Chutzpah and Humility: Five Habits of the Heart for Democracy in America

Wednesday, February 3, 2016 - 6:38am
Photo by Brandon King

Chutzpah and Humility: Five Habits of the Heart for Democracy in America

In The Open Space of Democracy, Terry Tempest Williams once wrote:

"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, relentlessly, without giving up -- ever -- trusting our fellow citizens to join with us in our determined pursuit of a living democracy?"

Prophets aren't always crones or old geezers. When Alexis de Tocqueville visited the United States in the early 1830s, he was only 27 years old. But after spending a year among us, the young French intellectual returned home to write the classic Democracy in America. In it he predicted that this democracy's future would depend heavily on the "habits of the heart" its citizens developed, habits that form a vital part of democracy's infrastructure.

Today, as habits of the heart like demonizing those who disagree with us, or tripping out on the fantasy that "I made it on my own and I don't owe anyone anything," unravel the fabric of our civic community, Tocqueville has proven prophetic once again.

For Tocqueville, as for Terry Tempest Williams, "heart" meant much more than feelings. The word comes from the Latin cor. It points to the core of the self where all of our ways of knowing converge: intellectual, emotional, sensory, intuitive, imaginative, experiential, relational and bodily, among others.

Tocqueville believed that America's religious communities would be critical in forming our habits of the heart, for better or for worse. As a Christian, I don't need to be schooled on the "worse" that religion is capable of doing to democracy. When it comes to the political toxicity of some forms of Christianity, Holden Caulfield got it right in The Catcher in the Rye when he uttered those famous words, "old Jesus probably would've puked if He could see it."

But some critics of religion seem to be stuck in the 16-year-old Holden Caulfield stage of development, able to see only part of the picture and enamored of their own power to say "scandalous" things. The truth is that leaders and members of some churches, synagogues, and mosques — conservative and liberal alike — have worked hard for a long time to serve the common good, and they have the openness of heart to do the job.

Those religious communities — to say nothing of our schools, which Tocqueville also regarded as critical — could make a vital contribution to democracy by teaching and practicing five habits of the heart on which so much depends:

1. An understanding that we are all in this together. We are a profoundly interconnected species, as the global economic and ecological crises reveal in vivid and frightening detail. We must embrace the simple fact that we are dependent on and accountable to one another. At the same time, we must save this notion from the idealistic excesses that make it an impossible dream. Exhorting people to hold a continual awareness of national or global interconnectedness is a counsel of perfection achievable (if at all) only by the rare saint. Which leads to a second key habit of the heart...

2. An appreciation of the value of "otherness." Although we are all in this together, we spend most of our lives in "tribes." Thinking of the world as "us" and "them" is one of the limitations of the human mind. The good news is that "us and them" doesn't need to mean "us vs. them." Instead, it can remind us of the ancient tradition of hospitality to the stranger which is rooted in the notion that the stranger has much to teach us. Hospitality invites "otherness" into our lives to expand our minds and hearts, to help us feel more at home amid the diversity of humankind. But we won't practice hospitality to the stranger if we don't understand and embrace the creative possibilities inherent in our differences. Which leads to a third key habit of the heart...

3. An ability to hold tension in life-giving ways. Encounters with "the stranger" inevitably take us to places of tension where we don't want to be, places where we see and hear things that run counter to our convictions. If we fail to hold those tensions creatively, they will shut us down and take us out of the action. But when we allow them to expand our hearts, they can open us to new understandings of ourselves and our world, enhancing our lives and allowing us to enhance the lives of others. The genius of the human heart — and of democracy — lies in their capacity to use such tensions to generate insight, energy,and new life. Making the most of those gifts requires a fourth key habit of the heart...

4. A sense of personal voice and agency. Insight and energy give rise to new life as we speak and act, expressing our version of truth while checking and correcting it against the truths of others. But many of us lack confidence in our own voices and in our power to make a difference. We have been deformed by educational and religious institutions that treat us as members of an audience instead of actors in a drama, so we become adults who treat democracy as a spectator sport. And yet it remains possible for us, young and old alike, to find our voices, learn how to use them, and know the satisfaction that comes from contributing to positive change — if we have support. Which leads to a fifth and final habit of the heart...

5. A capacity to create community. Without community, it is nearly impossible to achieve voice: it takes a village to raise a Rosa Parks. Without community, it is nearly impossible to multiply the "power of one." It took a village to translate Parks's act of personal integrity into social change. In a mass society like ours, community rarely comes ready-made. But creating community where we live and work doesn't mean abandoning other parts of our lives to become full-time organizers. The steady companionship of two or three kindred spirits can kindle the courage we need to speak and act as citizens.

If I were asked for two words to summarize the habits of the heart citizens need to help democracy survive and thrive, I'd choose chutzpah and humility. By chutzpah, I mean knowing that I have a voice that needs to be heard and the right to speak it. By humility, I mean accepting the fact that my truth is always partial — and may not be true at all — so I need to listen with openness and respect, especially to "the other."

Humility plus chutzpah equals the kind of citizens democracy needs, and there is no reason — at least no good reason — why our number cannot be legion. Religious communities can help multiply that number by embracing the mission Alexis de Tocqueville pointed to nearly two centuries ago.

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Parker J. Palmer

is a columnist for On Being. His column appears every Wednesday.

He is a Quaker elder, educator, activist, and founder of the Center for Courage & Renewal. His books include Healing the Heart of Democracy, A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life, and Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation.

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It seems to me that the habits of the heart and the two words are not only keys to democracy but to everything in life.

Thanks Parker for this article. The yin-yang of the individual and collective or tribe, of taking care of yourself and others, of opening your heart and mind and protecting yourself (in any day and age) is challenge. Both can be done, it does not have to be either-or, but we as a country and media seem to be requiring and expecting more and more, thet either-or. We don't recognize that the duality is a myth.

I shared these five concepts with my mother-in-law, a life-long Nebraska Republican shortly after reading Healing the Heart of Democracy. I was so encouraged as I read that book that I thought any sincerely caring person would be too. I expected that they would breathe life into her and give her hope for a better world. Instead, I had gone beyond the pale to even suggest such a worldview. To be liberal, which I denied that I was for years and years, is to allow for the questions, to be open to growth and change. To be conservative and Christian in Nebraska is to do whatever it takes to preserve the way of life that we lived there. It was based primarily on the premise that people suffer exclusively because of the choices they make. Asking deeper questions about things like poverty, white privilege and equal opportunity require one to entertain something totally outside of the realm of one's life-long framework of thought. Unfortunately, as strong Midwestern people, we are taught, almost from the womb, that liberals are out to destroy our way of life, take all of our hard earned money and most of all destroy our God. To even begin to entertain what you say here is as near heresy as one gets. As one who is always thinking of the 3rd alternative to problems this divide has been incredibly difficult to cross. Thinking cannot change without first hearing what is said. Most authors I read have very little real life experience of really knowing someone from the "other" side. As a conservative turned liberal by my own quest, I grieve over the divide because there really ARE good people on both sides of the political isle. Liberals too often do exactly what the Conservatives do. They write, they speak, they publish their truth but in the end the primary audience is made up of the ones who already believe the material contains what they already believe. How does one begin to think in a way that encourages real dialog? Emmerson said, "Why you are speaks so loudly, I cannot hear what you are saying."

Thank you for this response. I have exaclty the same background having grown up in northern Appalachia, and the same journey from Fundamentalist Christian and conservative Republicanism to a more liberal view both theologically and politically. I therefore remember my first enoucounters with "liberals" and my assumption that they had been misled and were being used by the "Reds". It was disillusioning to learn that it was me who was being lied and and manipulated by those who pulled the strings of what are, in fact, really good values and sincerely held beliefs. As a pastor, I have spent much of my life ministering to folks who were far more conservative than I am. It IS possible to set up a respectful dialogue if one begins with the ground of the conservative experience, which is usually the Bible and patriotism. Such people are not immune to arguments that begin with the Book that enjoins us to see Christ in the hungry, the homeless and the Stranger. And it is not illegitimate to begin with the values of freedom (including religious freedom) that many of our ancestors came here seeking. It does take chutzpah and humility to have that conversation. And in humility, I have to say that this strategy works with some people and not with others. I also have to say that there is a great deal of value in listening carefully to the conservative critique of liberal solutions. For conservatives do have a much better understanding of what we Christians call "original sin" -- the tendency we all have to see every issue through the prism of self-interest -- (although it is easier to see this speck in my brother's eye than it is to see the 2X4 in my own). They also distrust the "principalities and powers" enbodied in large institutions and cultural "ism's" more than liberals do - unless those liberals are battling those very principalities and powers.

Hi, Jane. I would so appreciate the chance to dialogue. You can see the direction I am heading at my website: . If you are interested from there, please email me at . I am working so hard at being a detective to get to the heart of this, as you have said you are, and I know for sure I cannot do it alone or only "with my own." Thank you for sharing!

And thank you, Parker, for leading the way in this detective work and for offering a ground where the dialogue may begin. May we all find the personal will to visit new ground! :) Best, Heather

The very idea of Religion itself is totally against the idea of democracy! So, there will not be any real support for democracy from any religion! When there would be such Enlightenment available for common people that they do not need any God and Heaven-Hell for living a happy-healthy-humanitarian life; then only real democracy will appear!! Thanks for your really Thoughtful-Hopeful article!!

Thank you Mr. Palmer, again. And I never thought I'd say this, but what a great time to have FB. (?!?!?!) By that I mean, sharing something good and meaningful that may fall into the field of those who are searching for some understanding. Your piece isn't likely to make it to prime time news.....but hopefully by sharing with a circle of frustrated Friends, maybe the impact will be even better and hopefully, more effective.

Brilliant, and beautiful, especially as I am starting out a new Civil Conversations group to meet once a month. I love what you have written Parker Palmer! It is spot on. Thank you!!

I am an older human being. I read 'Democracy in America' while in college. I have since read it 2 more times. I have always traveled the world with what you call 'chutzpah and humility' b/c I want to know and experience what other people live. It has been eye opening and sometimes heart breaking but very much worth the journey. There is a saying that 'freedom is never free' and it is true. Why b/c you must give up some of your old ways of thinking and doing to embrace the need to move on with the journey. We are need of encouraging each other on the journey b/c it makes for a rich life and community. Thanks for sharing your journey it has spurred this 'older' traveler to continue in the journey we all share whether we realize it or not.

One of my favourite quotations is from Rumi, the Sufi poet, and it embodies so much of what you write about above. He says: 'We're really all just walking each other home.' We ARE all in this together, and although we may be walking different paths, we're all heading in the same direction - 'home'. And since we walk the road together, let us not be stumbling blocks in the way of others, but ready to lend a helping hand when they do stumble, and be glad of their companionship as we go.

Well said, Helen. Thank you for your astute comments. What a sad world this would be if we were all traveling alone.

I have lived 84 years,11 months and 23 days. This is the most honest thing I have read in a spell. I know if you treat persons as your sisters and brothers you always gain; to do otherwise is to lose.

Every person has a voice and a story. We need to listen and accept others. It is Commanded of us : "Love ye one another as I have loved you.

Parker! You nailed it. Thank you. I vote for civility and transformation of disagreement and conflict. Out of the confusion, if we stay the course, can come wonderful and creative solutions.

Different things stand out at different times and under different circumstances. The following sentence sprang out of all the valuable things in this essay as most important for me at this time:

By humility, I mean accepting the fact that my truth is always partial — and may not be true at all — so I need to listen with openness and respect, especially to "the other."