I encountered the work of Parker J. Palmer in the early 1990s, when a friend handed me his short but profound collection of essays, “Let Your Life Speak.” The essays touch on his own personal journey through depression, his path in aligning his role in life with his soul’s calling, and the lessons he has learned about the inner dimensions of leadership. “Let Your Life Speak” became a constant companion for me over the next few years, coming into my life as it did during a period of personal transition and questioning.
Over the years, I’ve had the honor of spending time with Palmer. What impresses me most is that his humility, insight and authenticity come through every bit as clearly in person as they do in his books. I was not at all surprised when “Utne Reader” named him one of their top 25 visionaries in 2011.
Palmer often refers to the metaphor of a Mobius strip — a surface that blurs the distinctions between inner and outer — in his writings and teachings. Palmer has used the metaphor to invite individuals to explore the integrity between their own values and their vocation. More recently, he has extended the metaphor to the state of our democracy, and he challenges citizens to consider the relationship with our hearts, our connections to our communities and a healthy, functioning democracy. Palmer will be making a rare appearance in Seattle this month (see courageandrenewal.org for list of events, or see the ad on page 7 of this issue of Real Change), and I was eager to catch up with him before his trip.
Let’s start by you telling us a little bit about your own life and particularly about how you started your career as a community organizer.
When I finished my Ph.D. in sociology, I really felt that I was not called to higher education but was called to take my sociology to the streets, as it were, and so I became a community organizer in a community called Takoma Park – East Silver Spring, which is right on the border of Washington, D.C., and Maryland. It was a community, at the time of the late ’60s and early ’70s, that was in a process of rapid demographic change; so what had once been a predominantly white, middle-class community was becoming increasingly Latino and African-American and Southeast Asian.
And I went there and established a community organizing institute with the goal of, first of all, stopping white flight: this sort of fear-based reaction to racial and economic change. But hand-in-hand with stopping white flight was convincing people, helping people, to understand the rich potentials in diversity. So for five years I did that community organizing work. I think we made a contribution to stabilizing that community and preventing things like blockbusting and redlining and other corrupt real estate practices that drive communities into the gutter. So it was a very satisfying period of my life.
What did you do next?
Well, at the end of five years of community organizing, I felt a need for a sabbatical. So I went to a place with my family called Pendle Hill, which is a Quaker adult study center near Philadelphia. This was my first exposure to the Quaker tradition, but what I found was the Quakers had this long history of social involvement and engagement, especially around issues of race, and war and peace, and poverty and human rights. So that piece of my life that involves community organizing was well represented in the Quaker community on the social action side.
But what I started to learn from the Quakers was how important it is to have social action rooted in inner capacities for compassion, holding tension, for courage, for all kinds of things that are demanded when you come up against the power structures of the world. And so that one-year sabbatical turned into 11 years of living in community at Pendle Hill. Once I left Pendle Hill, I undertook an independent career as a writer, traveling teacher and activist around causes such as education reform and things that I was writing about.
What do you think constitutes effective political action today?
Well, as you know, I have a new book out called “Healing the Heart of Democracy,” where I try to make a case that the heart of the matter involves — in American democracy at least — what the founders called “We the People.”
I think on the simplest level, I have observed that a lot of our political conversations seem to be focused almost exclusively on people who aren’t in the room. I am a big believer in what Bill Moyers once said, which is that “the only answer to the power of organized money is the power of organized people.” But the whole idea of organized people presupposes a capacity to hold in some creative ways our many political differences: to not fear tension and conflict between different points of view and certainly not to demonize anyone who thinks differently from us.
If anything is going to bring our democracy back to true north, it’s going to be we the people reclaiming our power.
And that, in turn, is going to mean forming [what 19th century French political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville called] habits of the heart that allow us to deal creatively with our differences: to value diversity, to speak our voices in the midst of diversity and listen with thoughtfulness and compassion to what other people have to say; to come together in various forms of community to represent our convictions to the people we elect to office.
The last thing we want to do is restrict our political involvement to the election cycle so that every two years or every four years we suddenly get politically concerned, we spend a lot of time talking about those people, and then we go cast our vote and then forget about the whole thing and go back to business as usual.
That has not been working for us, and it’s not going to work in the future.
Tell me more about this notion of holding tension and how that relates to a democratic society?
None of us has to look very far to find someone who disagrees with us politically. We tend to avoid those people and hang around with folks whom we experience are like-minded, but differences and disagreements are within our reach every day of our lives, and it’s a political act, I think, to speak across lines of potential division of that sort and genuinely try to understand where the other person is coming from and see if there is some way to build a bridge, to make common cause.
A few years ago, I went on the annual civil rights pilgrimage led by Rep. John Lewis, who was such a key actor as a young man in the 1960s in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and in various actions in the South, especially Alabama, that resulted in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. And as I have come to know John Lewis, who is now in his 70s, I have realized that part the power of his life and part of what’s given him political efficacy is a very longstanding commitment to try to stay in dialogue even with those who could reasonably be regarded as his enemies.
What do you think about the Occupy movement with regards to creative tension holding?
First of all let me say that I have a lot of respect for what the Occupy movement achieved. It actually achieved something in a matter of weeks or months that progressive economists had been trying to achieve for years without much success. And that is it got a powerful image emblazoned in the public mind regarding radical economic inequity in this country. And that, of course, is the image of the 1 percent and the 99 percent.
Since, Occupy newspaper media headlines everywhere have been filled with memorable statistics on poverty in this country and inequality of income and wealth. I know lots of people these days who understand that about a third of Americans are now living below the poverty line and that about 25 percent of American kids are growing up in poverty and come from food-insufficient households and who understand what that means when those kids go to school without breakfast and are handicapped in their ability learn right from the get-go. What Occupy did was to introduce tension into the system, which is another thing that democracy needs. It’s not only that it needs people who are capable of holding tension: It needs people who are capable of creating tensions to be held.
Throughout your book, you invite people to channel heartbreak into heart opening: compassion rather than sinking down into despair and anger. The question is: For people who are vulnerable, people who have lost their home or they can’t find a job and they are just in survival mode, isn’t it a tall order to ask them to react in a compassionate way?
Absolutely it is. And I don’t think that’s where the burden lies. I think the burden lies on people like me, who are not in a survival mode and who have not ever been in a survival mode, to understand that these are my brothers and sisters. And that when that kind of pain exists in one part of the body politic, it becomes my pain, too.
And that is where the onus is on me to open my heart to ways of living, ways of being in the world, [decide] about what I do with my resources, and who I reach out to and how I reach out. The onus comes on me to do what I can to alleviate their pain rather than asking them to be open-hearted in circumstances where I am quite sure I couldn’t be myself.
At the same time I want to say that we have a ton of testimony about how that experience [of poverty] has opened some people’s hearts into deeper and deeper levels of finding ground on which to stand, deeper and deeper levels of generosity toward others.
You know, Martin Luther King Jr., always said that white people desperately need to understand that they are the victims of racism as much as people of color are. And that as they began to understand that, they would then find common cause with people of color, and I think that is exactly what happened for some of us. Complicated situation, but I think there’s much to learn from holding the tension of poverty in a way that opens my heart to those who are suffering.
What’s your response to those who say that your book is nice in theory but doesn’t deal with the reality that we don’t even really live in a democracy but in a plutocracy in which the elite and large corporations rig the rules and perpetuate systems that concentrate wealth and power?
Well, it’s certainly not a critique or a commentary to be sneezed at or to be dismissed, but the questions I ask about any critique of anything is: Where do you go with it? And I can’t find a place to go with a critique that basically says there is no response that we the people can make that could possibly get us out of the structural trap that we’re in. In other words, I can’t go with a critique that leads to despair [or] paralysis. I understand the power of big money; I understand the impact of the Citizens United decision; I understand how rigged some of our political and financial institutions are. But the day that I decide that we the people have absolutely no leverage on any of that and use that as a convenient excuse to retreat to my own foxhole and feather my own nest, that’s the day I sort of ought to resign my membership in the human race and my American citizenship.
I don’t know that the naysayers are resigned, but rather pressing to use the political realm and bypass the step of cultivating the habits of the heart.
As I say, it seems to me that there is no political realm if there isn’t a we the people, and there is no we the people if there isn’t an infrastructure for democracy. I understand that it’s rhetorically appealing to say, “Let’s have a political solution to this.” I genuinely don’t understand what that means if you don’t do the infrastructure repair work that’s required to bring we the people back into the equation.
When I look at the dynamics of the human heart, one of the things I understand is that, at some level, we’re all looking for an excuse, for a way out of our moral, political, social responsibilities because they can get burdensome. And as I always say when I talk about this and as I write about in the book, if you live your life with the commitment to high values like love, truth and justice, you have to settle for the fact that you are not going to see definitive results by the time you die. And that’s asking a lot.
It’s what distinguishes a John Lewis, who has kept at it for over half a century in some very effective ways, from some of us who have decided to kind of give up the ghost and feather our own nests as best we can and get what we can out of a system that is crumbling around our heads. It’s a moral choice that a person makes.
Where I would most like to go in holding the tension of that critique or that argument is to say: What’s the remedy that flows from that analysis? Let’s talk about that, and let’s see if there is a bridge between that remedy, a necessary bridge between that remedy and the infrastructure rebuilding that I’m so interested in. So it’s not that I’m against political solutions, but I don’t understand what political solutions are if we don’t address what I call the pre-political layer which makes democratic politics possible.