INTERLUDE #1: A RECLAMATION
An excerpt from Parker Palmer’s Politics of the Brokenhearted as well as an excerpt from an interview with Palmer are presented on Valentine’s Day. Ever poetic and ever a Quaker, Palmer reminds us that love is responsibility within community, never aiding one to bring violence to another for caprice (where violence/non-physical violence is “any way we have of violating the identity and integrity of the other”), and never a withdrawal.
Politics of the Brokenhearted: On Holding the Tensions of Democracy
Habits of the Heart
The image of a heart “broken open” into largeness of life by contradiction and tension is not merely my private poetic fancy. It is a central strand of three wisdom traditions that are deep-woven into the fabric of American life: Judaism, Christianity, and secular humanism.
For Jews, learning to live openheartedly in the face of immense and devastating heartbreak is a historical and spiritual imperative. So it is no surprise that Jewish teaching includes frequent reminders of the importance of a broken-open heart.
Take, for example, this remarkable Hasidic tale. A disciple asks the rebbe, “Why does Torah tell us to ‘place these words upon your hearts’? Why does it not tell us to place these holy words in our hearts?”
The rebbe answers, “It is because as we are, our hearts are closed, and we cannot place the holy words in our hearts. So we place them on top of our hearts. And there they stay until, one day, the heart breaks and the words fall in.”
In Christian tradition, the broken-open heart is virtually indistinguishable from the image of the cross. It was on the cross that God’s heart was broken for the sake of humankind, broken open into a love that Christ’s followers are called to emulate. In fact, the cross as a symbolic form embodies the notion that tension—“excruciating” tension—can pull the heart open. The arms of the cross stretch out four ways, pulling against each other left and right, up and down. But those arms converge in a center, a heart, that is pulled open by the tension of opposition so we can pass through it into the fullness of life.
Secular humanism does not speak explicitly of the broken-open heart, but the essence of the idea is laced through that ancient and honorable tradition. Humanism advocates that scholars and citizens alike develop a “habit of the heart” (to use de Tocqueville’s famous phrase) that allows them to hold the tension of opposites without falling apart. So a “liberal” education—that is, the education befitting a free person—emphasizes the ability to comprehend all sides of an issue, to be comfortable with complexity and ambiguity, to honor paradox in thought, speech, and action. Liberally educated people know how to let the tension of opposites open them to new insight, or so the theory goes.
Given the power of these three traditions in shaping the American dream, it is no wonder that division, conflict, and tension, far from being the enemies of democracy, are among its primary reasons for being. Democracy at its best is both a celebration and a demonstration of the benefits of creative conflict; democratic institutions are designed as looms strong enough to hold the political tensions that accompany our efforts to weave the fabric of a common life. The differences that emerge whenever two or three are gathered are the very stuff of our political system, in which the freedom to express diverse values and viewpoints is valued, encouraged, and protected. Only in a totalitarian state, where the “dangerous other” is silenced or driven underground, are differences regarded as intolerable.
But the litmus test for a democracy is not merely whether it allows our differences to be on display: we must be willing to engage each other around those differences. Democracy depends on the unwavering trust of its citizens and leaders that the free play of conflicting views will open us to a larger and truer view of the world—its needs, its resources, and its potentials—eventually issuing in political decisions that serve the common good.
When we hold that trust and act on it by participating in the democratic process with commitment and goodwill, we not only live up to our own ideals but also model hope to the rest of the world. Today, too many American citizens, and some of our leaders, seem to have lost that trust— and with it our democratic capacity to debate real issues and envision new possibilities with tenacity, intelligence, and hope.
MA: Can I ask you about another one of those things that sort of knocked my socks off. And I’m asking this particularly as a Quaker, because this sentence so much went against what I’m use to hearing in our culture of heavy duty tolerance. You wrote: You and I may hold different conceptions of truth, but we must mind the difference. Could you expand on that?
PP: I’d be delighted to do that. I’ve always had tremendous trouble with what I think of as mindless relativism, which takes the form of someone saying “one truth for you, another truth for me, and never mind the difference.” And I suspect that the sentence you just quoted comes shortly after quoting something of that sort.
The problem is that we inhabit the same world, and we are related to each other as plants and animals in an ecosystem are related to each other. We have an interactive life. That, I think, is Quakerism 101, it’s spirituality 101. It’s Thomas Merton’s “hidden wholeness,” it’s the interconnectedness of all things. And if it’s true that we’re interconnected, that we’re in community, in the broadest and deepest sense that way, then we have to mind what each other takes as true. If someone believes that “blood, soil and race” are the ultimate truth of life, and that anyone that doesn’t share your blood soil and race really needs to die, that would be called Nazism. I need to do battle with that “truth” in every way available to me. I need to confront it. I need to challenge it. I need to call it for the idolatry and the evil that it is. So I’ve never been able to settle for tolerance when it’s defined in kind of a mindless way. In fact I think that tolerance generally is a weak virtue. “I tolerate you.” How does that sound? It doesn’t sound very good.
Engagement is the model, I think: taking each other seriously. If we’re related, then let’s relate. Now obviously in the course of a finite lifetime there are only so many relations of that sort that you can manifest in a concrete way. But I think you have to hold the world in that kind of caring responsiveness. It was H. Richard Niebhur, I believe, who offered this very simple definition of ethical responsibility: he said, “it’s the ability to respond.” And I think we need to respond to each other in a way that goes far beyond the infamous “I’m OK, you’re OK.”
(End of Interlude #1)