Politics of the brokenhearted

heart of democracy

In his book Healing the Heart of Democracy, Parker Palmer writes that the “politics of our time is the politics of the brokenhearted”. Yes, Mr. Palmer dares to introduce a sentiment as outlandish as  ‘heart-talk’ into the political vocabulary. Politics – the eternal human striving to craft that common life on which we all depend – has become technical, strategic and almost robotic in nature; it is lacking a ‘wholeness’ and has created an aura of decay that only a reintroduction of ‘heart’ and a redefinition of the political act, can surmount. Politics has acquired a language that has become far removed from our everyday life experiences; a language that appears to buffer its user from facing what it represents. A great example is the gradual transformation of the language used to refer to postwar conditions that so many soldiers have to contend with. George Carlin does a great job at bringing this to the forefront. “There’s a condition in combat”, he states, “when a fighting person’s nervous system has been stressed to its absolute peak and maximum. Can’t take anymore input. The nervous system has either…snapped or is about to snap”. In WW1, we defined this condition as ‘shell shock’  – simple, honest and direct language, according to Carlin. Over time, the language has become more and more abstract and has overlaid the ‘pain’ with jargon:

from sell shock

to battle fatigue

to operational exhaustion

to post- traumatic stress disorder.

Very technical and very vague. Almost as if society had attempted to cover the soldier’s pain with jargon; very little humanity remains. The result: it is now far easier for us to avoid connecting through ‘feeling’, to avoid thinking too much about war and what it does not only to humans in other countries but to the nations own, sent to fight for some indefinable, questionable cause. Digging deeper into the annals of history, Palmer comes across yet another definition. During America’s Civil War, the condition was known as ‘soldier’s heart’. “The violence,” he claims “that results in ‘soldier’s heart’ shatters a person’s sense of self and community”; it destabilizes the individual and what was whole is now broken.

Too abstract, you say! Let us then delve into ‘heart-talk’ and reclaim, as Palmer argues, the original meaning of ‘Heart’. The word ‘Heart’, so he tells us, “comes from the Latin cor and points not only to our emotions but to the core of the self, that center place where all of our ways of knowing converge – intellectual, emotional, sensory, intuitive, imaginative, experiential, relational and bodily. The heart is where we integrate what we know in our minds with what we know in our bones, the place where knowledge can become more fully human. Cor is also the Latin root from which we get the word courage. When all that we understand of self and world comes together in the center place called the heart, we are more likely to find the courage to act humanely on what we know”.

Today, we have a politics of broken-heartedness. Somewhere on the way, as Bill Moyers states, “we took a series of narrow escapes… we have fallen under the spell of money, faction and fear, and the great American experience of creating a different future together has been subjugated to individual cunning in the pursuit of wealth and power — and to the claims of empire with its ravenous demands and stuporous distractions. A sense of political impotence pervades the country — a mass resignation defined as believing in the dogma of democracy on a superficial level but not believing it privately…hope no longer seems the operative dynamic of America, and without hope we lose the talent and drive to cooperate in the shaping of our destiny”. In summary – the system is broken and shattered. No longer are we integrating all the invaluable ingredients of the heart, the – ways of knowing, being and learning – to nurture a wholeness. The heart of our political system is broken and the broken-hearted rule.

Is this fear-mongering, you ask? An overstatement/exaggeration/simplification, perhaps? Palmer disagrees. We have to face reality. To overcome and to reconcile, we have to start with truth-telling. And the truth is that “we suffer from a widespread loss of jobs, homes, savings… we suffer from fear of terrorism and the paranoia it produces. We suffer from fragmentation of community that leaves us isolated from one another. We suffer from our indifference to those among us who suffer. And we suffer as well from a hopeless sense that our personal and collective destinies are no longer in our hands”. What shall we do with our suffering, he asks us.

Here, Palmer widens his notion of the broken heart and suggests that our hearts can break apart or they can break open. The difference is importance. Loss, failure, defeat, betrayal and death can break our hearts, yet, a ‘breaking apart’ leads to confusion, anger, depression and disengagement while a ‘breaking-open’ leads to a greater capacity to “hold complexities and contradictions of the human experience”, the result of which may be a new life. In politics, learning to hold contradictions and tensions with creative potential; learning to expand the imaginable; having a heart that break’s open to the world rather than apart in depression, leads to a politics profoundly human, compassionate and courageous.

Let me try to bring these distinctions a bit closer through a simple analogy. If we do not practice the habit of ‘heart-politics’ – the outward extension of the inner integration of emotion, intellect, experience, etc – in our daily lives, in our politics and in our societies, then from lack of use and care, the heart becomes brittle. If broken, it shatters into thousands of pieces and we are then left the daunting task of gathering individual fragments to rebuild, reform, remake. Too often, this task is too big and complex so that the wound remains unhealed. We are faced with confusion, violence, depression and fear – at the individual and societal level. If, on the other hand, we nurture the habit of engaging with society from a foundation of inner wholeness, then the heart remains supple. Then, if our heart breaks, Palmer explains, it can break open into a “greater capacity to hold our own and the world’s pain”. Heartbreak then can “become a source of healing, of deepening our empathy for the suffering of others and extending our ability to reach out to them”.

When Tocqueville, the 19th century French political thinker, came to America, he had conflicting emotions. One the one side, coming from France where voluntary associations were strongly discouraged, he was amazed at the bustling communal activity – from commercial and manufacturing enterprises to religious and educational institutions – that he saw in America; and yet, he felt uneasy about the creeping individualism, since “there are more and more people who, though neither rich nor powerful enough to have much hold over others, have gained or kept enough wealth and enough understanding to look after their own needs. Such folks owe no man anything and hardly expect anything from anybody. They form the habit of thinking of themselves in isolation and imagine their whole destiny is in their hands”. The image of the self-made man emerged. A living apart, a drawing of circles around one’s own physical, intellectual, emotional space leads to a man, as Tocqueville claimed, that is “satisfied with the presence of family and close friends. To other citizens he relates at a distance – he is close to them but he does not see them; he touches them, but he does not feel them; he exists only in himself and for himself alone”.

Abraham Lincoln recognized such emerging habits and he urged that “to correct the evils, great and small, which spring from want of sympathy, and from positive enmity, among strangers, as nations, or as individuals, is one of the highest functions of civilization”. Lincoln called for us to draw on the ‘better angels of our nature and he did so from a heart that broke open. Shortly after the Civil War ended, Lincoln spoke of reconciliation in his last public address before his assassination. Referring to the southern states, he stated that “finding themselves safely at home, it would be utterly immaterial whether they had ever been abroad”. A strong refusal to let the past shackle men to sentiments of revenge and hatred and a call for forgiveness and the overarching humanity that connects us all.

The example set by Abraham Lincoln on that day speaks to us all. E.F. Schumacher, in his book Small is Beautiful writes that “it is easy enough to see that all through our lives we are faced with the task of reconciling opposites which, in logical thought, cannot be reconciled”. He adds that such a predicament can be overcome if we “bring into the situation a force that belongs to a higher level where opposites are transcended – the power of love”. Love and compassion are born from a wholeness of heart; they cannot flourish otherwise. This brings us back to the heart of politics and as Terry Tempest Williams writes: “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?” It is in our hearts, that we struggle and fight the daily battle from which democracy is born. We all struggle with daily contradictions and the tensions that sometimes seem to tear us apart. We may feel helpless, confused and in need of guidance; we all have questions that stand unanswered and that haunt us. We may feel isolated, misunderstood and lacking a voice. The problems may seem insurmountable and the institutions unmoveable. Here, German poet Rainer Maria Rilke offers this timeless advice “be patient toward all that is unresolved in your heart…Try to love the questions themselves… Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given because you would not be able to live them – and the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answers”.

How then, as Parker Palmer proposes, do we heal the heart of political democracy and make it supple that in time of crisis it breaks open rather than apart? I want to suggest that what we need, what society needs, is to abandon our old narrative and to call into being a process that day by day, lets us narrate a new story. A story back to humanity, back to wholeness and back to ‘Heart’. Why focus on story? you ask. I believe in the power of a story to shape our identity, as an individual and as a collective and to empower our action. Marshall Ganz, the brainchild behind Camp Obama, writes that “a story communicates fear, hope, and anxiety, and because we can feel it, we get the moral not just as a concept, but as a teaching of our hearts. That’s the power of a story. That’s why most of our faith traditions interpret themselves as stories, because they are teaching our hearts how to live as choiceful human beings capable of embracing hope over fear, self-worth and self-love over self-doubt, and lover over isolation and alienation”. Ganz presents us with the challenge: HOW DO WE recapture that power of public narrative and learn the art of leadership storytelling? A storytelling that empowers us all and that redefines the ‘political act’ as away from voting and party membership and towards everyday interactions and community building?

Ganz writes that “a leadership story is first a story of self, a story of why I’ve been called. Some people say, “I don’t want to talk about myself,” but if you don’t interpret to others your calling and your reason for doing what you’re doing, do you think it will just stay uninterpreted? No. Other people will interpret it for you. You don’t have any choice if you want to be a leader. You have to claim authorship of your story and learn to tell it to others so they can understand the values that move you to act, because it might move them to act as well.

We all have a story of self. What’s utterly unique about each of us is not the categories we belong to; what’s utterly unique to us is our own journey of learning to be a full human being, a faithful person. And those journeys are never easy. They have their challenges, their obstacles, their crises. We learn to overcome them, and because of that we have lessons to teach. In a sense, all of us walk around with a text from which to teach, the text of our own lives.

The second story is the story of us. That’s an answer to the question, Why are we called? What experiences and values do we share as a community that call us to what we are called to? What is it about our experience of faith, public life, the pain of the world, and the hopefulness of the world? It’s putting what we share into words. We’ve all been in places where people have worked together for years, but there’s no us there because they don’t share their stories. Faith traditions are grand stories of us. They teach how to be an us.

Finally, there’s the story of now—the fierce urgency of now. The story of now is realizing, after the sharing of values and aspirations, that the world out there is not as it ought to be. Instead, it is as it is. And that is a challenge to us. We need to appreciate the challenge and the conflict between the values by which we wish the world lived and the values by which it actually does. The difference between those two creates tension. It forces upon us consideration of a choice. What do we do about that? We’re called to answer that question in a spirit of hope.

Our goal is to meet this challenge, to seize this hope, and turn it into concrete action. After developing our stories of self, then we work on building relationships, which forms the story of us. From there we turn to strategizing and action, working together to achieve a common purpose, learning to experience hope—that’s the story of now”.

The new healing narrative must be an interwoven web of individually owned and catalyzed stories coming together under an umbrella of citizenship, respect, responsibility and love and guided by a sense that what matters is the potential inherent in the ‘present moment’. Let us not be side-tracked by the beguiling image of ‘effectiveness’ as the ultimate measure of our failure or success, Palmer urges. Let us shun making measurable, short-term outcomes the primary standard for assessing our efforts and let us judge ourselves by a higher standard, the standard of faithfulness. In our doings, we must ask ourselves whether or not we “are faithful to the eternal question of the human race, to speaking and listening that takes us closer to the truth…are faithful to the call of courage that summons us to witness to the common good, even against great odds…are we faithful to the better angels of our nature and to what they call forth in us…?”. Faithfulness must be our guiding star and banner, for as Reinhold Niebuhr states “nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith; nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love”.

And what shall we build? What shall absorb our energies, our spirits and souls that is worthy of enduring faith and love? Educators and activists Sara Evans and Harry Boyte suggest that we must free our societies from walls upon walls of rigidity, convention and isolation and create public spaces where our relations with each other have a chance to become “more pleasant, more strong, and more durable”. What we need to carve out are free spaces, and by this they mean “particular sorts of public places in the community that are the environments in which people are able to learn a new self-respect, a deeper and more assertive group identity, public skills, and values of cooperation and civic virtue. Put simply, free spaces are settings between private lives and large-scale institutions where ordinary citizens can act with dignity, independence, and vision”. It is here, Palmer states, that the habits of the heart are given life. In short, he describes them as derived from two concepts – chutzpah and humility: knowing that we all have a voice that needs to be heard and that we have the right to speak it; while accepting the fact that individually held truths are always partial and may not be true at all. Together, chutzpah and humility allow us to

understand that we are all in this together

develop an appreciation of the value of “otherness”

cultivate a sense of personal voice and agency

strengthen our capacity to create community

cultivate the ability to hold tension in life-giving ways

And so, we are uplifted by Rilke, who leaves us the following heritage:

“For there is a boundary to looking.

And the world that is looked at so deeply

wants to flourish in love.

Work for the eye is done, now

go and do heart-work

on all the images imprisoned within you”

And in your work, do not be discouraged since “even the smallest, most un-heroic of acts add to the store of kindling that may be ignited by some surprising circumstance into tumultuous change ~ Howard Zinn.


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