Parker Palmer interview, 1: 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.”

On Monday, when we published an excerpt of Parker’s book called “Five Habits of the Heart,” readers immediately began sending us messages of thanks and encouragement for so strongly recommending this new book. We heard from readers who had immediatley ordered the book. One Disciples of Christ pastor, the Rev. Bob Cornwall, posted his own review of Parker’s book, saying in part: “We are blessed to receive this tome from Parker Palmer, a Quaker writer, teacher, and activist. It is a book that every American needs to read, because it offers resources that can help us discern a path toward healing the broken heartedness that so many Americans are feeling.”

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?

Christina Taylor Green.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 Flanigan, Philip 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.

Read Part 2 of our interview with Parker Palmer.

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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