August Profile: Parker J. Palmer

Building on his decades of social activism and inner life exploration, Parker J. Palmer’s new book Healing the Heart of Democracy:  The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit examines ways to restore the infrastructure of American politics. He points the way to a politics rooted in the commonwealth of creativity and courage still found among “We the People.”“Democracy,” writes Palmer, “is a non-stop experiment in the strengths and weaknesses of our political institutions, local communities, and the human heart. The experiment is endless, unless we blow up the lab, and the explosives to do the job are found within us. But so also is the heart’s alchemy that can turn suffering into compassion, conflict into community, and tension into energy for creativity amid democracy’s demands.”Palmer names the “habits of the heart” we need to revitalize our politics and shows how they can be formed in the everyday venues of our lives. He proposes practical, promising ways to hold the tensions of our differences for the sake of restoring a government “of the people, by the people, for the people.”In the book, Palmer argues that it is in the pre-political context of our lives that people learn to engage in the conversation of citizenship.  “The word heart, in the ancient tradition refers to a bringing our whole selves to the living of our lives.  The book is a call to become more intentional about forming habits of the heart that help democracy work.”

For more information on the book, including how to order it, please visit

Does today’s polarized political climate and rhetoric have such a damaging effect on citizens that it inhibits their ability to be active participants in our American democracy? Have “We the People,” the very foundation of this democracy, taken a backseat to what is happening on a state and national level because individuals feel powerless to bring about change?

Parker J. Palmer, in his new book, Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit examines those questions and offers us a way to reclaim democracy for “We the People.” At this critical moment in American life, Palmer looks with realism and hope at how to deal with our political tensions for the sake of the common good.

“As long as we allow mass media to define politics as happening in corridors of power that we can’t access – and define issues on such a vast scale that we can’t comprehend them – the outcome is pretty predictable,” Palmer said in a recent interview. “As citizens, we throw up our hands and say, ‘I can’t be an effective political agent. I need to retire to private life, get what I can for me and mine, and forget about my neighbors and the larger community.’

“One of the most interesting things in American politics is that we do want more health care for more people; we do want to pay taxes for good public schools for all children; etc. Polls reveal that people by and large are in favor of things that some folks in Washington say we are not. If you ask the questions properly, very few Americans will say that they don’t want government or that government is all bad. Most people have the common sense to know that without government we would have no potable water, schools, interstate highways, or social safety net.”

Palmer is a writer, author, teacher and activist whose work speaks deeply to people in many walks of life. He is founder and senior partner of the Center for Courage & Renewal ( He has written on spirituality, education and teaching, and on the need for an engaged citizenry to be part of the public life that defines our democracy. He holds an undergraduate degree from Carleton College and a Ph.D. in sociology from the University of California at Berkeley. Among his many awards are 10 honorary doctorates, two Distinguished Achievement Awards from the National Educational Press Association, an Award of Excellence from the Associated Church Press, and the 2010 William Rainey Harper Award (previously won by Margaret Mead, Marshall McLuhan, Paulo Freire, and Elie Wiesel).

“Let’s not forget that American democracy started with ‘We the People’ agreeing to work hard to create ‘a more perfect union.’ We’ve lost the idea that politics begins at home with what happens in families, in neighborhoods, in classrooms, in congregations. We called this democracy into being – and if we want to call this democracy back to its highest values, it’s got to be the us doing that calling. That’s not going to happen if ‘We the People’ don’t know how to talk to one another with civility and hold our differences in a creative, life-giving way.”

It sounds like a simple task on paper. But that does not mean it is easy. In Healing the Heart of Democracy, Palmer outlines the “habits of the heart” that are crucial to developing the conversations that will help our democracy survive and thrive. The book outlines five key habits of the heart and the venues of local life where we can help them develop.

Palmer compares the long-term work needed on the infrastructure of democracy to the long-term work needed to maintain and rebuild the physical infrastructure of our country. “We can see we have neglected the physical infrastructure of our country: a bridge collapses in Minneapolis; a street explodes in New York City; public services don’t work properly; we are threatened with insufficient water or electricity.

“We see what happens when we don’t have the patience to do the necessary long-term work on our physical infrastructure. Now is the time to begin long-term work on democracy’s infrastructure. All kinds of practical things can be done to make that happen in an intentional and ongoing way.

“Every time we refuse to talk to each other in a life-giving way, we squander our power. Every time we practice hostility instead of hospitality in the public realm, we drive more people into private life and out of the arena of true politics where we can explore the common good, dream together about what we really want and how we are going to get it, and then hold our elected officials accountable. It takes courage to enter the public battlefield where so much hateful rhetoric flies. We need to rebuild the venues of local life in which the habits of the heart get formed that make real citizenship possible.”

Palmer urges a look back at American history, which is helpful in understanding that conflict has always been with us. “At any given moment in democracy, there are 15-20 percent on both the left and the right who are not going to be able to join in a creative conversation. But that leaves 60-70 percent in the middle (who can), and that’s more than enough to do business in a democratic society. At the Constitutional Convention of 1787, 30 percent of the delegates walked out. The remainder got the work done.

“Joseph Ellis, in his book American Creation, argues that the institutions of American democracy were not set up to solve problems quickly but rather to keep the salient issues on the table so we can keep returning to them and keep trying to get them right. Often it may be one step forward, two steps back. Democratic institutions have never given us ‘the final solution,’ which is an idea associated with fascism, not democracy.

“If you want a democracy you have to settle for ongoing conflict, ongoing imperfection, and you have to find people who can do business with each other in that context. I believe there are plenty of people to do that. But we’ve allowed the 15-20 percent at both ends to make all the noise, and a lot of the rest of us have been driven into silence and out of democracy’s conversation.”

Engagement in the public life is a theme that has carried through many of Palmer’s works. In his 1983 book A Company of Strangers, Palmer wrote: “Without a public life, government becomes a sham, a show, an elaboration of techniques for manipulating the populace – and movements aimed at altering the government tend to become the same. Public life creates the community which both establishes legitimate government and holds it accountable to what the people want.”

“I’m not surprised that some of the issues I discussed in 1983, in the Reagan era, are still salient issues in the Obama era,” Palmer said recently. “They were salient issues even in the era of the founders. One of the things I’m aware of at age 72 is that all the people I admire for their social and political engagement – whether well known or not – share at least one characteristic: they somehow developed a capacity for standing and acting in what I call the ‘tragic gap.’

“By that I mean the gap between the hard, discouraging realities around us and what we know to be possible because we’ve seen those possibilities with our own eyes. We know there is a lot of greed, but we also know that human beings are capable of great generosity and caring. Gaps between reality and possibility are never fully closed. If you think of any of my heroes or your heroes – Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day, Rosa Parks, people who devoted their lives to great human causes of love, truth and justice – they died without seeing any final resolution. Yet, that did not deter them.

“The capacity for standing in the tragic gap helps keep us from flipping out into too much reality, which can lead to a corrosive cynicism that makes deals with the devil, or too much possibility, which can lead to an irrelevant idealism that floats above the fray. Cynicism and idealism sound like two different things, but they have the same effect: both take us out of action. If democracy is to work, ‘We the People’ have to be at the heart of the action.

“To stay in the fray, we have to make effectiveness (or getting the problem solved) a secondary criterion. Each of us is going to die without seeing the final resolution of the problems we care most about. If effectiveness is our only measure, we will fall into despair. For me, the word ‘faithfulness’ names the primary criterion for evaluating our contributions. Am I acting in a way that is faithful to the gifts I’ve been given, to the situations in which I’ve been placed, and to the needs that come up in those situations about which I might do something?

“At the end I am going to be asking, ‘Was I faithful to my best lights? Did I speak my highest truth? Did I speak it in a way that other people could hear it? And was it truth that somehow, on balance, contributed to human possibility?’

“When we generate utopian visions and hope to make them happen soon – when we elect Barack Obama and expect all our problems to be solved, and solved quickly, by his presidency – the outcome is both predictable and tragic. That is not the way to engage social change in a democracy. And it is not the way to help democracy itself survive and thrive. Democracy is a non-stop experiment. Each generation must help sustain it, which means being in it day-by-day for the long haul.”

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