February 10, 2017 column
Five Habits of the Heart
Rev. Yme Woensdregt
Parker Palmer has been an inspiration to me ever since I first heard his name and read some of his writings. The founder of the Center for Courage & Renewal, Palmer is a world–renowned writer, speaker and activist who focusses on issues in education, community, leadership, spirituality and social change.
In 2011, he wrote Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit, in which he discusses five habits of the heart. These are “deeply ingrained ways of seeing, being, and responding to life that involve our minds, our emotions, our self–images, our concepts of meaning and purpose.”
In a time when our fractured politics reflects a society which is increasingly broken along cultural, religious and economic lines, these five habits of the heart are essential to rebuilding a healthier dialogue among us.
Habit #1: Understand that we are all in this together
Biologists, ecologists, economists, ethicists and leaders of the great wisdom traditions have all given voice to this theme. Despite our illusions of individualism and national superiority, human beings are a profoundly interconnected species. We are entwined with one another and with all forms of life, as the global economic and ecological crises reveal in vivid and frightening detail.
We must embrace the simple fact that we are dependent upon and accountable to one another, and that includes the stranger, the alien, the other.
How do you embody this habit in your life? What are some of the things that get in the way of this understanding?
Habit #2: Appreciate the value of “otherness”
It is true that we are all in this together. It is equally true that we spend most of our lives interacting with those who are like us. Sociologists talk about living in tribes to describe this practice. We think of the world in terms of “us” and “them”. It is one of the many limitations of the human mind.
The good news is that “us and them” does not have to mean “us versus them.” Instead, it can remind us of the ancient tradition of hospitality to the stranger and give us a chance to translate it into 21st century terms. Hospitality rightly understood is premised on the notion that the stranger has much to teach us. We invite others into our lives so that our lives become richer and more expansive.
Have you experienced a time when you engaged with someone different from you? Can you imagine sitting down with someone from a different faith, a different group, a different tribe?
Habit #3: Cultivate an ability to hold tension in life–giving ways.
Our lives are filled with all kinds of contradictions. For example, there is often a gap between what we hope for and what we actually do. Again, we often observe things which we cannot abide because they run counter to our convictions. Other people in the world believe and act differently than we do.
If we fail to hold these contradictions creatively, they will shut us down and take us out of the action. But when we allow the tensions between them to expand our hearts, they can open us to new understandings of ourselves and our world, enhancing our lives and allowing us to enhance the lives of others. We are imperfect and broken beings who inhabit an imperfect and broken world. The genius of the human heart lies in its capacity to use these tensions to generate insight, energy, and new life.
How might you attend to some of the contradictions in your life by spending time with someone with who you disagree?
Habit #4: Develop a sense of personal voice and agency.
This habit encourages us to understand that we are able to speak and act out of our own understanding of truth, while at the same time checking and correcting it against the truths of others.
Many of us lack confidence to do this, because we have grown up in educational and religious institutions that treat us as members of an audience instead of actors in a drama. As a result, we tend to treat politics as a spectator sport rather than an arena for action.
Yet it remains possible for us, young and old alike, to find our voices, learn how to speak them, and know the satisfaction that comes from contributing to positive change—if we have the support of a community.
Habit #5: Develop a capacity to create community.
Without a community, it is nearly impossible to achieve a voice of our own. It takes a village to raise a Rosa Parks or a Viola Desmond. A community makes it possible to exercise the “power of one” in such a way that this power can multiply. It took a village to translate Parks’ and Davis’ acts of personal integrity into social change.
Community rarely comes ready–made. We don’t have to spend all our time organizing a community. We can create community in the places where we live and work as we find the steady companionship of two or three kindred spirits. They can help us find the courage we need to speak and act as citizens. There are many ways to plant and cultivate the seeds of community in our personal and local lives.
These five habits cultivate in us a desire to create a healthier community. As we cultivate them in our own lives, we will find that our lives become richer, more whole, more complete.