Parker Palmer closes his book Healing the heart of democracy: The courage to create a politics worthy of the human spirit (2011) with a quote from Reinhold Neibuhr that captures the essence of his message:
Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore, we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love.
Palmer wrote Healing… before the U.S.A. election of 2016; however, the concerns he raised have become even more evident this last year. Palmer’s view is that in order to make the Constitutional assurance of “We the People…” work, we need to speak to those beyond “our own” and we must cease to demonize those who have ideas different than ours. Examples of the struggles Abraham Lincoln faced leading up to and during the Civil War are offered throughout the book, providing contextualization that puts our own times in perspective. The rights of diverse others was a central disagreement of the Civil War and it appears that diversity has again driven a wedge between us.
Hope in our future can be recaptured by recognizing the mutual heartbreak of a government that doesn’t work and of communities divided by class and culture. “When we hold suffering in a way that opens us to greater compassion, heartbreak becomes a source of healing, deepening our empathy for others who suffer and extending our ability to reach out to them.” (p. 22) The relative stagnation of the U.S. economy is clearly a source of much of the heartbreak that many citizens share. “When material progress falters… people become more jealous of their status relative to others” (p. 64); the jealousy then results in scapegoating others instead of working to problem solving our way to a more prosperous community.
There is no question that we experience tension, discomfort, and distrust with people who are different from us; however, there are benefits to diversity if we are able to hold it in a way that results in creativity, openness to each other, new ideas, and new courses of action. Unfortunately, one of the most significant barriers to our being able to open to each other’s ideas is the individualistic pursuit of wealth and power. Although individualism was one of the things that helped immigrants as they came to North America, it now pushes us away from each other and weakens our sense of shared community. This erosion of community through individualistic pursuit also has the more negative potential of making us vulnerable to despots who exploit our differences. The antidote is that our government was designed to help us embrace differences of opinion and to use the resulting tension to generate an active body politic.
Palmer proposes five habits of the heart that he believes can restore our sense of community and protect our democracy. The first thing is that we should recognize that we’re in this together. The second habit is that we must develop an appreciation for the value of others. The third is that we must cultivate the ability to hold tension in creative ways. Fourth, we must generate personal voice and agency. Finally, we should strengthen our capacity to create community. All five of these habits must be cultivated with chutzpah (knowing we have a voice and using it) and humility (accepting that truth is always partial and we should listen to others). These habits can be expressed in many places but educational institutions and religious organizations are two places where they are most effectively nurtured. In order for education and religious organizations to be useful, they cannot hold our society’s problems at arm’s length but must engage fully and personally to develop the empathy and willingness to act in ways that protect the present and future of our democracy.
Palmer’s optimist views have contributed much food for thought for those of us committed to a creating a better and more equitable world. His views are also realistic and have been documented in communities of hope where healing is underway. His historical and contemporary analyses of these places led him to discern four stages that are key in the process – “deciding to live ‘divided no more,’ forming communities of congruence, going public with a vision, and transforming the system of punishment and reward.” (p. 189)