Healing the Heart of Democracy

CUF Admin
December 11, 2016

Healing the Heart of Democracy

Rev. Scott Aaseng
December 11, 2016

If you’re anything like me, you’ve been in a lot of places emotionally over the last month. I don’t pretend to know where each of you stands on the state of our nation, and I’m not assuming that all of us are in the same place. Some of us may be raging or grieving, others may be optimistic or determined; some of us may be fearful or despairing, others may be weary and not caring what happens anymore.

But I suspect that one thing most of us carry within us these days is a sense a sense that something’s broken. Whether it’s our broken economy or our broken immigration system, our broken criminal justice system or our broken system of social services, the broken political system of our country, the threatened ecosystem of our very planet, our broken system of information-gathering and truth-telling, or our shattered sense of decency and respect, of justice and equity, of right and wrong, of humanity and inhumanity—something feels broken these days, at least to me.

It’s brokenness deeper than just having won or lost a political contest. It’s more of a sense that the very character of our country is at stake. Whether we define our character in terms of our history and heritage or in terms of our dreams and aspirations, it feels like we are approaching a point of discontinuity – a breaking point. Will we be who we have been – will we be who we have said we are – or will we become something unrecognizable altogether?

Quaker activist and contemplative Parker Palmer suggests that it’s that very gap between what we believe in and what we fear losing—between where we want to be and where we are—it’s that gap that is both at the center of our national brokenness AND the place to look to for a way to move forward. He suggests that it’s our very hearts that are broken by the anguishing reality of the gap between what we yearn for and what we see in front of us, and that it is by attending to that heartbrokenness that we can find ways to move forward.

Palmer writes about five ‘habits of the heart’ which are essential to healing the broken heart of our democracy. Now, the healing he’s talking about is not a call to just kiss and make up, pretend to heal our divisions and get on with it. Quite the opposite: It’s a plea to attend to the very real reality of our heartbreak, to face it directly and not turn away, so that there can be real healing and not just band-aids over gaping wounds.

Often what we are struggling with is a sense of complacency, a lack of awareness that there even is a gap between our values and our reality, at least the kind of awareness that keeps us up at night and keeps us moving ahead day after day. The usual challenge of an organizer like me is to heighten awareness of that gap, to try to cut through the distractions of everyday life and uncover our deep heartbreak at the way things are, to awaken a sense of outrage between our values and the violation of those values in the world. Often I have quoted that old bumper sticker: “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention!”

But now it’s not complacency, but more of a sense of desperation that I sense among many of us. The violation of our values has become all too real; the heartbreak is right there at the surface. We’re wide awake now. We’re paying attention and we’re outraged, and struggling to know what to do with our outrage and our fear.

Parker suggests that we not just get reactive and respond to everything we see with outrage, for we risk losing the center of who we are if we do that. Nor would it be healthy to try to hide from our heartbreak, to sweep everything under the rug and try to smooth it over. Rather he invites us to look underneath our outrage and our fear, underneath our anxiety and our despair, to the heartbreak underneath all of it, and learn to live constructively with that. And so he describes his first habit for healing the broken heart of democracy as: “Cultivating the ability to hold tension in life-giving ways.” I would call it: Learning to embrace heartbreak and channel it into constructive responses.

At one level, learning to embrace our heartbrokenness at the gap between the world we long for and the world we see means getting present to the ache within us and learning just to be with it, learning to get comfortable with the discomfort. It also means not being alone with that discomfort, but coming together with others who have their own heartbreak, and I suspect each of us (here today) is heartbroken about something.

Being present to the heartbreak among us, our own and that of others, is at the core of the listening conversations we talked about at the workshop yesterday. By hearing and being present to each other’s heartbreak, we can tap our inner wells of compassion which are essential to building a healthy community and a healthy society.

By listening and sharing our own brokenness we can help each other work through it and come to terms with it, find our core sense of worth and dignity, of relatedness and interconnection, of wholeness and empowerment even in the midst of our heartbreak with the world as it is. Perhaps this is what Ta-Nehisi Coates was getting at in writing to his son in his book, Between the World and Me: “This is your country… this is your world…this is your body, and you must find some way to live within the all of it.” For dominant culture people especially, it involves letting go of the illusive dream of comfort and embracing the tension – the heartbreak – of living in a world that will never be what we want it to be, without giving up on doing what we can to make it more of what it can become.

On course, heart-brokenness is nothing new to people who have long been marginalized. The gap between what this country says and what it does is not news to black and brown people, people of all colors who are poor,          immigrants, people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, women. As Langston Hughes put it: “America never has been America to me.” And if you listen carefully, you can hear both a righteous anger in that phrase, and beneath that, a broken heart. We need to listen and be present to those whose hearts have been broken for so long, centering their experiences and insisting that they guide our discussions of where we need to go from here.

That brings me to Palmer’s second habit for healing the heart of democracy: “Developing an appreciation of the value of ‘otherness.’” We have much to learn from the experiences of others, and much has been written about the need to listen to people      who feel newly marginalized and unheard in our society. Certainly it is time for a new level of listening in our country; we need to hear and understand the pain of those who have been truly marginalized. But it’s important to do so in a way which does not pit one group of marginalized people against another and make us “others” to each other – “us” against “them.”

Rather than becoming a reason for division and hostility, the common experience of marginalization can become a source of solidarity. Rev. William Barber, founder of the Moral Monday movement, has written about the multiracial “fusion coalitions” among poor whites and poor African Americans that led to some of the most democratic reforms in his home state of North Carolina during Reconstruction after the Civil War. Certainly such “fusion coalitions” were key to the advances of the civil rights movement and more recent progress towards a more democratic society. Such progress does not come by “othering” each other into “us” vs. “them,” but by seeing each other as potential allies, learning from each other – creating a larger We – and working together for the common good of We the People.

This ties into Palmer’s third habit for healing the heart of democracy: fostering the understanding that “we are all in this together.” It’s more or less a restatement of our 7th UU principle of respecting the interdependent web of existence of which we are a part. At one level, this is simply a recognition that what we do impacts others and that what others do impacts us, and so it makes no sense to think that just being able to do whatever we want to do is what democracy is all about. Bailing my section of the lifeboat out into yours doesn’t work as a strategy for any of us. We really are in this together, and we are impacted by each other in both profound and very ordinary ways.

This habit is also one of nurturing a sense of empathy and compassion, recognizing that we really do belong to each other. And one way of nurturing this sense of empathy and compassion is by listening to each other and hearing each other’s stories, especially the stories of those who are marginalized. As Rev. Sarah pointed out yesterday, part of the genius of Rev. Barber’s Moral Monday movement is that it lifts up the voices of the voiceless to make real the impact of poverty and poverty-level wages, of lack of access to health care and quality education, of discrimination and unfair treatment, of violence and environmental degradation. It’s a movement that listens to those voices and says, “We hear you, we see you, we are in this together, and we are in it together with you.”

Palmer’s fourth habit of the heart for healing democracy is particularly critical for people like me who are often inclined just to listen and respect everyone’s viewpoints, and that is “generating a sense of personal voice and agency.” It’s important to listen to the voices of others, and it’s also important to use our own voices and speak from our own values as people of conscience.

One of my favorite stories of using one’s voice comes from Interfaith Youth Core founder Eboo Patel, who tells a story about Martin Luther King. After marching in Chicago and being hit with a brick, King goes up to one of the angry white protestors hurling racial epithets and says, “You’re too smart and good-looking to be so full of hate.” It’s a wonderful example of using one’s voice to call someone up to be their better self, and call them in to relationship rather than just calling them out. As Patel puts it: “Do people change by getting yelled at? Or do people change by saying, ‘Hey, I thought you were up here. Why don’t you rise to that?’”

Finally, Palmer‘s fifth habit for healing the heart of democracy is “strengthening our capacity to create community.” We need to build communities of love with power to heal the broken heart of our democracy. We need to build communities of presence – presence to each other and to each other’s deepest heartbreaks and greatest longings, presence to injustice and to the heartbreak and longing of those all around us. We need to build what Parker Palmer calls “communities of congruence” – communities of people aligned around our values, organized around what we value and what we want for our communities and our children and our planet. We need to build what Rev Barber calls “moral fusion coalitions” organized to put those values into effective action. We need to build what Van Jones calls a Love Army of people committed to hearing each other out and then finding ways to work together. We need to build what Josiah Royce and Clarence Skinner and MLK and Grace Lee Boggs called Beloved Community, the kind of community that encourages us to love and care for the peoples of the world as we love and care for our own families. We need to build what UUs call Standing on the Side of Love to create aworld community with peace, liberty and justice for all.”

This is the vision the organization I lead, the Unitarian Universalist Advocacy Network of Illinois. We call it “UUANI” because it’s about you and you and I coming together to build stronger and more powerful communities of love across the state. Our vision is to strengthen UU fellowships and congregations as just such powerful communities of love and presence and power, to foster larger communities of love and presence and power in every town in the state with a UU fellowship or congregation, and to connect them all with each other. And I have to say I’m intrigued to see the making of just such a coalition already present here in Carbondale, if yesterday’s gathering of folks from CUF and several other organizations is any indication.

There are many different ways of living out our values, many different ways of healing the broken heart of democracy; there are many different ways of finding healing for our own broken hearts. But I think Parker Palmer identifies some key habits for doing so:

  • Building communities of congruence, and inviting others to join us in living out our values together;
  • Developing our own sense of voice and agency to speak up and make a difference;
  • Cultivating the sense of empathy and solidarity, that we’re all in this together;
  • Valuing each other as part of a larger We, rather than othering each other into “us” and “them;” and
  • Embracing the heartbreak each of us carries within us – the heartbreak that threatens to tear us apart, but which has the potential to bring us together if we can only embrace it in ourselves and in each other.

Heartbroken is what we will always be in a world which will never live up to our highest aspirations. But attending to our heartbrokenness – our own and that of others – is key to unleashing the power of our hearts broken open. For hearts broken open carry within them the power to bring us all a little bit closer to the world we dream of, to bring our democracy a little but closer to its promise, and to bring each of us a little bit closer to the healing we long for.