The Read from This Side of Suite 711 (8)


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

Click to access politicsbrokenhearted.pdf

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.

(The below from

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)

7 thoughts on “The Read from This Side of Suite 711 (8)

  1. The WordPress software remains a bit unfamiliar. On the “Dashboard” there’s a “kitchen sink” option and a “Quick Press” option and, as of this afternoon, an “edit” button. Only a few changes in format and font were made to the original post.

    Parker Palmer himself acknowledges that his is an expansive style — he even refers to it as a “writing to learn” kind of approach (or uses words very similar to that) — so the style really isn’t that different from what is employed by other blog authors such as David Richardson (

    It is clear that Palmer delights in the musicality of language. Concision is a skill that students grapple with when writing summaries. When to summarize? When to use direct quotes? Direct quotes are recommended when a text serves as evidence, when a student cannot condense/summarize when without losing the original meaning of a text, or when the language is exquisite or memorable.

    Try this from Dylan Thomas:

    Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
    about the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,
    the night about the dingle starry,
    time let me hail and climb
    golden in the hey-day of its eyes
    and honored among wagons
    I was prince of the apple-towns,
    and once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves
    trail with daisies and barley
    down the rivers of the windfall light.

    Or this from Stephen Spender:

    I think continually of those who were truly great,
    who, from the womb, remembered the soul’s history
    through corridors of light where the hours are suns,
    endless and singing, whose lovely ambition was that their lips,
    still touched with fire, would tell of the spirit
    clothed from head to foot in song,
    and who hoarded from the spring branches
    the desires falling across their bodies like blossoms.

    How would you answer your own question re: concision?

    (Stanzas are drawn from memory and may contain errors.)

    • I would say try getting to the point, if there indeed is one. Prose can be long and beautiful, but arguments rarely are either. I assume you started this thread to make some point. No disrespect, but we’re all waiting for it.

  2. One of Parker Palmer’s books that many HWC faculty members first encountered in a FLINT course was recently referenced on the Lounge at “Interlude #1” takes its cue from that earlier post/thread on the Lounge.

    Sometimes students complain that an assigned reading is too long but what they really mean is that the text is either not accessible or not meaningful to them. Ask students to identify main ideas and supporting evidence; that is, ask the students to write/speak a brief summary. A way to make a text meaningful is to ask students to evaluate main ideas or a bit of evidence from the assigned reading in light of their own personal or professional/academic experiences. Further examination of the text can proceed from there.

    A similar discussion about a recent Lounge post/thread can be found beginning at

    Below, Palmer himself has a response to your comment. How is it that you come to the assertion that arguments are rarely long or beautiful?

    Politics of the Brokenhearted: On Holding the Tensions of Democracy

    Click to access politicsbrokenhearted.pdf

    That the way we hold tension matters can be seen not only in one-on-one relationships but in the dynamics of groups and organizations as well. Take, for example, the process by which we make collective decisions.

    We are at a meeting where a choice must be made between alternative paths of action, and it soon becomes clear that we cannot agree on what to do. As we listen to viewpoints that seem irreconcilable, we get fidgety and frustrated. Uncomfortable with holding the tension and wanting to “get on with it,” we “call the question” and take a vote, letting raw numbers decide what course the group should take.

    What I have just described is, of course, majority-rule decision making. The process appears to be straightforward, clean, and efficient, all of which appeals to an impatient, control-obsessed culture. But making decisions this way allows and even encourages us to resolve tensions prematurely, before they have had a chance to open us to something new, to possibilities that are excluded by or hidden within the positions of the contending parties.

    This might not be the case if we were willing to let the debate “drag on”—the telling image we use for any disagreement that persists for more than five or ten minutes! But in our culture, time is always deemed scarce, and debate itself can make time feel even scarcer, especially when things get acrimonious. The soon-to-be-losers, feeling wounded, look around for a quick escape, while the winners are eager to secure their victory as swiftly as they can. Unable or unwilling to hold the tension, we “resolve” it with a vote.

    Majority-rule decision making may appear to be straightforward, clean, and efficient, but appearances can be deceptive. We persistently ignore the radical inefficiency of creating an alienated minority of losers who sometimes leave the meeting determined to conduct a long-term guerrilla war to undermine the decision we thought we had made. Majority rule may not resolve the tension but merely drive it underground.

    The democratic alternative to majority rule is consensus, a process often misunderstood even by people who claim to use it.4 Consensus does not mean that we can make a decision only when everyone involved is equally enthusiastic about a course of action; if it did, very few decisions would have been made this way! Consensus means that we can make a decision only when no one in the group feels a deep need to oppose it, usually on the grounds of conscience.

    Of course, that definition does not reassure the skeptics! Their minds immediately turn to the many times they have suffered the professional naysayers, people who seem to object to the group’s direction no matter what it is. “How in heaven’s name can consensus work,” ask the critics, “when it is a virtual law of group life that someone will insist on saying no?”

    My answer comes from decades of watching consensus at work: naysayers are, for the most part, made and not born that way. (I make an exception for the handful of people who have been sent here by Beelzebub to destroy Western civilization as we know and love it. And we all know who they are . . .)

    • I agree with Anon. I have no idea what your point for any of this is. There’s no vote being called. Your analogies are not particularly relevant. I don’t have any issue with what seems to be a call for less dualistic thinking, but even those of us who might buy into your thesis are nodding off from boredom.

  3. Seriously, the long posts, which take forever to read and scroll through are ridiculous. No one cares about this quasi-rhetorical analysis of an anonymous blogger by another anonymous blogger. Also, some of the terms used are used incorrectly, e.g., ethos as it applies to rhetoric. Really…could we please get back to posts about things relevant to faculty…the HL has become so self-indulgent. It’s the epitome of bellybutton examination. Between this drivel and the random posts from staff members about things that should be posted on the CCC web site…geez louise!

    • “No one cares about this quasi-rhetorical analysis of an anonymous blogger by another anonymous blogger.”


      I understand that you don’t like it, Anon, and I won’t dispute your personal preferences, but complaining about how long it takes to scroll through is a little on the self-indulgent side side, no? Too long? Don’t read it. Or skim it.

      And (honestly not trying to start a flame war here–just wondering), can anyone define “things relevant to faculty”? The faculty is not a singularity. If you (any reader of this comment) know what is and isn’t relevant to all faculty, I’d love to be enlightened.

      Finally, I’ve been trying to stay out of the comments while on sabbatical and will try again once I’m done with this one, but I’m puzzled by the hostility in a lot of the comments over the past few months.

      Just to be clear–everyone who authors posts (as opposed to comments) is HW faculty. You certainly don’t have to like everything, and I’m happy to read thoughtful critiques and challenges, but when you feel the need to snipe at someone else’s efforts (anonymously, no less), I urge you to ask whether you’d be willing to say what you want to type at a round table with your colleague sitting there? Would you offer such a response to an effort from a student?

      A friend of mine used to paraphrase Teddy Roosevelt (at least that’s who he attributed the following to), and say that a critic is someone who walks around after the battle has ended and shoots the wounded. The objection I’m raising is not to criticism, per se, but to substance. Speak for yourself, rather than for “everyone”; if you’d like to see different stuff on the Lounge, then take some responsibility and become the change you seek. That’s what 12Keystrokes is doing.

      Please remember that there’s a person–a colleague–on the other side of those posts you don’t like, and if you’d like to dispute a point or make a suggestion, then do that.

      If all you have are complaints, though, you might want to come out from under the bridge, lest someone think you to be a troll.

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