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Book Review: Healing the Heart of Democracy, by Parker J. Palmer

Updated on February 4, 2014

The Healing Heart

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Healing the Heart of Democracy

Parker J. Palmer has written nine books including “The Courage to Teach” and “Let Your Life Speak. He is the Founder of the Center for Courage Renewal. The present discussion will focus on his latest work, “Healing the Heart of Democracy.

The author is honestly gentle in his treatment of how best to live in a 21st century American democracy. He acknowledges that discord seems to function as the usual and expected way of conducting public life, while accepting that contradictions lend strength to the American ideal.

In the prelude Palmer speaks of his sense of vulnerability as he ages. He allows the reader to follow his journey of sincere questioning about capability and aspiration while appreciating that time is limited. He is open about his own physical changes of while acknowledging that his spirit and his mind are still active.

Because of his work as a social activist, Palmer appreciates the difficulty of finding hope in the present world. A recurrent theme relates to the tension of what is and what may be. Despite these tensions, he sees the essence of American life. He appreciates that our tensions are actually navigational markers toward a more empathic and compassionate society. Palmer explains that our democracy is a living, transforming organism which is worthy of exploration.

The book is laced with anecdotes and musings which create the thesis that it is possible to live in a compassionate society while still appreciating diverse viewpoints. He explains that “Democracy is a nonstop experiment in the strength and weakness of our political institutions.”

Topics discussed in the work range from congregational living and effectiveness to courageous classroom teaching. In each segment, Parker provides concrete observations based around personal narrative. In so doing, Palmer allows the reader an inside look into his own soul while encouraging the reader to do the same thing.

There are many connections to liberal thinking relative to how it impacts a shared appreciation between citizens with differing viewpoints. While we do not have to accept another person’s argument, we can at least LISTEN to it. In listening to one another we are actually supporting our own ability to think.

In the chapter about Democracy’s Ecosystem, Palmer uses the metaphor of earth’s relationship to life, as a way of helping the reader engage in a thought process about the possibility of what democracy can look like. He explains that poverty is an inherently dangerous place where the ‘have nots’ have a greater need for community than the ‘haves’ class of Americans. His conclusion is that democratic living depends on ordinary people who are doing extraordinary things. The author offers an example of this concept when he reminds the reader of the Rosa Parks episode of refusing to give up her seat on a city bus. Mrs. Parks was an ordinary person who did an extraordinary thing- she embraced the fact that she was tired of living in a particular manner, and thus did democracy to begin change.

As Palme comments on Living in the Company of Strangers, a particularly fascinating chapter, he explains that it is important to know what roles we play in our part of democracy, and then to embrace those roles. He tells the story of a cab driver who says “You don’t know anything if you don’t know people”. In stripping from one’s roles, a person can then belong to any group he chooses. An individual is no longer a doctor or a carpenter. One’s job is not who one is. By viewing democracy through this alternative lens it is possible to become a neighbor, a caregiver, a friend.

A recurring theme relates to the contradictions that living in a democracy demands of us. Parker feels that we “do” democracy. We do not merely live in a democracy. He discusses that democracy is an active passion where one lives his own life in much the same way he discovers his own truth. Despite the conundrums between unjust scarcity and unbridled abundance, there is a hope that we can close the gap between what is and what can be. We may never see the connection of the gap, but the possibility exists that this canyon can be bridged. The key is to live our democratic lives with compassion and authenticity.

Much of the book discusses the seeming contradictions of doing democracy. How can a liberal education be gained from a system that demands uniformity? How can one live an informed life when what is taught is subjected to the “truth” of the controlling class. There is discussion relating to the taught curriculum and the hidden curriculum, which any teacher should read with serious reflection. While technology has increased the speed at which we retrieve information, what effect has that had on our connection to fellow citizens? How has living in personal two car garaged caves affected our engagement with our society?

Palmer provides some possibilities regarding how to look at democracy differently. He is succinct and direct in his idea of living with a public face and engaging in face to face democracy. He encourages the reader to appreciate the role that public places and public gatherings provide us as we live an American life. Simple actions described refer to the enjoyment of parks, the participation in farmers markets or merely engaging the person who one passes as he walks down the street as a means for citizens to do democracy.

Ultimately, Palmer appreciates the tensions that remind us that we live in history. We experience war, but we have seen times of peace. We fail to care for our most impoverished country men, while we feed the world. We see psychopathic murder in sacred places of learning and cling to the hope of justice for all. There is a gap of reality and ideal. There is a history of men and a life of community.

This book is not an easy read. The style is welcoming and the prose is clear, concise and direct. What then makes it so challenging? I found myself making connections to my own privilege of position each time I read another chapter in the text. My life resonated through the stories and the quotations in ways that made me pause to reflect on how well I, myself, do democracy. Healing the Heart of Democracy offers ideas and poses challenges for anyone who loves the American ideal. It is a must read for people who love America.

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