Monday, April 27, 2015

Dreading the Next Political Season? Parker Palmer Has a Tonic for Your Heart

Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human SpiritHealing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit by Parker J. Palmer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Parker Palmer is a man with one good idea. In many ways he reminds me of my father, who was a remarkable preacher day in and day out, but who also had a song in him. Every now and then my mother or one of the deacons who had heard him in times past would press him to sing a "special," as it is called in my religious tradition.  So Dad would eventually acquiesce and mount the dais to sing.  He never varied in his choice of sacred music. Every special I ever recall hearing him sing was the same. "How Great Thou Art." He sang it well, not perfectly, but his heart was in it and I loved hearing him sing that song.

And so goes Parker Palmer. His one great special sung over and over again is his song of the Quaker meeting.  He wants to take the genius of that gathering out of the meeting house and into the streets, to executive offices, board rooms and places of business and even, as he so ably does with this book, into the public square.

Palmer quietly but passionately tells and retells the story of a meeting of equals, of those who are endeavoring to become true friends as they observe the Gospel Order.  He witnesses to a determined faith in a process that will not run ahead of nor lag behind the guidance of God's Spirit and that of one's friends.

Palmer's song is worth singing over and over again. Never mind that the basic structure is simple, because it is also profound.  This Quaker convert who discovered the genius of a spiritual process devoted to listening deeply to one another, eschewing pat answers and quick fixes, refusing to be satisfied with premature foreclosure, really has discovered something rare but much needed in our modern world.

Palmer fashions a strong lodgepole for this book by means of his development of a central metaphor. He compares our experiences of having our hearts broken into pieces due to our disappointments in the political process with the alternative possibility that our hearts might be broken open to redeemptive and restorative experiences by those same disappointments. Palmer suggests that the current focus on winning and losing leads us in precisely the wrong direction.  Instead, he beckons us to take our experiences of bitter defeat and unsatisfying victories and to use them as touchstones to deepen our understanding of ourselves and our political enemies. In Karen Horney's apt terminology, Palmer is helping us to let go of our reactionary instinct to constantly move against one another so that we can move toward each other in genuine dialogue.

Palmer's exposition of De Tocqueville's book, Democracy in America, is one of the most thoughtful and revealing essays I've read on this subject. Palmer manages to turn what I imagined would be a boring rehash of one of the most quoted books on U.S.-style democracy and turned it into a lesson in thoughtful and informative exposition. I listened to this section several times over, so delighted was I with the insights he brought to the text.

Perhaps the most boring part for me was the section on education, if for no other reason than the fact that I've read literally dozens if not hundreds of papers on this aspect of Palmer's thought.  He is an educator and so it is to be expected that he would include a section on education, but I did not find new ideas here, just what felt like an obligatory attempt to address something he's already covered in great detail elsewhere.

All in all, however, I came away from listening to Healing the Heart of Democracy with something that felt very much like genuine healing for my heart. Like my father's special, Palmer inspired me, comforted me with familiar themes and reminded me of the beauty that can guide each of us through the perils of this dark political quagmire through which we are toiling

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