David Crumm Interviews Parker Palmer: Healing the Heart of Democracy

Parker Palmer interview: Healing Heart of Democracy


This campaign is different.  In 2012, Parker Palmer is using the considerable authority of his voice and pen to push us toward a whole new perspective on what we typically call "politics." Instead of polling and political horse races, he is pushing us to focus on "the heart of democracy." Instead of urging us to summon anger to fuel a political campaign, he wants us to reclaim compassion to restore an inclusive vision of America as a land of diverse opportunity. Instead of telling us to focus on our desires as adults, he is pushing us to consider the hopes of children and the legacy we will leave them.

His new book is  Healing the Heart of Democracy : The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit. It opens with this dedication: "_ In memory of  Christina Taylor Green (2001-2011), Addie Mae Collins (1949-1963), Denise McNair (1951-1963), Carole Robertson (1949-1963) and Cynthia Wesley (1949-1963). Christina died when an assassin in Tucson, Arizona, opened fire at a public event hosted by Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who was seriously wounded. Addie Mae, Denise, Carole and Cynthia died when violent racists bombed the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. When we forget that politics is about weaving a fabric of compassion and justice on which everyone can depend, the first to suffer are the most vulnerable among us-our children, our elders, our poor, homeless, and mentally ill brothers and sisters. As they suffer, so does the integrity of our democracy. May the heartbreaking deaths of these children-and the hope and promise that was in their young lives-help us find the courage to create a politics worthy of the human spirit."_


_ ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm talked with Parker Palmer ... _



DAVID: Let's begin with the startling dedication on the first page of your book. In the second week of January, right after we publish this interview with you, we will be reporting on a landmark PBS series about the campaign to end Apartheid. To your own litany of fallen children, next week we will add the name of Hector Pieterson, the innocent 12-year-old boy brutally gunned down by South African police in Soweto in 1976. Hector's death, PBS will report, was a transformative moment in the anti-Apartheid campaign worldwide. So, why did you start your book for adults with a dedication to children?

PARKER: This is the first time I have dedicated a book to someone who was not in my own immediate circle of family and friends. One reason I chose to do this was the timing when I wrote the dedication. The seed of writing this dedication was planted in my mind as I returned from the annual three-day civil rights pilgrimage led by U.S. Rep. John Lewis on the anniversary of Bloody Sunday. We had just gone from Birmingham, to Montgomery, to Selma. We recreated the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge with John Lewis once again in the lead. During that pilgrimage, we stopped at many of the major sites in the civil rights movement.

One of the most powerful moments was when we stood in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and saw where the girls died in the bombing. We heard from two surviving sisters who are now in their 60s. They have lived very difficult lives and are just now beginning to recover from the trauma of these deaths. To experience this kind of living link to the past makes it not really the past anymore. At the same time, my thoughts merged with my concern over the shooting in Tucson, Arizona, in January 2011 when Gabriel Giffords was wounded.  Christina Taylor Green was a young girl who had a great interest in student government, and had been taken to this rally by a neighbor because she wanted to learn about American politics. Then, she was shot and killed by this deranged gunman who opened fire. I think the dedication to my book falls right in line with my belief that, if politics is about anything noble-and it is, if rightly understood, a noble pursuit-then certainly what we are crafting together is a future for our children and our society. I think adults are obligated to think about paying it forward in our society so that we leave a legacy that will help the next generations.

DAVID: This is the first time we have welcomed you to the pages of ReadTheSpirit. Your name is famous, but I'll bet that many of our readers haven't read your books or had a chance to hear you talk. Tell us a little bit about your own life. For example, I know that you were trained as a sociologist.

PARKER: I'm 72 now and I turn 73 in February. I live in Madison, Wisconsin, with my wife Sharon and I have a home office where I do a lot of my work. I usually use a simple phrase to introduce myself. I usually say, "I'm a writer, traveling teacher and activist in causes I care about." I like the phrase traveling teacher rather than consultant or speaker, because teaching happens in many forms both on platforms and also in circles and talking with people in many places.

Sharon and I have three grandchildren, two sons and a daughter. As a grandparent, now, I think a lot about next generations and the kind of world where our grandchildren are growing up. I have one granddaughter who is nearly 21 and is very interested in politics and philosophical questions. We have many lively discussions! So, yes, these are personal matters for me.

One thing I've been actively doing ever since I turned 65 is finding much younger people to partner with in my work. People in their 20s and 30s bring a much different perspective. At my age, I'm standing somewhere down on the curvature of the earth in a way that makes it impossible for me to see the same horizon that's visible to them where they are standing. I tell them, "I need your eyes to see what's coming." And, of course, they tell me: "We need your eyes, too." The generations need each other.


DAVID: Considering the relatively small size of the Religious Society of Friends, Quakers seem to have produced more than their share of prophetic voices. In the pages of ReadTheSpirit, we have featured J. Brent Bill and Eileen FlaniganPhilip Gulley as recently as August of 2011, then Carrie Newcomer in September. We're planning to write more about Brent early in this new year, because he's got a new book coming out next month: Awaken Your Senses: Exercises for Exploring the Wonder of God . My question is: What's the deal with the Friends? How do you produce more than your share of wise and creative people?

PARKER: That's a question that intrigues me, too. I think the short answer has to do with the fact that Quakers try to follow their inner leadings from God-as sorted and sifted in community. It takes time for those leadings to emerge and then to be tested in a communal way. It's not always the case that, when one feels an inner leading, that it's truly from God. It might be coming from someplace else. Sorting and sifting in community is a difficult process. But, once you have tested that voice of truth in a communal setting, you're in a very interesting situation. At that point, you either have the difficult challenge of trying to suppress what you now know is your own truth-or you have to act upon it. That kind of consciously, carefully sorted and sifted decision is very hard to suppress.

Of course, Quakers aren't perfect. We have all kinds of problems like every Christian community-like every organized religion. But, in a rough way, we can say: When leadings come up from the inside and are sorted and sifted in our community, there is a much different impact on the individual than when a denominational bureaucracy determines that this priority or that priority will be our official mission for the year, or the decade, ahead of us. There's something powerful about that Quaker process.


DAVID: For more than a century Americans have been singing the hymn: "Will the circle be unbroken?" It's such a cultural mainstay that it was a huge hit again in the 1970s. Hearing you talk about the Quaker process is a vivid image of the kind of community circles that are alive and well in America. And that brings us back to your new book: You're urging us to turn our focus 180 degrees from our anger, our conflicts, our broken-heartedness-and realize that America can be a circle of circles again. But, maybe that's just nostalgia. In the OurValues column, written by University of Michigan scholar Wayne Baker-a sociologist like yourself-Wayne has reported findings suggesting that America's political feuding may be almost irreparable. What do you think? Unbroken circle? Or are we far too broken to hold our tensions together?

PARKER: This is a great question, because one of the things I focus on in the book is the need for creative tension holding. Most of us do all kinds of creative tension holding in our private lives. This is not a skill beyond our capacity as Americans-not by a long shot. Good parents know all about creatively holding tension in relation to their children. Anyone who has raised a teenager knows something about tension holding. On one hand, you have a vision of your child's promise and potential. On the other hand, you're aware of your child's limitations. Meanwhile, you're watching your teenager make some bad decisions and pay the prices. Good parents don't just declare: "As long as you're under my roof, this is the way it is! If you don't like it, get out!" And, good parents can't simply say: "Make your own choices! Go with your bliss!" We hold this tension together in various ways. We know this as good parents.

Good neighbors have a lot of experience at creative tension holding, too. Most Americans are familiar with this basic skill and use it regularly, so learning to develop this in a larger way is possible, I think.

This is much more difficult on a national level, of course, simply because of the numbers of people involved. And that difficulty is magnified in many ways by a mass media that showers us with such a fast-pace flow of one crisis after another, presented to us in black-and-white choices, hitting us in micro-bytes that are difficult to understand. We forget the wisdom and the evidence that comes from our own lives.

Here's something I do whenever I travel and I get the same response wherever I go. I can arrive in any town in this country and ask people I meet there: "How is life in your town?" Or: "How is life among your neighbors?" Or, I might ask: "What's happening here that gives you hope?" All of those questions bring positive responses. People may have great concern about the larger world, but their own community usually brings a positive response. That tells me: We need to pay a lot more attention to those local communities where people find the kind of hope and energy they describe to me. People operate reasonably well in their local communities.

DAVID: So, why is there so much screaming at each other?

PARKER: One reason we're seeing this culture of shouting and slamming doors and refusing to even associate with anyone who disagrees with us is that a lot of people in our culture have a hard time believing that anyone out there is listening. Too many people feel that there's no one out there who is even aware of them-that there's no one who cares about them. There is a tremendous amount of woundedness today. When they feel so broken hearted, so alone, people disappear into privacy and anonymity with their wounds. When we do see them, on occasion, they feel that the only way to get any sort of attention is to be obnoxious to the rest of the world. We see it in politics, but we also see it in our schools and in our churches, too-individuals who feel there's no alternative but to disrupt the life of the entire community.



DAVID: In this new book, you use "heartbreak" as a metaphor for where we are now as a nation. You write: "We will never fully understand why people respond so differently to experiences of heartbreak. There is an eternal mystery about how the shattered soul becomes whole again. But people whose hearts break open, not apart, are usually those who have embraced life's 'little deaths' over time, those small losses, failures and betrayals that can serve as practice runs for the larger deaths yet to come."

As a nation, we are heartbroken now, you tell us. Throughout the book, you are pushing people to use this sudden opening of hearts in a compassionate way-not to allow ourselves to sink into bitter despair and anger. But I have to ask: When there suddenly is a tragic shift in our life's core assumptions as fundamental as losing one's job, or one's long-promised pension, or the value of one's house-when such values that form the foundation of our lives suddenly are overturned-then it's awfully hard to react in a compassionate way, isn't it?

PARKER: You're absolutely right. When you discover that your home suddenly is worth less than you thought it was-and you may never recover your life's investments-this is very scary. I agree with your analysis. It gets even scarier when your job disappears, or even when your job is suddenly less secure.  This is one of the reasons that, in my book, I take issue with what other observers commonly call "the politics of rage" to explain where we are as a nation. I am saying that we must look beneath the rage we are seeing and, when we do, we find what I am calling "the politics of the broken hearted."

Just think about this: Perhaps a third of the homeless people in this country are our veterans. Or consider: A quarter of our children in this country are at risk. Many children go to bed hungry every night in our country. Poverty is growing. Many people have at least a sense that these things are happening, even if they don't know the specific details. To allow these conditions to continue shows a hardness, a crudity, a seeming disregard for the value of life in our country. And, all of this-all we have been talking about here-contributes to our heartbreak as a nation.

DAVID: Your book offers lots of sage advice about this. As we introduce your book, we will include the text of your "Five Habits of the Heart," which is part of your advice to readers. But, these Five Habits are advice for the journey, aren't they? In the end, there is no sure-fire, 10-point plan for success, is there?

PARKER: That's right. And, I don't propose one big answer to this big problem, because problems this big don't have big answers. They have a million little answers that have to be acted out in a million lives. Promising one big answer, at this point in our nation's life, is not wise. Such promises may be appealing, but they backfire with results ranging from the discovery that it's a false hope-to accepting a totalitarian takeover as a way to reach that promised big solution.

We have to start this process with a good diagnosis. If what we diagnose is rage, then we are likely to rage back at people or to go hide out somewhere. That's a simple diagnosis and a simple answer, but raging at people or hiding out ultimately will undermine what holds our democracy together. If we leave the diagnosis at rage, then the creative, life giving, noble possibilities of our democracy are endangered. But, if the diagnosis is heartbreak, then we can start to come together. The prescription for heartbreak is different. We can begin to search for some kind of common ground in our shared experience.


DAVID: You're mainly addressing an American audience, but this has applications all the way around the world. Over the past decade, we have reacted to what we perceive as anti-Americanism with rage. We've gone to war twice over the past decade.

PARKER: That's right. For example, in the Christian world, there are lots of folks who perceive men and women in the Muslim world to be enraged extremists. What we are actually seeing, in many cases, are people who are heartbroken over their prospects in the world, too. Many are heartbroken, in particular, about the prospects for their children, much as we are.

I ask people to remember that period right after 9/11 when people around the world were saying things like: "I am an American with you, today." And: "I understand your pain and your loss as Americans." In so many parts of the world, people had a deeply compassionate response. That was a moment of shared heartbreak.

My dear late friend Henri Nouwen used to say: We join with each other more through our brokenness than we do through our strength. It's an ancient Christian theme and it's true today. In his song Anthem, Leonard Cohen asks us to "Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There's a crack in everything-that's how the light gets in." This is ancient human wisdom that, in our heartbreak, it is possible for us to come together.

In the case of 9/11, that moment of shared heartbreak lasted a very short period of time before we turned to an eye-for-an-eye response and we didn't much care where we would take our revenge. The attack in Iraq had very little to do with the 9/11 attacks. That was irrational violence and it ended our post-9/11 opportunity to come together with people in many parts of the world through our shared broken heartedness.


DAVID: One of the most provocative things you say in your new book involves "media." For most Americans, that M-word summons up an image of network TV, major newspapers and magazines. But, in fact, "media" is simply connection through all sorts of means-from human tissue to digital transmission, from paint and ink to music. In your book, you warn us-as you warned us in Part 1 of this interview-about the dangers of mass media today.

But, hey, you're a part of mass media yourself. You're a popular author with a bunch of books listed on Amazon. Henri Nouwen? His books have circled the globe. Leonard Cohen? His music is performed on hit TV shows all the time. Cohen was just performed on X-Factor. So, you're not really urging us to give up all media.

Quite the contrary, I would argue, you're actually giving us some advice, in this new book, about two things: How to discern the flaws in the media we accept into our lives, and how to raise our own voices-perhaps daring to do so for the first time-in a healthy and helpful way. Am I understanding you correctly? I don't think it's possible to achieve what you hope to achieve without media, right?

PARKER: Again, a great question. The real problem is that too many of us spend our lives in schools and churches that treat us as if we are supposed to sit there and receive information as empty vessels. I write that "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."

The idea we're given is that we're not supposed to have knowledge or wisdom within us as individuals. This leaves lots of people dependent on external sources for what they regard as "truth"-to the extent that people even use that word today. Steven Colbert understands what's happening here, so he's turned the word into "truthiness."

What I am talking about is the need to use all the ways possible to help restore people's confidence that they do, indeed, have life experiences and inner processes that are, in themselves, sources of insight and knowledge. In my own life, this was a struggle. I was the first person in my family to go to college. I felt very intimidated in an academic environment and I had to struggle for many years, a struggle that culminated at Berkley in graduate school where I finally claimed my own.

We need to do everything we can to help people reclaim the authority and validity of what they already know inwardly. We need to help people realize that they need to check and correct themselves with other people, as well. This business of "knowing" becomes an interactive, co-creative process.

No, there's not much good news in the news media, but there is good news in the wisdom traditions from within our religious communities. And, there's also good news that comes from within our own lives.

Remember: You can order a copy of Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit  from Amazon.

Please help us to reach a wider audience

We welcome your Emails at ReadTheSpirit@Gmail.com 

We're also reachable on Twitter, Facebook, AmazonHuffington PostYouTube and other social-networking sites. You also can Subscribe to our articles via Email or RSS feed.

Plus, there's a free Monday morning Planner newsletter you may enjoy.

Originally published  at www.ReadTheSpirit.com, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.