined with much that is insightful. I found, for example, Palmer all--too--quick in his uncompromising discussion and rejection of "consumerism". Although Palmer has much good to say about the need to both develop and hold one's opinions and to have a degree of modesty and humility in thinking about the opinions of others, his use of the overused term "chutzpah" distorts and distracts from his point. His discussion of American public education, I thought, made a variety of points, some good, some questionable. In places, I thought Palmer was expecting too much from ordinary citizens. Democracy, and the American political process, was made to accomodate a degree of human weakness. And some of the thinking in the book I thought wooly and undeveloped.
This is a worthwhile book to read and to think through. It has many insights but it is not a panacea, in my view, for understanding the current condition of American democracy. Like much other writing, the book deserves to be read but read critically and with skepticism.
on July 25, 2011
Parker J. Palmer's latest book, Healing the Heart of Democracy: the Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit, reaches beyond vocation, a topic of his other works, to our soul and role citizens. Palmer had to take this journey to heal his own brokenness about the state of our ailing democracy. As I began to read, I went through the classic stages of grief: denial that this book was meant for me, anger that he dare challenge my political stance, bargaining that if we only had a leader there might be more hope, and depression about the mess and the odds against changing it. My cynicism snarled, "How will this book overcome the military-corporate-banking conspiracy?"
But Palmer kept me aboard with stories of individuals, like John Woolman and Rosa Parks, who changed our world by living "divided no more," and their "communities of congruence," where, sustained by like-minded souls, their courage could incubate. I was carried on the freedom train, at the end of which Palmer presented a dynamic four-stage model, not of grief, but of social change. I surprisingly and gratefully find myself with a conviction to engage in conversations that could lead to the kind of United States in which I long to live. Healing the Heart of Democracy is a must-read for anyone who loves the promise of our democracy and is saddened, infuriated, or generally fed up by what is happening in our country.
I could be considered both the author's target audience and his most difficult critic. While I am very well aware of the decline of democracy in the American spirit, I am not particularly spiritual. The author, by comparison, is so spiritual that his words, while comprehensible, are almost meaningless to me because he and I do not share a large enough set of concepts for him to communicate effectively with me.
Reading this book was a profoundly odd experience. The author recognizes the shortcoming of the current political system and more-or-less predicts that it is going to implode. This portion of the book made perfect sense to me and was very impressive and I looked forward to reading his solutions. But when the author started trying to explain his solutions to the current problems it was like I was reading a technical manual originally written in a foreign language and poorly translated.
I don't feel angry about reading this book, it felt like the author had important things to tell me but I just couldn't grasp them.
on March 26, 2016
Spectacular and profound, this book is one that I wish everyone could read, especially in this year of political controversy. I have been inspired to open up conversation among others, starting with my own family. Truly, how can we expect politicians to engage respectfully and with decency if we cannot dialogue with our own family members and friends who may believe differently than we do? The author of this book has done a brilliant job of providing not only inspiration but practical suggestions. It is not so much about the issues, or where we are standing politically, but rather about the discussions we need to be having in our communities. I wish I could give this book 6 stars!
on September 11, 2011
I was a classroom teacher for 32 years. I first discovered Parker Palmer's work a dozen years ago when I was at a low point in my teaching career. His book, The Courage to Teach, provided me with a lifeline that kept me teaching for the next decade. I was thrilled to read his latest book, Healing the Heart of Democracy, because I knew about his gift of giving us all language to talk about some of our deepest thoughts and desires. I was not disappointed.
This book is a challenge to all citizens to develop the habits of the heart necessary to participate in our democracy in a way that will bring new life to our political dialogue. Palmer makes the case for the importance of the heart in living out our beliefs in a democratic society. The book is practical, inspirational, and hopeful in a world that has become paralyzed by partisan bickering. We are so busy shouting our own points of view that we fail to hear the voice of "the other."
I found the chapter, Classrooms and Congregations particularly thought provoking. Palmer challenges us to look at our classrooms and our religious congregations as the places where we are formed or deformed as citizens and where the habits of our hearts are formed or deformed. There are practical ideas for how to develop the habits of the heart which will make us more engaged citizens.
I highly recommend this book to anyone who is looking for a practical, hopeful way to participate in our democracy that allows for us to disagree and still respect each other as we continue the dialogue that will allow us to move forward.