Creative ReflectionsParticipants at a conference reflect on a plenary session speech by Parker Palmer. (photo: Fund for Theological Education)

Parker Palmer is the founder of the Center for Courage & Renewal and the author of nine books, including well-known titles such as The Courage to Teach and Let Your Life Speak. He is the recipient of many awards and honorary degrees, perhaps most recently the Utne Reader’s 2011 Visionaries, 25 People Who are Changing the World.

His new book, Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit, takes a deep and wise look at the loss of values that have impoverished American democracy and public life. Palmer proposes ways to rediscover what the great political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville called “habits of the heart” that are essential to a democracy.

Healing the Heart of Democracy by Parker PalmerPalmer writes:

“The human heart, this vital core of the human self, holds the power to destroy democracy or to make it whole. That is why our nineteenth-century visitor, Alexis de Tocqueville, insisted in his classic Democracy in America that democracy’s future would depend heavily on generations of American citizens cultivating the habits of the heart that support political wholeness.”

We corresponded by email over the course of several weeks for this interview. 

Parker, you cite five habits of the heart you feel are necessary to moving forward as a democracy: understand that we are all in this together, develop an appreciation for the value of “otherness,” cultivate the ability to hold tension in life-giving ways, generate a sense of personal voice and agency, and strengthen our capacity to create community.

In and of themselves, none of these habits seem too complex or difficult for us to achieve, and I’m guessing most people would find it easy to embrace them, at least conceptually. What prevents us from becoming better at practicing these habits?

You’re right, Kate, of course. Saying the thing is always easier than doing the thing! So it’s important to understand why we have trouble embracing good ideas and allowing them to animate the way we live.

We resist the first habit of understanding that we are all in this together because it’s easier to pretend that we live in individual silos than to allow ourselves to get the fact. To take but one example, that the large and tragic achievement gap in public education between white kids and kids of color is something we all pay a price for sooner or later. If my son is doing well in school, great; I’m happy. But if his black and Latino classmates are doing poorly, I need to be unhappy about that, very unhappy, and advocate for the changes in public education that would help close the gap.

Among other things, that gap helps explain the fact that we now have more African Americans somewhere in the judicial and penal system than we had in slavery ten years before the Civil War. And that’s not only costly to this society in terms of the threat of crime, the cost of incarceration, etc., it’s flat-out evil in the way it crushes the spirits of young people who have just as much promise as my son does.

So, when you step outside your silo and understand your interconnectedness, life becomes more complicated and ethically demanding. But the bottom line is, what do you stand for: narrow self-interest or the common good? And do you understand that narrow self-interest can be self-defeating while caring about the common good can be a way of caring about yourself and those you love?

I’m 72 years old, so I reflect more often on the fact that I’m going to die than I did when I was 30, or 40, or 50. On that day, I’m pretty sure I’m not going to be saying to myself, “Boy, am I glad that I spent all my years on Earth feathering my own nest and not giving a hoot about anyone other than my family and friends!” I’m pretty sure I’d rather be saying, “I’m glad I did what I could during my brief sojourn on this planet to help bring a caring community into being, to love my neighbor as myself.”

As you know, Kate, I say quite a lot in the book about each of those five habits, but let me say a few words about one more: “Cultivate the ability to hold tension in life-giving ways.” This one is right at the heart of our democracy, both institutionally and personally. America’s founders, for all their blind spots, gave us a set of governing institutions whose genius lies in their ability to hold tension creatively over time. Democracy is all about taking the tension of our differences and using it as an engine to keep moving us forward on important social issues. So why is it hard to live this one? Because it requires us to resist the ancient and well-known “fight or flight response” that kicks in when we find ourselves in a tension-ridden situation. Our instinct is either to run away or to punch out the source of the tension!

We all know at some level that if we can hold tension creatively — in the family, in the workplace, in the larger community — we often emerge with a better solution to the problem than if we ran away or used force to control the situation. My favorite close-to-the-bone example involves raising a teenager. Good parents can see their teenage child’s potential and “true self” while they also see that child making some bad choices and perhaps even going off the rails. But good parenting means holding our children in a way that both acknowledges their long-term possibilities and their current realities, knowing that the worst thing we could do is to try to force the outcome. Many of us know how to do that kind of “holding” in our private lives, so we have the capacity to do some of the same in our public lives.

The key, of course, is love. Love leads us to hold the tensions we experience as parents in a creative way. Of course, the kind of love we have for those close to us cannot be replicated in the public realm. But can a different form of love — love of the promise of the human spirit, love of the common good — lead us to hold political tensions creatively? I’m not sure, but I sure hope so, because a politics rooted in greed or hunger for power rather than love of the commonweal is a politics headed toward self-destruction.

I’d like to devote much of my remaining time and energy toward helping to make our public life more compassionate and more generative — and I know many, many people who share that vision and that desire.

You describe what you call a “cult of expertise” that has shaped education in our country — that encourages certainty over inquiry and promotes science education over the humanities. Do you perceive this “cult” at work in other parts of our lives besides education?

Yes, I think the cult of expertise permeates many of our institutions, which means that it also permeates our lives. My beef is not with expertise itself. Some people know a lot more than others about certain things, and we need to learn from them. My beef is with the cult of expertise in which we make the voice of the expert the only voice in the room, which gives the expert too much power — unchecked power — and renders everyone else voiceless. When we are rendered voiceless, we come to believe that we have nothing worth saying, which means that we deny or disbelieve our own knowledge. There’s a lot of this kind of thing going around, and it’s a problem any way you look at it — especially with regards to what a democracy requires, which is the voice of “We the People.” That’s why a habit of the heart called “generating a sense of personal voice and agency” is on my top five list.

In education — just to be clear about that example — we are still struggling to get past the old model of the teacher at the front of the room downloading information while students sit passively taking notes, who then get rewarded or punished on the basis of how much of that information they can parrot back on tests. That model is driven by the cult of expertise (among other things), and it prepares people better for life in an authoritarian society than it is for citizenship in a democracy. Even if the course you are teaching is “The Values of American Democracy,” when you teach it top-down, you are really teaching students to shut up, keep their heads down, and buy (or pretend they buy) whatever the person in authority says. That’s not a democratic habit of the heart. It’s a deformation of the heart that creates the antithesis of virtually every one of the five habits of the heart I explore in this book.

The cult of expertise also permeates medicine in a way that undermines genuine healthcare. We know that a physician who treats not only the body but also understands how to listen and evoke the patient’s mind and spirit is a more powerful healer than one who allows expertise to distance him or her from the patient and tries to “fix” people the way a mechanic fixes a car. We know this on the basic of clinical evidence, which is why the state-supported University of Minnesota has a Center for Spirituality and Healing related to the medical school. Physicians have expertise that we need to stay alive and well, as I know from personal experience. But patients have inner resources that are powerful wellsprings of healing or wholeness, even when they are dying — resources that get ignored, suppressed, and sometimes destroyed by the cult of expertise in medicine.

And that brings me to the cult of expertise in religion! Belonging to various branches of the Christian church has been an important part of my journey, of my formation; I grew up in the Methodist Church and I’ve been affiliated with the Quakers for some years now. I speak not as an outside critic but as an insider who has a lover’s quarrel with the Church. In too many settings, the cult of expertise makes the clergyperson’s voice the only, or the dominant, voice in the room when it comes to matters of faith, which silences or subdues laypeople.

So many laypeople have been conditioned by this church culture to think that they cannot “do religion” for themselves. I know of too many situations where clergy have tried to ask questions rather than give answers, hoping to evoke the voices of the laity, only to be told (in one way or another), “We’re not paying you to ask us about the faith journey. We’re paying you to tell us what it’s all about! After all, you’re the one who studied these things in seminary and should have the inside scoop!”

I’ll end with what I regard as an important clue to one way out of this impasse. What clergy (and teachers and physicians) who want to change this dance must understand is this: when laypeople respond this way, it’s not because they are lazy or pigheaded or dumb. It’s because they are wounded — wounded as many of us are by growing up in institutions whose constant message is, “You don’t know what you need to know. So sit down, shut up, and let the experts fill you with the real skinny.” It’s the wound of feeling inadequate to the situation, whether that situation is in the church, in the classroom, or in the clinic. A leader in any realm who can see that wound, and focus on helping to heal it, is a leader who can help people reclaim their own knowledge and find their voices to speak it.

Parker J. Palmer and Staci HainesParker J. Palmer and Staci Haines converse before the Inauguration of The Rev. Stephen Lewis as FTE’s next president.

As in your other writings, you call for the practice of “inwardness” that seems so deeply rooted in your Quaker belief. And you quote the literary scholar William Deresiewicz: “Without solitude — the solitude of Adams and Jefferson and Hamilton and Madison and Thomas Paine — there would be no America.” What came to Jefferson and Paine and others in that solitude that we now are missing? And, where do you find solitude in your own wired and busy life?

One of my favorite quotes in Healing the Heart of Democracy is from Joseph Campbell, and it supplements Deresiewicz:

“You must have a room, or a certain hour or so a day, where you don’t know what was in the newspapers that morning…a place where you can simply experience and bring forth what you are and what you might be.”

Like Deresiewicz, Campbell is advocating something I call “getting the news from within.”

This seems especially important to me in a day when the mass media are peddling “news” — I put the word in quotes because much of what passes for news these days is caricatures of events rather than reportage — news that is so fast-moving, so fragmented, so out-of-human-scale that it disempowers us. Who can watch any of the cable news shows and end up feeling like anything other than a spectator to events that are too massive, too far away, and too fleeting (in terms of our attention span) to imagine that we can have any impact on them?

Joseph Campbell is not advocating disengagement but a form of deeper engagement that can take us to the soul-deep problems and possibilities of our social and political situation. After all, what we are collectively as well as individually begins within, begins in our inner shadows and in our inner light.

When William Deresiewicz said the quote you reference, he was referring to their habit of sitting quietly (aka “unwired”), reading and reflecting on books that challenged the political conventions of the day, then staring out the window to do the original thinking that led to the American Revolution and to the institutions of American democracy. When we reflect deeply on the world “out there” — via books or personal experience — we are necessarily drawing deeply on the world “in here,” on inner experiences of life that confirm or disconfirm external claims about the world’s problems and their solutions.

America’s founders went inward to touch such soul-deep impulses as the yearning for freedom and equality. Tragically, they failed to dive deep into the inner shadows that we know today as racism or sexism; if they had done so, they would not have excluded enslaved human beings, Native Americans, and women from their own assertion that “all men are created equal.” But somehow, in solitude — and in community — they managed to get in touch with the partial and flawed nature of their own thinking, which led them to create a novel system of government with a capacity for self-correction that has taken us far beyond the founders’ very human limitations.

So one way to name the fruits of the founders’ solitude is this: in that solitude, they must have had an intimation of the grave moral flaw in their implementation of “all men are created equal.” Though they were unable to correct themselves on this matter, they gave us a form of government that has allowed us to keep correcting their — and our — moral flaws. It’s a process that has yet to end, and never will, unless we give up the ghost. As I say in the my book, “Government ‘of the people, by the people, and for the people’ is a nonstop experiment in the strength and weakness of our political institutions, our local communities and associations, and the human heart. Its outcome can never be taken for granted.”

And if it is true that, “Without [the] solitude…of Adams and Jefferson and Hamilton and Madison and Thomas Paine…there would be no America,” it is also true that without our reflective solitude, there will be no continuing creation and re-creation of this emergent reality called America. We need to dive deep beneath the chaotic surface of history and access timeless truths about human potentials and human limits to keep this experiment going.

As for where I find my solitude in my own busy and wired life — well, that’s a work in progress! Like everyone else I know, I find dealing with email every day like being pecked to death by ducks. I have no easy answers to that one. Email is part and parcel of the work I love to do, and one way of maintaining a sense of connection with my far-flung readers and colleagues.

But I count myself lucky that at least half of my work involves writing, which has long been a contemplative practice for me, and must be done in solitude. Writing gives me a chance to sense, sift, and sort what’s emerging inside of me, to “experience and bring forth” what I am and what I might be (to quote Campbell again). I also love reading poetry (e.g., Mary Oliver and Naomi Shihab Nye), fiction (e.g., Wendell Berry) and some forms of spiritual writing, as long as it is grounded, not floaty and pious. And I have a particular love of taking long walks in the woods and sitting by, or paddling across, big water. All of that helps me dive deep beneath the chaotic surface of my own life!

Bottom line for me is something I wrote in A Hidden Wholeness, if I may be allowed to quote myself rather shamelessly: “Solitude does not necessarily mean living apart from others; rather, it means never living apart from one’s self.” Even in the midst of a busy and highly populated life, solitude in that sense is something one can achieve.

What’s your take on the Occupy Wall Street movement? Is there a moral imperative there? My sense is that it’s not taken seriously in the broader culture, among both liberals and conservatives. Do you agree?

At the center of my understanding of democracy is a capacity for creative tension-holding, which is built into our institutions of government, and which both leaders and citizens need to possess if democracy is to function properly. Sometimes our job is to hold the tension created by others — and sometimes our job is to create the tension this country needs to keep it honest.

There are lots of things we Americans have not been honest about over the years. In the past few decades, one of those things has been the growing gap between the haves and the have-nots in our own country, the disappearing middle class, the grotesquely skewed distribution of personal income and wealth. But today those topics are front-page news. It is getting harder and harder to find a person who does not know that less than 20 percent of the people in America hold over 80 percent of the wealth.

In my mind, Occupy Wall Street gets the lion’s share of the credit for raising our awareness of these realities that are gutting the American dream. I don’t have a crystal ball, and I don’t know how long this movement in its current form will last. But if you want a prediction, I predict that it will morph into new, more insistent and persistent ways for Americans to try to wrest control of the ship of state from the oligarchy of wealth before it is too late.

At first, Occupy Wall Street was not taken seriously, as you suggest. And that, of course, was because the mass media quickly started portraying it with caricatures rather than with serious reportage. But within a few weeks, certain journalists — Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times is the one I remember best — started saying, ‘Wait a minute. This deserves to be taken seriously.’ Even though the cartoons persist, so does the movement, and it is being reported on with more and more gravitas.

There was a great moment a week or two ago when Rep. John Lewis from Georgia was interviewed at an Occupy gathering in Atlanta. The reporter asked him to comment on one aspect of the mass media caricature which ridicules some of the young people involved with this movement who “seem clueless about what they are doing, who can’t give a coherent explanation of what Occupy is all about or what they want to come from it.”

Lewis — who, of course, headed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and was deeply involved in the civil rights movement of the 1960s — said, “Look, if you had come to a SNCC rally in the early stages of our movement and asked a sample of us what we wanted and how we proposed to get there, the best most of us could have said was, ‘All I know is that what’s going on is wrong and it needs to stop.’ Many of these Occupy folks are as young as we were back then, and this movement is just starting to emerge. They will learn and grow as we did, and they will accomplish things as we did.” As I heard Lewis speak, I thought, “And what they accomplished was passage of a Civil Rights Act in 1964 and of a Voting Rights Act in 1965.”

For me, Occupy Wall Street is another example — and a very good example — of that non-stop experiment called democracy. I’m grateful for it and try to support it any way I can.

In the prelude to the book, you describe turning 65 and feeling diminished by the symptoms of age. This is something I have personal sympathy for! You also report that “I was no longer able to ‘read’ American culture as easily as I could when my generation was helping to author it.” Yet, your take on our public life is a very current one, and if Utne Reader can be trusted, your voice is among the most visionary we have in 2011. I won’t embarrass you by asking you to account for that. But clearly you live deeply connected to public life, and have for decades. How is it that you continue to absorb and make sense of the zeitgeist?

Well, first, thanks for the sympathy! We men and women of a certain age have to have each other’s backs!

As for the Utne Reader thing, when Dave Schimke, Utne’s editor in chief, interviewed me, I remember telling him two things. First, I said it seemed funny to be getting a “visionary” award at a time when I find myself needing stronger and stronger reading glasses!

Second, I told him that just a few weeks earlier, as I was working on a democracy project with my colleagues at the Center for Courage & Renewal — who include several remarkable people in their late twenties or early thirties — I found myself saying to them: “At age 72, I feel as if I am standing at a place so far down the curvature of this planet that I cannot see the same horizon — the emerging horizon — that you can see from the place where you are standing. So I need you to tell me what you are seeing so that I can understand better what is coming at us across that horizon.”

I long ago learned that I need to ask other people what they see, and these days that means especially the young. As an example of the kind of “seeing” I mean, one of my younger colleagues, Courtney Martin, has written a fine book called Do It Anyway. It’s about the new generation of activists who have given up on that “We’re going to save the world!” energy that turns out to be unsustainable, and have found firmer ground to stand as they work away at social change.

And if Courtney were here, I think she’d say that this is a two-way street, that we elders know things that her generation needs to know. When you can make this intergenerational connection, it’s like connecting the two poles of a battery: the current flows, the lights light up, and it’s easier to dispel the darkness and get a sense of the shape of the zeitgeist!

When I teach or lead a retreat, I often close out with a poem or brief reading. So here’s a meditation called “The Gates of Hope” by Victoria Safford that speaks to me about how we can all become visionaries:

“Our mission is to plant ourselves at the gates of hope — not the prudent gates of Optimism, which are somewhat narrower; nor the stalwart, boring gates of Common Sense; nor the strident gates of self-righteousness, which creak on shrill and angry hinges (our people cannot hear us there; they cannot pass through); nor the cheerful, flimsy garden gate of ‘Everything is gonna be all right,’ but a very different, sometimes very lonely place, the place of truth-telling, about your own soul first of all and its condition, the place of resistance and defiance, the piece of ground from which you see the world both as it is and as it could be, as it might be, as it will be; the place from which you glimpse not only struggle, but joy in the struggle — and we stand there, beckoning and calling, telling people what we are seeing, asking people what they see.”

Share Your Reflection



So much wisdom is expressed throughout this excellent interview. That final quotation is marvelous.

We all need to get into the institutions behind many of the phenomena we see in American life. There are institutional factors that contribute to American divisiveness and concern with self. Scholars have documented the institutions that got behind promoting capitalism, consumerism, selfishness since the 1950s, while concurrently actively undermining the institutions that brought us together. They are all points in law as much as they are social phenomena we observe. 

The Founders did not exclude Slavery for any ideological failing except that they needed landed aristocrats to include themselves in the 13 colonies to make the "revolution" work. There were plenty of people against Slavery at that time, and rather than rising to the occasion, they shut them down with the 2 votes for each State regardless of population. That was a give away to plantation owners in the South to neutralize the votes in the Northern cities that # wise would have abolished Slavery on Day 1! These institutions are the same today as they were then, and instead of protecting slave owners they protect slave makers in the very same way. And, those slave makers just like in times past live off the divided people. The efforts to divide the people since WWII and from which social quarters they came are all well documented. I hope we can get into the institutional factors that give rise to these social phenomena observed by Palmer and others. There are explanations in the money behind certain memes, and the court cases, and laws that enable them to poison us so. Plato, Herodotus, Aristophanes all wrote about the same things. Dickens wrote about such things. The people cannot have any kind of brotherly or community love for each other they wrote and the Plutocrats keep their hands on the money! Therein lies the source of these memes. We don't resemble at all our grandparents society in our social relations and there are reasons for that. 

This is one of the finest reflections on our current state in the U.S. that I've read in a long time. Thank you.

I am grateful for this extremely well done article. It's a unique and helpful integration of form approach and content