Habits of the heart to help us set our course together
It just struck me how democracy is so full of contradictions. We work to define our shared values and dreams as states and as a nation, through a process that underscores our differences … too often in stark and uncharitable ways. Bright hopes and dark fears are drawn out in ourselves and projected onto others. Despite our differences, we are all seeking a path to happiness and light, to mutual understanding, to a feeling of welcome and comfort in our own homes and communities. The election cycle is long and intense.
We began 2020 with a politically-driven divisiveness that was bursting some of our long-solid seams. And then came the pandemic, an enduring threat that has disrupted our daily lives in ways that are difficult to sustain. Then, the murder of George Floyd highlighted the horrors of racism and ignited protests for change that have spoken to each of us in different and uncomfortable ways. All of this forces us to consider what matters most to us, and it also asks us to look hard at how our lives impact others. That’s a lot of pressure!
And now, a new school year is about to begin. Most years, this is a hopeful time of clear and new beginnings. I look back to the simple things that made those first days of September so special. The little bits of uncertainty were (mostly) exciting: There’s a new kid in our class! The new teacher lives down the street from my cousin and she’s really cool. We’re getting new science books this year! When’s the first dance?
This year, there is uncertainty about health and safety … and transportation, childcare, and even livelihood, with Covid-19. The Lyme School’s experienced, creative educators are working diligently with ever-moving targets to craft plans for our children’s physical safety, emotional health, and learning. The school board is providing direction, doing their best to interpret evolving state guidance and emerging science about how best to mitigate the risks. There are no experts or definitive studies to predict if and how the virus will spread in Lyme. Anxious parents, staff, and community members are offering input. There are discussions and decisions based on a wide range of opinions, some coming down to votes. Though it’s messy, we are working hard together to ensure the best school year possible. The way we “do” democracy matters.
This perfect storm of a moment reminds me of a book that’s had a great impact on my work in Lyme and in communities across the country: Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit, by Parker Palmer (Jossey-Bass, October 2011). Palmer explores how to deal with our political (and societal) tensions for the sake of the common good. It’s about starting from a kind and hopeful place of respect for one another, with the courage to share our own beliefs and our ideas. At the core of his message are five “Habits of the Heart”. Here’s a short introduction to these powerful ideas:
- An understanding that we are all in this together. We must embrace the simple fact that we are dependent upon and accountable to one another, and that includes the stranger, the “alien other.”
- An appreciation of the value of “otherness.” Thinking in terms of “us” and “them” is one of the many limitations of the human mind. But it does not have to mean “us versus them.” Can it be just “us”?
- An ability to hold tension in life-giving ways. Our lives are filled with contradictions, and that can be confusing. But the tensions can also open our hearts to new understandings of ourselves and our world.
- A sense of personal voice and agency. Many of us lack confidence in our own voices and in our power to make a difference … to help change something we think is broken. Yet it is possible for us, young and old alike, to find our voices and know the satisfaction that comes from contributing to positive change.
- A capacity to create community. Community can take many forms (school, church, town …), and it takes work. Palmer urges us all to become “gardeners of community”, if we want democracy to flourish.
How lucky we are to be gardening in Lyme! We have such a strong and beautiful start.