Book Review: Healing the Heart of Democracy

Healing the heart of democracy: the courage to create a politics worthy of the human spirit
by Parker J. Palmer
ISBN: 9780470590805
Two days ago I shared the following Status Update with my friends:
On break- just finished reading “Healing the Heart of Democracy” by Parker J Palmer. A slow read only because of work and my constantly pausing to write out a quote (no highlighting a library book!).
I say
This book is about so much more than just politics. To be expected I guess from the author of “A Hidden Wholeness” and other titles.

Far more than a riff on the suggestion that we must learn how to disagree without being disagreeable; although that is certainly a big part of it. Mr Palmer argues that we must take it farther; in order to build a society that most of us want to live in, we must learn empathy. That is “the feeling that you understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions / the ability to share someone else’s feelingsSource. Of course it is better if we can also feel sympathy (“the feeling that you care about and are sorry about someone else’s trouble, grief, misfortune, etc. / a sympathetic feeling” from the same site). I will do my best to summarize this work without resorting to dropping in a dozen (or more) quotations from its 200 pages.

Palmer started writing it in 2004 and finished it over the following six years. During that time the troubling political landscape in the USA was, to some degree, mirroring “the diminishments that come with age” (page 1) that most of us who live past the age of 50 or so will experience. In the Prelude he discusses coming to terms with the losses and depression he experienced. He found great benefit in the book Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness

He argues we cannot live in a democratic society without conflict: learning “how to hold conflict inwardly in a manner that converts it into creativity” (page 15) being the foundation of moving forward to create and maintain a democracy that works as well as possible for as many people as possible.

As the title makes clear, he uses imagery of a heart throughout the book. “The heart is where we integrate the intellect with the rest of our facilities” (page 17). Most of us will, over time, experience heart break. And probably more than once. He proposes we must look at how a heart breaks; does it break apart into a thousand pieces or “break open into greater capacity to hold the complexities and contradictions of human experience“? (page 18) This is about as close as he gets to clearly Buddhist imagery; but the concept of balancing two (apparently) contradictory concepts is really the root of the book- of human existence I would say.

He is not unaware of the dangers of using heart imagery; “reduce the heart to feelings, and you get politics as a dangerous game of emotional manipulation that can in the long run lead to tyrannies of several sorts” (page 54). Indeed he realizes such politics is often being played even now. Already it has reduced the quality of our democracy while on-line distractions and economic troubles are distracting us from the greater risk: “we are so obsessed with our private lives that we are largely oblivious to our public diminishments” (page 102).

With perhaps the ‘Occupy’ movements in mind he asks “what power does a street demonstration have when no one is in the streets to see it?” (page 104) There was minimal (and rarely impartial or ‘balanced’) news coverage of OWS. Even the reporters attempting to provide full details of the recent citizenship activities in Ferguson MO were threatened with arrest if not outright physical harm. Note he is not calling for violence; that is the antithesis of this book. And he argues for more direct and personal action; something parallel to the way that many gay people are successful ‘activists’ by being themselves and interacting with the people in the various communities of their life. Fight the ‘fear of the unknown’ by becoming known. He reintroduces the concept of ‘Circles of Trust‘ – which he also discussed in “A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life. That concept is also the foundation for The Center for Courage & Renewal which Palmer founded in Seattle.

Of course Palmer is aware that “good citizenship is not limited to how we engage with the world of institutional politics. We play the citizen role at every level of our lives” (page 163). And so he also addresses some of the issues that modern corporate structures inflict on our democracy; “when measurable, short-term outcomes become the only or primary standard for assessing our efforts, the upshot is as pathetic as it is predictable: we take on smaller and smaller tasks” (page 193) This, of course, will sound familiar to those who’ve read my recent blog post Corporate Fundamentalism.

I did not mean to give short-shrift to the second half of this great book, but this post has become quite long. I can not recommend this book strongly enough. Anyone who is or wants to be an active participant in their communities will benefit from it.

There is a companion Guide with .pdf files and short video clips available.
Parker J Palmer’s Facebook Page
Buy at

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