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Parker J. Palmer

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Real-World Change Can Come From Within

Posted: 01/ 3/2012 11:49 am

"...the salvation of this human world lies nowhere else than in the human heart, in the human power to reflect, in human meekness and in human responsibility. Without a global revolution in the sphere of human consciousness, nothing will change for the better..."

Folks who fancy themselves political realists often dismiss that kind of "heart talk" as irrelevant to the rough-and-tumble world of power. Proposing inner-life solutions to our political and economic catastrophes is something done, say the critics, only by people who've spent more time in la-la land than in the "real world." In fact, it's dangerous to promote the illusion that social change can be animated by inner work, which is more likely to lead to narcissistic escape than to political engagement. People swept up in some New Age version of The Rapture are of no earthly use.

Some political realists are so certain that heart talk is nonsense they use rhetoric rather than reason to blow it off: "wishful thinking," "touchy-feely," "pipe dream," "spiritual mumbo-jumbo." Unless you are a therapist or pastor, they say, forget about individuals and their inner lives. People who care about politics must focus on real problems: unjust structures and systems; the movement of big money and military might; long-term cultural and historical trends that shape our lives as inexorably as glaciers shaped our land.

But the words at the head of this post are from a man who had some bragging rights when it comes to political realism -- the late Vaclav Havel, who led a "revolution in the sphere of human consciousness" that helped topple the Czech Communist Party. The quote can be found in his 1990 address to a joint session of the U.S. Congress, delivered a few months after the denouement of the Velvet Revolution. Havel's political philosophy and accomplishments put him in a league with Gandhi, King, Mandela and other practitioners and advocates of the inner life whose real-world political impact makes one wonder if the "political realists" are in touch with reality.

The notion that social change can be sparked by an inner revolution is not only realistic. It also gives us a gift that conventional "realism" withholds -- a chance to do something that might make a difference. What passes for political realism may make for lively academic debates. But it often functions, ironically, as a tool of social control, rendering us passive with an analysis that overwhelms and paralyzes us. If massive structures, complex systems, big money, military might and long-term cultural-historical trends are where all the action is, how do you and I become part of the action? The inner life agenda, however, is always actionable, even when we are isolated -- as Nelson Mandela was as he spent 27 years in prison preparing inwardly to lead the anti-apartheid movement.

Yes, of course, structures and systems must be transformed. Yes, of course, we must redeploy money and might. Yes, of course, we must understand the historical and cultural forces that deform us so we can resist them. But we cannot help any of that happen until we understand how political reality is co-created by inner and outer powers, and learn in practical terms how to participate in that co-creation. These are the deep demands made upon us by Gandhi's famous exhortation, "Be the change you want to see in the world" -- demands that we evade when we chant that phrase as an incantation, as if saying it makes it so.

The clearest example of co-creation in real-world politics, and of how we can join the action, is found in social movements. From the Velvet Revolution to the struggle against apartheid, from the campaign to defend American democracy against an oligarchy of wealth to the fight for LGBT rights, every social movement I've studied has unfolded through four stages. And every stage offers human-scale ways in which we can join the struggle:

The Decision To Live Divided No More

Movements begin when oppressed people make -- and keep remaking -- a deeply inward decision to stop consenting to external demands that contradict a critical inner truth, the truth that they are worthy of respect. I call this "the Rosa Parks decision," a decision to act on the heart's imperatives against all that diminishes us and what we value. People who make this decision are willing to suffer punishment because they come to understand that no external punishment can possibly be greater than the one we impose on ourselves by conspiring in our own diminishment.

The Formation Of Communities Of Congruence

As people start living undivided lives, they discover others who are on the same path, and come together in communities that offer three forms of support: (1) sustaining their sanity in a culture that regards the divided life as safe and sane; (2) practicing a private and fragile language of identity, integrity and meaning until it becomes muscular enough to enter the public realm; (3) developing skills and disciplines of social change that help people implement the heart's imperatives in the external world.

The Process Of Going Public

As people gain the tools to work for social change -- and find the courage to go public within and between themselves -- two things happen: (1) they spread their message to others who are on the same path without knowing it, growing the community of congruence toward critical mass; (2) they attract critics who help and even compel them to check and correct themselves, purging the movement of distortions and making its message clearer and more compelling. This is one of the points at which democratic and fascist movements diverge. Fascist movements kill off their critics, literally or metaphorically, while democratic movements value, invite and even welcome criticism.

The Emergence Of Alternative Rewards

Institutions exercise oppression by maintaining systems of punishment and reward that favor the oppressor over the oppressed. As a movement expands, it creates new institutions that reward people for ideas and actions that challenge the status quo. Once-marginalized people find themselves at the center of new sources of power which they can use to gain leverage for change on the larger system. As this happens, participants find new inner resolve as they come to understand that no reward can possibly be greater than the one we give ourselves by acting on our own sense of identity, integrity and meaning.

Of course, no movement unfolds as neatly and tidily as things do in this model. In real life, the stages overlap, cycle back and intertwine with each other. But teasing these threads out of the tangle of history helps us see how co-creation happens, how we might play a role in it and what we might do today to help it along. Is this a day when I need to renew my decision to live divided no more? Or join with others in a community of congruence to help me deepen and enact that decision? Or find the courage to go public with my convictions, adding my words and actions to the larger story? Or celebrate the reward that comes from knowing that I can live and, some day, die confident that I did my best to be faithful to my inner truth?

In a piece written two days after Vaclav Havel's death on Dec. 18, Paul Begala says that Havel had "an almost mystical faith in democracy," even when the going got rough. Havel's brand of mysticism took him into the world, not out of it. His faith gave him the courage to stand among the hard realities of politics with an open and transformed heart. The result? A life-giving political legacy that challenges all of us to "live divided no more."

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.'