Book Review: “Healing the Heart of Democracy:  The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit”

Contributed by Liza Watson.

Author Parker Palmer writes at the intersection of social change and spirituality.  He is an activist who draws insights from both history and sociology. He quietly demands that we stretch our own capacities for loving, while doing the hard work of examining our country’s myths, and pursuing action for the truths we uncover.  

I’d love to hear a sermon he might deliver today, because I crave a way to make meaning of the tumult our country is in. I think he might speak in a soft voice and suggest ways we can look and act forward.

His explanation for the use of “heart” refers to the Latin word “cor” – the core of self where all our ways of knowing converge – intuitive, experiential, intellectual, emotional, sensory.  It is the source of courage to act humanely on what we know.

Palmer outlines Five Habits of the Heart, as follows. Understand that we are all in this together – we are dependent on and accountable to one another.  Develop an appreciation for the value of “otherness” – pursue the ancient tradition of hospitality, because the stranger has so much to teach us. Cultivate the ability to hold tension in life-giving ways – contradictions we encounter have the potential to expand our hearts and generate insight along with energy.  Generate a sense of personal voice and agency – we are actors in the drama, not just the audience. Strengthen our capacity to create community – it took a village to transform Rosa Parks’ act of courage into social change.  

Myths he challenges include the notion that our economy is capable of endless growth, that we offer more economic opportunity than any other nation, that people who emigrate to the U.S. want to be like everyone else and assimilate, that we are the leading superpower (in spite of little evidence of international accomplishment via war.)

In April 2020, taking just one angle on those myths, the divide between the super-rich and the currently hungry workers doesn’t look like there’s been much economic opportunity.  Granted we’re experiencing a crisis of massive upheaval, but there are people in cars lined up, waiting for a chance to get food. Today and tomorrow.

Palmer recognized that your heart will at times get broken by loss or defeat, but what matters is how your heart breaks. It could break apart, or it could break open. Politics is the use of power to order our lives together, it is a profoundly human arena.  In the hands of those whose hearts have broken open, politics can use that power courageously for the sake of a more equitable, just and compassionate world.  

Here is Palmer’s challenge to us – be willing to have your heart break open. 

“Healing the Heart of Democracy:  The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit” by Parker Palmer.  Jossey-Bass, 2011

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