Healing the Heart of Democracy

healing-the-heart-of-democracyReading: Washington Post articles from Sept 26 2016 “Feeling Anxious About the Debate?” and October 13 2016 “People Are So Stressed by this Election….” 

If you were at the installation, you may remember that the opening line of the choral piece started with “on the clock of the world, it’s dark, dawn is coming, and day’s about to break.”

This lyric is a reference to a question from civil rights activist Grace Lee Boggs. Boggs died about a year ago at the age of 100, but not before she managed to ask at least 4 different generations of young activists: “What time is it on the clock of the world?”

Her question invites us to engage with a global sense of time, and to put ideas like “revolution” in a greater context; she wanted us to “stretch our humanity” so that we might better consider what’s true about this moment – our current moment in history
in the context of the greater arc of the universe, an arc that is bigger than any of our lifetimes, certainly bigger than any one election, and larger even than any one country,
including the United States of America.

Her question wakes us up from our painfully short memories, our impossibly fast media cycles, and our lack of a sense of proportion to other times, and reminds us – no matter our catastrophizing about the current age, all times have their problems and their opportunities, all have their pressing moral questions. Including our own.

Thinking about time in this global way is a great antidote to the sort of stress we just heard about, the sort of stress that I’m guessing many of us relate with.

This feeling that our political process, our democracy, perhaps our entire American experiment is facing a unique state of dysfunction, even collapse. This is so stressful.
Stressful and depressing, overwhelming and anxiety-producing. And as the reading described, this stress can make us avoidant, angry, reactive and afraid.

Talk to most people today about politics, and they’ll either sigh and ask to change the subject, or list with anger all the ways our democratic system has failed and why,
and who’s to blame- usually it’s someone “out there,” some stranger from the other side, or the media, or corporations, or politicians, or a lack of family values….

It is so stressful and anxiety-producing because we were taught to love our American story, our practice of democracy and embrace of liberty and justice for all.  Seeing the reality of what today’s politics looks like, at least according to our Facebook feed, or cable news, or even public radio or the New York times….it is a constant experience of heartbreak.

Which is why, I must confess that while I’ve known about Parker Palmer’s book,
Healing the Heart of Democracy for a few years, I have actively avoided it.

I’m a fan of his work generally – I love his book on vocation, Let Your Life Speak. I even went to hear him speak at the University of Denver in 2008. He’s one of those rare people who appears to be the same person in real life as he is on the page. Smart, thoughtful, hopeful, complex. But still I saw this title come out, and I was like – nope.

Because I’ve heard the chants at the rallies, seen the signs, read the posts on social media – and as we talked about last week, the comments sections. I’ve watched the congressional feed from CSPAN, heard the interviews on NPR…..

I saw his title about Healing the Heart of Democracy – and saw that it was about cultivating new habits in the heart in service of our common life, and all I could think was:  what good would it do for our common life- for me to practice new habits of the heart, when it seems that those who think of me as other would prefer that I wasn’t in “common” with them at all? 

I could have all the good intentions and practices in the world, but really, what good would it do?

Holding this tension and heartbreak and skepticism – without turning away, it turns out, is one of the key healing habits Parker promotes, and what he describes as one of the main functions of democracy.

In a democracy, he says, many many things won’t be resolved, and a path towards resolution may not even be clear or seem possible. Many things won’t feel comfortable, or fixed, often for entire lifetimes – here’s Boggs’ global sense of time again.

Yet democracy requires people who will stay engaged and hopeful and connected with others who are different than they are even when it may not do any obvious good at all,
even when those “others” don’t seem to want to be engaged with you. Democracy requires a faithfulness to our common humanity, a heart-based discipline where we refuse –
in any case – to see any other human being as our enemy.

The heart isn’t usually the first thing we associate with democracy – our fifth principle on the democratic process is actually the one I’d consider the most rationally, coolly stated: “The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process.”

I know I’m showing my generational bias, but honestly, these words call to mind long meetings held in school gyms during times when I have to work or pick up my kids, meetings filled with folks who like to debate for hours, analyzing big ideas, maybe even more so than they like making those ideas a reality….

But behind the stuffy-sounding words, there are deeply held, emotionally charged beliefs, and practices – or at least, there needs to be – beliefs and practices that have to do with our humanity, our personhood, and the quality and meaning of life on this planet and our capacity to care for and with one another.

Parker reminds us that democracy isn’t about some “distant center of power –legislatures, lobbyists, party caucuses, and board rooms.” Or even about school gyms and long meetings.

“The impulses that make democracy possible – and those that threaten it,” he says,
“originate in the heart, with its complex mix of heedless self-interest and yearning for community.  From there these impulses move out into our relations with each other in families, neighborhoods, work places, voluntary associations, and the various settings of life.  Democracy depends on ordinary Americans energized rather than defeated by whatever breaks their hearts, taking step after small step in local settings to contribute to the common good.”

We the people ….Not “They the people.” We.

In the same ways that the term “courageous love” means something more than and different from romantic love, “heart” as Parker Palmer uses it isn’t about a squishy sappy place for simple emotionalism.

Parker means “heart” in the way that Alexis de Toqueville talked about “mores” in his 19th century Democracy in America, a term meant to describe all the moral, intellectual, emotional, intuitive, imaginative, experiential, embodied, and relational habits of the person and the society as they converge in one place, the heart.

Given all of these forces, it should be no surprise, that things are messy in the heart.
Unpredictable, complicated, confusing; often in the heart we don’t have words for all that we know. The heart is the place where – though we may not be able to explain it exactly –
we get intuitively Walt Whitman’s declaration, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then.
I am large, I contain multitudes.”

A healthy heart lives like this, holding contradictions, tending and mending to the mess of life, rather than fleeing or fighting. And, on the other hand, a brittle unhealthy, shut-off heart, makes no such space, seeks instead resolution, finality, quick fixes, clear categories of right and wrong, good and evil, predictability and singularity.

All of our hearts live somewhere on this spectrum of health, often at different places throughout our lives as we struggle, grieve, learn, love, rejoice, and begin again.

Parker Palmer reminds us that, depending on our heart health, stress can show up in our lives either in the negative ways that inspire therapists to invent new terms of disorder –
we call this dis-tress – or stress can also be experienced positively – what’s called eustress, an experience of stress that is beneficial, a source of creativity, and life-giving generativity.

Because stress and complexity are realities of living, we need hearts that will help us turn distress into eustress, and as Parker says, turn “suffering into community, conflict into the energy of creativity, and tension into an opening toward the common good.”

Despite what we may believe, or have been taught, this sort of change, or alchemy, does not come by way of well-stated arguments of reason and analysis.

Reason and facts are good, yet insufficient.

As Margaret Wheatley says it: “Neither I nor the world changes from my well-reasoned, passionately presented arguments. Things change when I’ve created just the slightest movement toward wholeness, moving closer to another through my patient, willing listening.”

Which means that we can’t read or repost more articles or study more theories or
listen to more talk radio to restore our democracy, or our common life. Not even debate, discussion, or a thorough compliance with Roberts Rules of Order will get us there. To heal the heart of democracy, democracy needs us to heal our hearts.

Parker offers many different ways to improve our heart health – a variety of habits to take up – for today, I want to turn to what he calls the two main habits of the heart required for a healthy democracy – chutzpah and humility – two seemingly contradictory postures
that remind me of the promises of Unitarian Universalism’s first and seventh principles.

The first of his habits, “Chutzpah” is like our first principle – as it affirms that each of our voices matters, that each of us is worthy, inherently – that our individual participation and engagement matters. We affirm this regularly in our faith, but internalizing it requires repetition, reinforcement, and embodied practices.

After all, consumerism and much of our educational system often teach us to be passive audience members instead of engaged actors, and so we need to help each other, and practice more often – in places like this congregation – practice being active participants whose voice and engagement makes a difference.

We need to remember what it means to be an active part of a “we” rather than feeling at the whims of the nameless, faceless “them.”

Our fifth principle is not just a promise of how we will run meetings or a commitment to vote each November, but rather a promise that we will actively participate in our shared life, show up, listen in, and be a part.

Through active, engaged participation, “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.”

The balance to the habit of chutzpah is the practice of humility, which is a natural outcome of our seventh principle: Our affirmation of our interdependence. The reality that we are all in this life together. All interconnected – even interconnected with those who seem most “alien” to us, those who Parker calls the “alien other.”

In life today, however, we are increasingly segregated from those “alien others,” and instead spend most if not all of our time with people like ourselves, and we invest our care and concern mostly for those closest to us, our immediate circle of family and friends.

In reading Parker’s book I started to realizethat critical to democracy is an awareness of the ways we need each other – not just our siblings, spouses, parents…. we all need all of us.

Working against democracy is our myth of independence and self-reliance and our modern trend to privatization.

Democracy requires an awareness of our vulnerability, and our need for others beyond ourselves, beyond our family unit, even our need for those whose lives and convictions run in direct contradiction to our own.

An awareness of this, and opportunities to actually practice it, for example by serving alongside people who are different than we are, learning skills to be better listeners,
and then actually listening to one another, and tending to each other’s suffering and joy-
all of these practices foster a profound humility, reinforcing as we say at the start of each service, that each of us holds but a piece of the truth.

These practices go further than tolerance, and even beyond hospitality for the stranger.
Instead they ask us to receive the tensions of our differences as a gift – a gift where our hearts expand, and are opened into a greater understanding of ourselves and our world,
and the heart’s alchemy can keep doing its work.

One of my teachers in seminary was the great Dr. Vincent Harding, speech writer and friend to Martin Luther King, Jr.  Like Grace Lee Boggs, Dr. Harding called us to remember a sense of global time.  Even though he pressed a fierce urgency of now, his tender speech
and his way of listening reminded us that behind the marching and protesting, debating and politicking, were real human lives – real stories that play out in neighborhoods and school yards, in grocery stores and around the kitchen table.

He would say, “when it comes to creating a multiracial, multiethnic, multi-religious, truly democratic society, we are still a developing nation.” We have a lot of pain, a lot of hurt, and we’ve got to do this together, listen better, hold each other, tend and mend these deep stories that we carry. He’d say, America is trying to give birth to a new story. And we’re just beginning.

It’s such a hopeful imagination he offers, such a profound and helpful way to consider this moment we’re in – that we are experiencing labor pains – the terrifying, sometimes-dangerous, chaotic labor pains of America trying finally to be born – finally making good on our promise of Liberty and Justice for All.

If we can step back from the news cycle, from pundits and politics, I think we know that he’s right. We are in the midst of a great change, a great turning, a new birth.

On the clock of the world, it’s dark.
Because dawn is coming.
And day’s about to break.

Now is not the time to check out, but to wake up,
now is not the time to respond to bitterness
by becoming more bitter,
but to allow what is broken in the world to break our hearts wide open,
that we might be more alive, more flexible,
With hearts held with so much space,
and tenderness
and humility
partnering with all the grace and love of our vast universe,
that we might hold even more complexity and contradiction, more compassion, more hope.

As if midwives of a new age, this breaking dawn and emerging story need us to keep whispering to one another, to ourselves, and to our great struggling and beautiful world,
“You can do this,” “I’m here with you.” “Don’t turn away from the pain.” “You are doing this.” “Keep going.” “You are not alone.”

Much of what I’m exploring in the middle of this sermon is a re-telling and my read of Parker Palmer’s ideas.  Don’t be like me and avoid the book – go read it!

And then, the midwifing metaphor is Dr. Harding’s, one he shared in many ways, in our classes, in workshops I attended with him, and in his writings, and from what I can tell, across the country.  He was gentle, sharp, wise, and carried the mantle of “elder” in ways not many are able to.  I’ll never forget the day I preached and he was there – afterwords he said, “we should work together.” Yes.  Most days, I’m still feeling your partnership and guidance, Uncle Vincent.  Beyond grateful.

Here is the full list of the resources for this sermon:

Parker Palmer, Healing the Heart of Democracy, first published in 2011; second edition in 2014

Margaret Wheatley: “Listening as Healing,” December 2001 

Vincent Harding: “Midwifing a New America,” January 2008

Vincent Harding: “The America that Has Not Yet Been, Trying to be Born,” September 2008

Grace Lee Boggs interview with Krista Tippett: “A Century in the World,” August 2015

Vincent Harding interview with Krista Tippett: “Civility, History and Hope,” May 2014

Eustress vs. Distress on MentalHelp.Net

About Rev. Gretchen Haley

Gretchen Haley is relentlessly curious about most things, especially the big stuff of theology, the beauty of creation, the magic of collaboration, and the great joy of pop culture (reflected in this blog by random posts on Beyonce, Taylor Swift, Scandal, Orphan Black, or the latest Marvel movie). She has an audacious ambition for the liberal church, believing in its capacity to transform lives and our world by way of hyper-local relationships and partnerships that inspire the unleashing of courageous love. She's all in on adrienne maree brown's emergent strategy, and finds solace in the trails in and around Fort Collins Colorado where she serves with the brilliant Rev. Sean Neil-Barron as one of the ministers of the Foothills Unitarian Church. She and her amazing partner of over 20 years, Carri, have 2 children, Gracie (14) and Josef (12) who both relish and resent being PKs, and who keep her grounded, frustrated, inspired, and humbled, everyday. She is basically obsessed with her puppy, a large sized mutt, Charlie.
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2 Responses to Healing the Heart of Democracy

  1. Rachel says:

    Dear Rev. Gretchen,

    I just read this beautiful sermon in which you invoke Grace Lee Boggs, Parker Palmer and my dad, Vincent Harding. Thank you so much. I thought you might like to know about the new Veterans of Hope Project website — http://www.veteransofhope.org — which features a section on my parents (“Founders”) as well as a number of resources for teaching and learning about movements for compassionate social justice from the experiences of elder activists, communities of color and the wisdom of indigenous peoples. I hope we can keep in touch. Warm regards,

    Rachel Harding


    • Dear Rachel,
      Thank you so much for your note, it means so much. I will certainly check out the new site and all its resources. I am so grateful for your father, and your whole family’s presence and witness in the world.
      In partnership,


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