If you hold your knowledge of self and world wholeheartedly, your heart will at times get broken by loss, failure, defeat, betrayal, or death. What happens next in you and the world around you depends on how your heart breaks. If it breaks apart into a thousand pieces, the result may be anger, depression, and disengagement. If it breaks open into greater capacity to hold the complexities and contradictions of human experience, the result may be new life.
Despite my faith in what Lincoln, in his first inaugural, called the "better angels of our nature" - the beneficent powers that are released when our hearts break open - there are days when my hope for democracy's future wanes. Bill Moyers names some of the reasons why in his lament over the current state of our political system:
Democracy in America is a series of narrow escapes, and we may be running out of luck. The reigning presumption about the American experience... is grounded in the idea of progress, the conviction that the present is "better" than the past and the future will bring even more improvements. For all of its shortcomings, we keep telling ourselves, "The system works."
Now all bets are off. We have fallen under the spell of money, faction, and fear, and the great American experience in creating a different future together has been subjugated to individual cunning in pursuit of wealth and power - and to the claims of empire with its ravenous demands and stuporous distractions. A sense of political impotence pervades the country - a mass resignation defined by the historian Lawrence Goodwyn as "believing in the dogma of 'democracy' on a superficial public level but not believing it privately."... Hope no longer seems the operative dynamic of America, and without hope we lose the talent and the drive to cooperate in the shaping of our destiny.
Moyers's assessment is grim. And yet it is rich with the kind of truth-telling required if we are to regain hope and "cooperate in the shaping of our destiny." And the truth is that Americans are suffering. We suffer from a widespread loss of jobs, homes, savings, and citizen confidence in our economic and political systems. We suffer from a fragmentation of community that leaves us isolated from one another. We suffer, ironically, from our indifference to those among us who suffer. And we suffer as well from a hopeless sense that our personal and collective destinies are no longer in our hands.
What shall we do with our suffering? That is one of the most fateful questions human beings must wrestle with. Sometimes suffering rises into anger that leads to murder or war; at other times it descends into despair that leads to quick or slow self-destruction. Violence is what we get when we do not know what else to do with our suffering.
But when the human heart is open and allowed to work its alchemy, suffering can generate vitality instead of violence....
In my own personal life, I have learned what millions have learned from crushing losses and defeats: Such experiences, rightly held, can make us more compassionate and receptive, deepening our engagement with others and opening us to new life. The powers of the heart that transform personal anguish can also transform the way we do politics. The suffering that undermines democracy by driving us into foxholes and fragmenting the civic community has the potential to open us to each other, to hope, and to the hard work required to sustain the American experiment.
- Parker Palmer
Excerpted from Healing the Heart of Democracy:
The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit