Making Democracy Possible

This is a bit of a detour from talking about travel, but in light of the administration change and inauguration in the United States this week, there was something I wanted to share. At church our pastors have been preaching a series called “Tending the Heart.” In it they are helping us think together about what our faith teaches about how we live together as citizens of this world and nation. As part of this, (and in conversation with scripture) they are using a book called, Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit. It is written by a Quaker writer, speaker, and activist named Parker Palmer who is founder of an organization called the Center for Courage & Renewal. Almost nine years ago I led a book group at Faith Church using this same resource. To this day his writing seems incredibly relevant. With that in mind, I want to share a portion of that book called, “Five Habits of the Heart that Help Make Democracy Possible.” See if you think they might help us through this time of transition in our nation…

“Habits of the heart” are deeply ingrained ways of seeing, being and responding to life that involve our minds, our emotions, our self-images, our concepts of meaning and purpose in life. I believe that these five taken together are critical to sustaining a democracy:

1. An understanding that we are all in this together. Ecologists, economists, ethicists, philosophers of science, and religious and secular leaders have all given voice to this theme. Despite our illusions of individualism and national superiority, we humans are a profoundly interconnected species—entwined with one another and with all forms of life, as the global economic and ecological crises reveal in vivid and frightening detail. We must embrace the simple fact that we are dependent on and accountable to one another, and that includes the stranger, the “alien other.” At the same time, we must save this notion of interdependence from the idealistic excesses that make it an impossible dream. Exhorting people to hold a continual awareness of global or national interconnectedness is a counsel of perfection, achievable (if at all) only by the rare saint, that can only result in self-delusion or defeat. Which leads to a second key habit of the heart….

2. An appreciation of the value of “otherness.” It is true that we are all in this together. It is equally true that we spend most of our lives in “tribes” or lifestyle enclaves—and that thinking of the world in terms of “us” and “them” is one of the many limitations of the human mind. The good news is that “us and them” does not need to mean “us versus them.” Instead, it can remind us of the ancient tradition of hospitality to the stranger and give us a chance to translate it into twenty-first-century terms. Hospitality rightly understood is premised on the notion that the stranger has much to teach us. It actively invites “otherness” into our lives to make them more expansive, including forms of otherness that seem utterly alien to our way of life. Of course, we will not practice deep hospitality if we do not embrace the creative possibilities inherent in our differences. Which leads to a third key habit of the heart….

3. An ability to hold tension in life-giving ways. Our lives are filled with contradictions— from the gap between our aspirations and our behavior to observations and insights we cannot abide because they run counter to our convictions. If we fail to hold them creatively, these contradictions will shut us down and take us out of the action. But when we allow their tensions to expand our hearts, they can open us to new understandings of ourselves and our world, enhancing our lives and allowing us to enhance the lives of others. We are imperfect and broken beings who inhabit an imperfect and broken world. The genius of the human heart lies in its capacity to use these tensions to generate insight, energy, and new life. Making the most of those gifts requires a fourth key habit of the heart….

4. A sense of personal voice and agency. Insight and energy give rise to new life as we speak and act, expressing our version of truth while checking and correcting it against the truths of others. But many of us lack confidence in our own voices and in our power to make a difference. We grow up in educational and religious institutions that treat us as members of an audience instead of actors in a drama, and as a result we become adults who treat politics as a spectator sport. And yet it remains possible for us, young and old alike, to find our voices, learn how to use them, and know the satisfaction that comes from contributing to positive change—if we have the support of a community. Which leads to a fifth and final habit of the heart….

5. A capacity to create community. Without a community, it is nearly impossible to achieve voice: it takes a village to raise a Rosa Parks. Without a community, it is nearly impossible to exercise the “power of one” in a manner that multiplies: it took a village to translate Parks’s act of personal integrity into social change. In a mass society like ours, community rarely comes ready-made. But creating community in the places where we live and work does not mean abandoning other parts of our lives to become full-time organizers. The steady companionship of two or three kindred spirits can kindle the courage we need to speak and act as citizens.

Spiritual Practice: Just Listen

2 thoughts on “Making Democracy Possible

  1. thank you for sharing…..for this book, which sits on my shelf thanks to you, ….for the music you share, often at just the right moment…..for your words, insights and LOVE. 🙂 I’m just now getting to catch up with your words.


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