Parker Palmer, 2: ‘Good news from within our lives’

This is the conclusion of our interview with Parker Palmer.
You may also want to read a brief excerpt of his book, Healing the Heart of Democracy.
Then, if you haven’t read it already, here is Part 1 of the interview.


CLICK THE COVER TO JUMP TO AMAZON.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.

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

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