“I think that’s what the future holds for me…. making the world that I want as opposed to commenting on the world that is.”
This is a quote from an NPR interview with Taylor Mac, a musician who created A 24-Decade History of Popular Music which was first performed live on October 8th, 2016 in Brooklyn. In his interview, Mac spoke about moving into the future, moving forward instead of just commenting on the present. The words captured my imagination.
I have read three books in the last year that have also captured my thoughts and imaginations and are, at least on some level, about moving forward: Parker Palmer’s Healing the Heart of Democracy, John Danforth’s The Relevance of Religion, and Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance. The authors of these books fall at different places along the continuum of liberal and conservative politics and religion, but they each in their own way make two similar points: Our character, our virtues, and our choices are the sine qua non of a faithful democracy. Also, if we do not participate in public life, our democracy will crumble.
Our character, our virtues, and our choices are the sine qua non of a faithful democracy.
Let’s start with virtues. Danforth says that we can think of virtue in two differing ways. First, and probably the way most of us think of it, is that we conduct our private lives in upright ways. We may be able to name virtues, like honesty, humility, compassion, generosity, and kindness. If you are interested in reading about virtues, I have listed a few favorite books of mine at the bottom. I recommend all of these to you. And I hope, by this definition, that you practice being virtuous adults!
But the way our founding fathers thought of virtue was more expansive. To our founding fathers, virtue meant living beyond our personal interest for the betterment of society. It meant commitment to the common good over our personal interests. So we can see that one could be a privately virtuous person without having any real virtue as defined by our founding fathers. Danforth says, “In sum, it is clear that in the minds of the first four presidents, the future of America would depend on more than the structure of our government; it would depend on the responsibility of the American people not only for their individual well-being but for the good of the whole.”¹
What is the common good? How do we learn to care about the common good? More importantly, what happens when we disagree about the common good?
Politics, and therefore the common good, is the art of compromise. Listen to what Parker Palmer says:
“Our diversity consists only in part of demographic differences such as race, ethnicity, and social class. Equally important are the wildly different lenses through which we see, think, and believe. At the center of America’s public life is a marketplace of ideas that only a free people could create, a vital, colorful, chaotic bazaar of religious, philosophical, political and intellectual convictions.
When democracy is working as it should, it is a complex and confusing mess where we can think and act as we choose, within the rule of law; can generate social and technological advances via the creative conflict of ideas; and can still manage to come together for the sake of the common good.” ²
Yes, Parker Palmer. Democracy is messy. So what do we have to learn in order to come together for the common good, and make this messy democracy more marvelous? I offer up Palmer’s 5 Habits of the Heart, habits that need to be cultivated in each of us. May I add, these habits are not just helpful for healing the heart of democracy but for any form of participating in or living in community. I would also include family in the places we need to practice these five habits of the heart.
We must understand that we are all in this together.
No (wo)man is an island anymore. That’s a capital T truth. My destiny is tied to your’s, our country’s destiny is tied to other’s. That’s the world we are living in right now.
We must develop an appreciation of the value of “otherness”.
Our country was founded on the principles of the value of the “other”. Of those different from us and those who had things to offer that we did not. What does the “other” have to offer you? What gifts do they bring?
We must cultivate the ability to hold tension in life-giving ways.
At the age of almost 60 now, I believe that almost everything is a paradox. It is always “this AND this”, not “this OR this”. Spiritually mature people can hold the massive paradoxes our world is requiring us to hold without the need to split into dualisms.
We must generate a sense of personal voice and agency.
What do you believe? Why? Can you speak about it calmly and with passion? Can you listen to another speak in opposition without having to shut their opinion down? Will you act on your convictions and beliefs?
We must strengthen our capacity to create community.
Those of you who know me know that this is a passion of mine. Living in community, inviting others in, being capable of sharing life with those who are not like me is a critical need of our time.
If all we did for the next year is work on developing these habits of the heart, it would be enough. Let’s post them on our refrigerators. Let’s talk about them at lunches and dinners. Let’s challenge each other when we get apathetic. Lazy. Tired.
Whether you love him or are happy to see him go, I found Obama’s farewell address inspiring. I was nodding my head, “Yes, yes, yes,” as he was winding his way to the final moments. And then, it happened. I said to my husband, “Hey, Obama is plagiarizing my blog!” Husband: “You can’t plagiarise something that’s not published, Amy.” Me: “Well, he’s plagiarizing my mind, then. He’s saying what I am going to say in the blog.” It was his final and fourth point at the end of his speech. WE HAVE TO GET INVOLVED. It is up to us. There has to be a critical mass of citizens who are going to do the work of the democracy. We cannot leave it up to “the government” to do our work for us. Time to leave apathy, cynicism, and laziness behind and get to work. Our institutions work when we do our work. This is true of all institutions, especially marriages, schools, and churches.
Time to leave apathy, cynicism, and laziness behind and get to work.
Here’s what I am doing to work harder. I never thought I would, but I now have my two senator’s and my representative’s phone numbers and emails in my contacts. And I am calling. I am asking them to be my heroes and stand up with all the integrity I know they have. I am listening more, to those politics, theologies, and philosophies that differ from mine. I am reading the “other” side more. Once when I questioned my mom’s possession of a book by Rush Limbaugh she said, “You have to read the enemy. You have to be familiar with them.” I don’t want to think of it as enemy. But I do know we have very little real, unbiased news anymore, so I have to read and listen to the other side. I am trying to show up to events, to make time to be one of a critical mass of people who will make their voices known. If I wasn’t taking care of my dad next weekend, I would be at the million woman march next weekend with all of the other women who will be there.
There is so much we can do to help heal the heart of democracy. Let us know what you are doing and how. Perhaps we can help each other practice these habits of the heart. Perhaps we can make this messy democracy more marvelous.
- Danforth, John. The Relevance of Religion:How Faithful People Can Change Politics. Random House: New York. 2015
- Palmer, Parker J. Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit. Jossey-Bass: San Francisco. 2011.
These are a few favorite books of mine of the subject of virtue: Chris Peterson and Martin Seligman’s Character Strengths and Virtues, (Oxford University Press, 2004) William Bennett’s The Book of Virtues, (Simon and Shuster, 1993) and all things related to The Virtues Project by Linda Papov.