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Parker J. Palmer

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Humility, Chutzpah and Democracy in America: 5 Habits of the Heart

Posted: 12/12/11 01:09 PM ET

"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?" --Terry Tempest Williams, "The Open Space of Democracy"

Prophets aren't always crones or old geezers. When Alexis de Tocqueville visited the United States in the early 1830s, he was only 27 years old. But after spending a year among us, the young French intellectual returned home to write the classic Democracy in America. In it he predicted that this democracy's future would depend heavily on the "habits of the heart" its citizens developed, habits that form a vital part of democracy's infrastructure.

Today, as habits of the heart like demonizing those who disagree with us, or tripping out on the fantasy that "I made it on my own and I don't owe anyone anything," unravel the fabric of our civic community, Tocqueville has proven prophetic once again.

For Tocqueville, as for Terry Tempest Williams, "heart" meant much more than feelings. The word comes from the Latin cor. It points to the core of the self where all of our ways of knowing converge -- intellectual, emotional, sensory, intuitive, imaginative, experiential, relational and bodily, among others.

Tocqueville believed that America's religious communities would be critical in forming our habits of the heart, for better or for worse. As a Christian, I don't need to be schooled on the "worse" that religion is capable of doing to democracy. When it comes to the political toxicity of some forms of Christianity, Holden Caulfield got it right in "The Catcher in the Rye" when he uttered those famous words, "old Jesus probably would've puked if He could see it."

But some critics of religion seem to be stuck in the 16-year-old Holden Caulfield stage of development, able to see only part of the picture and enamored of their own power to say "scandalous" things. The truth is that leaders and members of some churches, synagogues and mosques -- conservative and liberal alike -- have worked hard for a long time to serve the common good, and they have the openness of heart to do the job.

Those religious communities -- to say nothing of our schools, which Tocqueville also regarded as critical -- could make a vital contribution to democracy by teaching and practicing five habits of the heart on which so much depends:

1. An understanding that we are all in this together. We are a profoundly interconnected species, as the global economic and ecological crises reveal in vivid and frightening detail. We must embrace the simple fact that we are dependent on and accountable to one another. At the same time, we must save this notion from the idealistic excesses that make it an impossible dream. Exhorting people to hold a continual awareness of national or global interconnectedness is a counsel of perfection achievable (if at all) only by the rare saint. Which leads to a second key habit of the heart...

2. An appreciation of the value of "otherness." Although we are all in this together, we spend most of our lives in "tribes." Thinking of the world as "us" and "them" is one of the limitations of the human mind. The good news is that "us and them" doesn't need to mean "us vs. them." Instead, it can remind us of the ancient tradition of hospitality to the stranger which is rooted in the notion that the stranger has much to teach us. Hospitality invites "otherness" into our lives to expand our minds and hearts, to help us feel more at home amid the diversity of humankind. But we won't practice hospitality to the stranger if we don't understand and embrace the creative possibilities inherent in our differences. Which leads to a third key habit of the heart...

3. An ability to hold tension in life-giving ways. Encounters with "the stranger" inevitably take us to places of tension where we don't want to be, places where we see and hear things that run counter to our convictions. If we fail to hold those tensions creatively, they will shut us down and take us out of the action. But when we allow them to expand our hearts, they can open us to new understandings of ourselves and our world, enhancing our lives and allowing us to enhance the lives of others. The genius of the human heart -- and of democracy -- lies in their capacity to use such tensions to generate insight, energy,and new life. Making the most of those gifts requires a fourth key habit of the heart...

4. A sense of personal voice and agency. Insight and energy give rise to new life as we speak and act, expressing our version of truth while checking and correcting it against the truths of others. But many of us lack confidence in our own voices and in our power to make a difference. We have been deformed by educational and religious institutions that treat us as members of an audience instead of actors in a drama, so we become adults who treat democracy as a spectator sport. And yet 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 -- if we have support. Which leads to a fifth and final habit of the heart...

5. A capacity to create community. Without community, it is nearly impossible to achieve voice: it takes a village to raise a Rosa Parks. Without community, it is nearly impossible to multiply the "power of one." It took a village to translate Parks's act of personal integrity into social change. In a mass society like ours, community rarely comes ready-made. But creating community where we live and work doesn't mean abandoning other parts of our lives to become full-time organizers. The steady companionship of two or three kindred spirits can kindle the courage we need to speak and act as citizens.

If I were asked for two words to summarize the habits of the heart citizens need to help democracy survive and thrive, I'd choose chutzpah and humility. By chutzpah I mean knowing that I have a voice that needs to be heard and the right to speak it. By humility I mean accepting the fact that my truth is always partial -- and may not be true at all -- so I need to listen with openness and respect, especially to "the other."

Humility plus chutzpah equals the kind of citizens democracy needs, and there is no reason -- at least no good reason -- why our number cannot be legion. Religious communities can help multiply that number by embracing the mission Alexis de Tocqueville pointed to nearly two centuries ago.

Portions of this post are adapted from Parker J. Palmer, 'Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit.'