From Healing the Heart of Democracy by Parker Palmer
“If American democracy fails, the ultimate cause will not be a foreign invasion or the power of big money or the greed and dishonesty of some elected officials or a military coup or the internal communist/socialist/fascist takeover that keeps some Americans awake at night. It will happen because we – you and I – became so fearful of each other, of our differences and of the future, that we unraveled the civic community on which democracy depends, losing our power to resist all that threatens it and call it back to its highest form.”
From “A Model of Christian charity” by John Winthrop
“We must be knit together in this work as one . . . . We must entertain each other in . . . affection. We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of others’ necessities. We must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality. We must delight in each other, make others’ conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor, and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, our community as members of the same body.”
I’ve been struggling to name what is eating at me these days, what is gnawing in the pit of my stomach, disturbing my sleep, lying beneath my perplexity and confusion, beneath occasional fits of anger and bouts of depression that leave me feeling frustrated, isolated, alone.
It’s not just the political turmoil we’re living with. It feels like something deeper, something I am missing, even mourning, yet without being able to put a finger on it. It has been painful enough that, to be honest, I usually pushed it out of my consciousness. But in those moments when I felt my spirits lift and open a bit, I cast about, wondering, and in time I settled on what seems to be the absence of one small word in our lives these days: We.
We, the first person plural pronoun: simple word, right? But such a powerful one, too. In a world where first person singular I goes about distinguishing, separating, first person plural We wraps us up in a blanket, tosses a lasso around us, bunches us together heedlessly, like it or not.
But these days when it seems so many are working overtime to claim distinction, privilege, prerogative, superiority of some, inferiority of others, the voice of We is being pushed aside, lost in the cacophony. Or, what is worse, it is being conscripted in the fight as a tool to make invidious comparisons among peoples, with certain We’s held to be superior in all kinds of imagined ways to other ones. Such madness!
And here, I believe, is why: It is a fundamental truth that every I, no matter what its qualities, has a basic integrity to it. It is itself and that is enough. Similarly, every We is grounded in an ultimate We that encompasses its kind and all kinds. I and We are, in a sense, two peas in a pod, two ways of looking at the world, neither superior to the other – I am myself and I am part of something larger to which I am intimately connected. It is this perspective that I feel is increasingly absent from our lives together and that we are badly in need of recovering.
Earlier you heard the words of John Winthrop, now nearly five centuries old, that helped set the stage for how the early Puritan colonies would gather in those first New England colonies. There are many ways in which Winthrop’s vision was flawed: he laid out a heavily patriarchal government by wealthy landowners dominating subservient poor.
And yet, underlying it all is a powerful We. All members, of both high and low station, must resolve to be, in his words, “knit together . . . in affection.” They must be willing to share – “to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of others’ necessities” – and treat each other with “meekness, gentleness, patience, and liberality.” And, he says:
“We must delight in each other,
make others’ conditions our own,
labor, and suffer together”
always having before us a vision of being
“members of the same body.”
It is language that is both archaic and breathtakingly relevant. When was the last time you were present with someone outside your family who you considered you might “delight in,” whose conditions you made your own, people with whom you rejoiced, mourned, labored and suffered? Winthrop is not arguing for some exclusive community sheltered from the world. Instead, he proposes, a model for the world, a “city on a hill” that accepts the judgment of all people, of the most high on how faithfully it lives its mission.
Now, we know from history that the reality of Puritan life rarely reflected such ideals, but their presence and prominence in the community served as a reminder of its larger goals, of the mission to which it saw itself called. These ideals also underlay an ethos that pervaded our emerging nation, even with its disparities and inequalities.
Yes, the founders of our nation were elitist in many ways, and yet the frame they offered for the nation was one whose authority was grounded in, as they named it, “We, the people”: a broad and glorious We that recognized no distinctions.
Even though, yes, many distinctions were made, are made in how our nation allocates its resources, the principle that We the people – that means everyone – have a claim on them echoes in the halls of government even in the turmoil of today.
Yet, as Parker Palmer reminds us, those words have come to ring hollow, like a tired slogan, leaving us in danger of coming to a place where, he says, “we – you and I – become so fearful of one another, of our differences and of the future that we unravel the civic community on which democracy depends.”
What I find most helpful about Palmer’s perspective is how he diagnoses the cause of the disruption that we’ve experienced and how we might go about repairing it. Where he suggests we begin this inquiry is in the heart, and it’s important to distinguish how he uses that word. Let go, he says, of the idea of the heart being the seat of our feelings, and instead imagine it as the place where, in his words, “we learn to think the world together” and find the courage to act.
Think of it as the center of our integrity, where we pull together our images of self and the world and make some sense of who we are and how we fit. Sad to say, given the state of the world, it’s a place that experiences some significant disruptions that come in the form of such things as loss, failure, defeat, betrayal and death. When those things happen, we experience something that we call “heartbreak.”
This is something worth attending to, Parker Palmer says, because, in his words, “nothing that happens in the human heart has more power, for better or worse, than heartbreak.” We can see how this could be. If we take what we call our heart to be the center of our integrity, then any injury done to it affects us deeply. Something in us is shattered. There’s no avoiding it: It happens to all of us. What is left is for us to decide how to respond.
Some come to dwell on an injury as something that disfigures them irreparably – “Look at this wound! Poor me!” This pity-seeking, though, takes us only so far. We can get stuck in it and so become unavailable to ourselves and others or unable to appreciate their suffering as on a par with our own, breeding in us anger, resentment and isolation.
Others seek to shrug off the impact of any injury. And, yeah, I’m pretty much talking about men here. We’re socialized to take the blows and keep on fighting. “Didn’t touch me,” right? Now, it’s true that in the midst of a fight we do need to keep our wits about us and not get distracted by the blows we receive. But really, guys, there is little in our lives that needs to be elevated to a fight. And what’s worse, the fight culture, militarism, does terrible damage over time to our lives, our relationships, our community.
Another possibility, Parker Palmer says, is that we consider that when we experience loss of some kind we find that our hearts are not broken apart but broken open. That can be hard to hear. It almost seems to diminish what we feel – “Can’t you see I’m in pain? How can this be anything but a total shattering!”
OK, I get that. But look at you. You’re still here, the same loveable, awesome you, and you’ve learned a few things. You’ve learned perhaps that you imbued a relationship with more faith than it deserved, or the sad truth that everyone we love we will lose eventually. That’s hard stuff, and the pain you feel is real, and important. I’m so sorry.
And once we sit with that for a while, breathe a bit, we do notice that despite our pain one day still follows another. We are able to go on, not forgetting our injury, but finding a context for it, adjusting our lives to accommodate it.
That experience, Parker says, teaches us the practice of learning “to hold our own and the world’s pain.” We come to recognize suffering in others, which in turn opens us to greater compassion and deeper empathy.
This is, in essence, the central We of our lives. Suffering, as the Buddhists say, is universal, but it is also the source of some of our deepest bonds. When we are lonely, weary, and fed up, We offers the counsel we need: none of us is bullet-proof, but all of us are fundamentally redeemable and whole.
It’s the message that I know I need to hear these days as I struggle with my own broken-heartedness, my feelings that all the ways that it seemed that we in this country were bridging divides, letting go of ancient hatreds, affirming our intimate link to the Earth are crumbling around me. And I’ve had enough experience of heartbreak to recognize it in the world around me, including those with whom I most strongly disagree. I’m compelled now to see that if I am going to make peace with this I need to find a way to extend my compassion to them, to look for the kind of We that might make room for both of us.
This is not Pollyannaish happy talk. I don’t intend to compromise my principles. But I accept that, as Parker Palmer puts it, our heart demands that we find a way to live appreciating what he calls “the tragic gap” between the world as it is and the world as we wish it to be. And that requires that we find ways to act creatively in that gap, that we each enter with a clear sense of and appreciation for our own voice and agency while working to build community that can support us and help us enact the change we seek.
Because I do believe in the power, the ultimate truth, the bald fact of We. Every way that we seek to separate people into sheep and goats or raise ourselves above others only diminishes us all. Because we are each other’s back scratchers, knit together as one.
Perhaps it’s nostalgia in this conflictual time that led me recently to click on a file I’d stored away on my computer a couple of months ago: Barak Obama’s farewell address. We can debate the pluses and minuses of his eight-year presidency, but perhaps the greatest gift that he has given us in his public life is the affirmation of We.
In the speech, he told of how he learned from his earliest days as a community organizer that, in his words, “change only happens when ordinary people get involved, and they get engaged, and they come together to demand it.” We may believe that the rights proclaimed by the founders are self-evident, he said, but they “have never been self-executing. We the People, through the instrument of our democracy, (are charged to) form a more perfect union,” given “the imperative to strive together to achieve a common, a greater good.”
There is much in our laws that much change if we are to live into that charge, he said, “but laws alone won’t be enough. Hearts must change.” Each of us has her or his blind spots, those sensitive wounds where our hearts don’t feel quite ready to go. Still, he said, “we have to pay attention and listen.”
I hear in those words the echo of John Winthrop – whatever you may think of your neighbor, I charge you to delight in her and in him. See them as the precious beings they are, and you are as well. Know that we can only succeed in this perilous adventure of life together, no less fraught today than it was in 1630, if we will make other’s conditions our own, if we will share our hearts – mourn together, rejoice together, suffer together as members of the same body.
Obama closed his speech with his signature line dating from his earliest campaign speeches, the one he borrowed from the United Farm Workers, “Si, se puede”: “Yes, we can.” But I read it a little differently than I had in the past. This time I focused on the second word.
Yes, We can. As endangered as it feels, We holds our strength and our hope as a people, as a species. It remains an undeniable fact that as crazy as we make each other, with all the wrong of which, sadly, we are capable, the first person plural binds us up, one with the other. Our challenge is to live into that truth.