Parker J. Palmer is a sensitive soul, a gifted writer, and a deft social analyst whose nine books, including the bestsellers The Courage to Teach, Let Your Life Speak, and A Hidden Wholeness, speak to a broad range of readers. He is the founder of the Center for Courage & Renewal, and he was recently honored with the 2010 William Rainey Harper Award previously given to Margaret Mead, Paolo Freire, and Elie Wiesel. He is profiled as a Living Spiritual Teacher at Spirituality & Practice.
Anyone awake in contemporary America knows that something is desperately wrong with democracy and the political system. The list of messes and miseries is long and lamentable: the power of big money and the clout of large corporations, a dysfunctional health care system, unending wars abroad, high levels of unemployment, a growing gap between the rich and the poor, hunger, unsafe food, the degeneration of our cities and schools, race politics and injustice, the destruction of the earth in the name of progress and profit, the collapse of the nation's physical structure, capital punishment and the blighted prison system, and the politicization of the courts. On the opening page of this timely and soul-stirring book, Parker J. Palmer clasps our hands and admits his heartbreak over the sorry state of the nation; he says he feels like "a displaced person in my own land."
But he is pulled out of a real case of depression by a personal journey that involves looking at politics through the eye of the heart. What is entailed within this path? Palmer lets Terry Tempest Williams explain it:
"The human heart is the first home of democracy. It is where we embrace our questions. Can we be equitable? Can we be generous? Can we listen with our whole beings, not just our minds, and offer our attention rather than our opinions? And do we have enough resolve in our hearts to act courageously, without giving up — ever — trusting our fellow citizens to join with us in our determined pursuit of a living democracy?"
Palmer believes that many Americans are fed up with business as usual in Washington, D.C., and the odd cultural and media mix of divisiveness, toxicity, passivity, and powerlessness. Throughout the rest of the book, Palmer delineates what it means to practice politics from the heart. He shares his own journey as an accidental American citizen and then lists five habits of the heart (such as "we must cultivate the ability to hold tension in life-giving ways") which could turn things around in this country.
In the next chapter, he probes the sources of two underlying "heart conditions" which must be curtailed: consumerism and scapegoating. Another challenge facing those trying to practice politics from the heart is moving beyond the "fight or flight" response to those perceived to be enemies.
Palmer laments the waning of American public life and the growing emphasis on private life with family and friends. He would like to see more places and programs to encourage mingling with strangers and opening ourselves to diversity. He salutes Wendell Berry and others who through "the lens of compassionate imagination" have promoted the bounties of public life in a democracy. Much more could be done by classrooms and congregations to advance this cause among children and lay persons. Palmer would like to see greater time and energy in churches devoted to developing and enhancing a theology of hospitality to overcome fear of the "other." He examines how television, circles of trust, and cyberspace can be arenas where the habits of the heart can flourish or die.
Healing the Heart of Democracy is a hopeful book that lifts up and hallows the heart as a source of inner sight. Inspired by the efforts to understand and undergird democracy by Abraham Lincoln, Alexis de Tocqueville, Rosa Parks, and others; the author sends us on our way rejoicing with the small portion of hope that he has planted in our minds and souls.