Parker Palmer – Healing The Heart of Democracy – Book Review

In Healing the Heart of Democracy – The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit, one of my favorite authors, Parker J. Palmer, pours his heart out, integrating the myriad of dimensions of why this effort is so essential, your role in it, and the realistic possibilities/opportunities for the outcomes he so vigorously advocates for.

In one sense this book is about you, the American citizen. It’s a call to come off the couch and assume a new posture of chutzpah and humility. Chutzpah to speak your mind or your heart about issues in America. Humility to do so in a civil and respectful way – holding the same tolerance and courtesy toward those whose views are contrary to your own.

Consider the following:

“But as long as distrust and contempt keep “We the People” from having a generative conversation, our will cannot be known let alone voiced.”(p.16).

Just as the central thesis of much of Palmer’s writing is about the human heart- a subject this book cannot escape.  “The heart is where we integrate the intellect with the rest of our faculties, such as emotion, imagination, and intuition. It is where we can learn how to “rethink the world together,” not apart, and find the courage to act on what we know.” (p.18).

The book is filled with prescient observations:

“in the absence of an engaged public, democracy begins to die, and some form of oligarchy emerges to take it’s place.” (p.25).

“We must develop habits that allow our hearts to break open and embrace diversity rather than break down and further divide us.” p. 36.

“Democracy demands that we become engaged with “the other.”p.38

Palmer goes on to illuminate Five Habits of the Heart required by the American citizenry to respond to 21st century realities:

1. We’re all in this together

2. The need to develop an appreciation for the value of “otherness.”

3. The ability to hold tension in life-giving ways.

4. Generate a sense of personal voice and agency.

5. Strengthen our capacity to create community.

Palmer’s life’s work can be summarized in what he writes on page 60: “there is an eternal mystery about how the shattered soul becomes whole again.” He suggests we are now at a place in time within the evolution of the “idea of American democracy” whereby: “We are now at such a place as a nation: we must restore the wholeness of our civic community or watch democracy wither.”p. 60. Again, he goes to the reality of the heartbreak that permeates the American landscape as the source of opportunity to “heal the heart of democracy.” He suggests that “We the People” must become “a vital reality rather than a philosophical abstraction.” (p.99).

Palmer also highlights the penchant for focusing on short-term tasks that promise instant , visible results – yet, maintain paralysis on the larger challenges facing the broader society.

The works of Parker J. Palmer are both numerous and noteworthy. As a point of  forthright, full disclosure, they populate my personal library. Palmer can be considered, in my opinion, a legitimate spiritual cardiologist, who has spent a lifetime exploring the mysteries and miracles of the human heart.

As I read Healing The Heart of Democracy, I recognized not only his acumen with matters of the human heart, but an authentic concern with the heart and soul of America – in all its various dimensions – government, principles, representatives, sources of power and influence, citizens, processes, humility, the silent, the overlooked, the marginalized, freedom, hope, innovation, and creativity.

You can’t write a book like this unless:

a. You are deeply concerned over the state and trajectory of America.

b. You possess the courage and strength to publicly share your concerns.

c. You have both the wisdom and experience with the “matters of the heart” to define legitimate, well thought out approaches to healing the maladies that currently threaten our collective health.

Read this book. Get three and share it with others. Intentionally gather to talk about it’s call to action. This isn’t a book filled with words and catchy phrases – it’s a behavioral prescription  for healing…our hearts – and that of our nation…

Both of which Parker J. Palmer deeply cares about…

If your cardiologist looked you in the eye and gave you specific instructions to “change your lifestyle or else!” What would you do? This is the question and posture that Parker Palmer leaves us with. You have the cardiologists instructions – now it’s up to you!

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