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Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit

ISBN: 978-0-470-59080-5
256 pages
September 2011, Jossey-Bass
Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit (0470590807) cover image
Hope for American democracy in an era of deep divisions

In Healing the Heart of Democracy, Parker J. Palmer quickens our instinct to seek the common good and gives us the tools to do it. This timely, courageous and practical work—intensely personal as well as political—is not about them, "those people" in Washington D.C., or in our state capitals, on whom we blame our political problems. It's about us, "We the People," and what we can do in everyday settings like families, neighborhoods, classrooms, congregations and workplaces to resist divide-and-conquer politics and restore a government "of the people, by the people, for the people."

In the same compelling, inspiring prose that has made him a bestselling author, Palmer explores five "habits of the heart" that can help us restore democracy's foundations as we nurture them in ourselves and each other:

  • An understanding that we are all in this together
  • An appreciation of the value of "otherness"
  • An ability to hold tension in life-giving ways
  • A sense of personal voice and agency
  • A capacity to create community

Healing the Heart of Democracy is an eloquent and empowering call for "We the People" to reclaim our democracy. The online journal Democracy & Education called it "one of the most important books of the early 21st Century." And Publishers Weekly, in a Starred Review, said "This beautifully written book deserves a wide audience that will benefit from discussing it."

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Prelude The Politics of the Brokenhearted 1

Chapter I Democracy's Ecosystem 11

Chapter II Confessions of an Accidental Citizen 29

Chapter III The Heart of Politics 49

Chapter IV The Loom of Democracy 69

Chapter V Life in the Company of Strangers 89

Chapter VI Classrooms and Congregations 119

Chapter VII Safe Space for Deep Democracy 151

Chapter VIII The Unwritten History of the Heart 175

Gratitudes 195

Notes 199

The author 219

Index 221

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Parker J. Palmer's writing speaks deeply to people in many walks of life. Author of nine books—including the bestsellers The Courage to Teach, Let Your Life Speak, and A Hidden Wholeness—Palmer is the founder of the Center for Courage & Renewal. His work has been recognized with ten honorary doctorates and many national awards, including the 2010 William Rainey Harper Award, previously won by Margaret Mead, Paulo Freire, and Elie Wiesel.
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"He bravely takes on the current political climate, and this book provides therapy for the American body politic. His insights are heart-deep: America gains by living with tension and differences; we can help reclaim public life by actions as simple as walking down the street instead of driving. Hope's hardly cheap, but history is made up of what Palmer calls 'a million invisible acts of courage and the incremental gains that came with them.' This beautifully written book deserves a wide audience that will benefit from discussing it." (Publishers Weekly, 8 August 2011)

"Healing the Heart of Democracy is a hopeful book that lifts up and hallows the heart as a source of inner sight. Inspired by the efforts to understand and undergird democracy by Abraham Lincoln, Alexis de Tocqueville, Rosa Parks, and others; the author sends us on our way rejoicing with the small portion of hope that he has planted in our minds and souls." (Spirituality & Practice)

"There is a deep and disturbing cloud hanging over the United States. It is a malaise that is leading to cynicism and self-centeredness. The antidote is to be found in the healing of the heart of our democracy, so that we might emerge from this private focus to a public one, which recognizes our interdependence. I know of no better guide to discerning the problem and the solutions, than this book by Parker Palmer. It is a prophetic book, one that needs to be taken with all due seriousness, if we are to emerge from our malaise stronger and healthier than before." (Englewood Review of Books, 2011)

"[Palmer] has been constantly on the move intellectually and spiritually, a kind of Socratic gadfly in American life... [His] politics is not the politics of despair or...of inevitable progress, but...of people trying to live better lives as they attempt to work together for a better society." (Christian Century)

"I recommend this book to absolutely everyone–on any side of the political spectrum, and especially to folks like me, who were standing aside, wringing their hands and wishing for a better democracy." (Beliefnet.com)

"If you're looking for a way to reclaim the best of democracy to shape our nation's future, this is a book worth spending some time with." (The Cap Times)

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November 25, 2013
Healing the Heart of Democracy

HEALING THE HEART OF DEMOCRACY:  The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit

At this critical time in American life, Parker J. Palmer – bestselling author, thought-leader, teacher, and founder of the Center for Courage & Renewal – brings us a powerful and stimulating new book, HEALING THE HEART OF DEMOCRACY:  The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit.

“Democracy,” writes Palmer, “is a non-stop experiment in the strengths and weaknesses of our political institutions, local communities, and the human heart. The experiment is endless, unless we blow up the lab, and the explosives to do the job are found within us.  But so also is the heart’s alchemy that can turn suffering into compassion, conflict into community, and tension into energy for creativity amid democracy’s demands.”

Defining “heart” as the place where our knowledge becomes fully human, Palmer identifies five interlocking “habits of the heart” that Americans need in response to today’s fractious and fragmented political environment: 

  • An understanding that we are all in this together
  • An appreciation of the value of ‘‘otherness’’
  • An ability to hold tension in life-giving ways
  • A sense of personal voice and agency
  • A capacity to create community

Palmer reminds us that in a democracy there is no “final solution” for any issue, so our political system works well only when “We the People” have the habits required to make creative use of our unresolved tensions.  He identifies the settings of everyday life in which our habits are developed – families, neighborhoods, classrooms, congregations, our media-generated culture, cyberspace, and the diverse venues of public life.  He spells out what we can do in those settings to form hearts supple enough to embrace democracy’s endless conflicts. Democracy, says Palmer, is about humility as well as chutzpah – the capacity to listen as well as to speak across the lines of difference that enrich American life. 

HEALING THE HEART OF DEMOCRACY is not about blaming “them,” our elected officials in Washington, D.C., for our country’s problems.  Instead, it is an appeal to rebuild the neglected infrastructure of democracy – the fabric of local life and the habits of the heart that sustain it – to help us restore a government “of the people, by the people, for the people.”  Here is a soul-searching, deeply thoughtful, and well-grounded manifesto that proposes practical and hopeful ways of doing exactly that.

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