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The Politics of the Brokenhearted

On Holding the Tensions of Democracy

by Parker J. Palmer  Open PDF Download PDF


“The human heart is the first home of democracy.”

—Terry Tempest Williams

I write at a heartbreaking moment in American history. This “one nation, indivisible” is deeply divided along political, economic, racial, and religious lines. And despite our historic dream of being “a light unto the nations,” the gaps between us and our global neighbors continue to grow more deadly. The conflicts and contradictions of twenty-first-century life are breaking the American heart and threatening to compromise our democratic values.

We think of heartbreak as a personal, not a political, condition. But I believe that heartbreak offers a powerful lens through which to examine the well-being of the body politic. I want to use that lens to examine the way we hold tensions in politics as well as private life—a critical connection in a democracy that rises or falls on our individual and collective capacity to respond to conflict in a life-giving, not death-dealing way.

The image of a broken heart may seem too sentimental for politics, yet diagnosing, addressing, and sometimes manipulating heartbreak has long been implicit in realpolitik. The “values vote” that helped swing the 2004 presidential election seemed to take the media by surprise. But politicians have long understood that advocacy related to the issues that break people’s hearts—such as abortion, marriage and the family, patriotism, religion in public life, and fear of many sorts, not least of terrorism—always elicits votes. Indeed, railing against the sources of heartbreak, real or imaginary, keeps winning elections even when the rhetoric consistently outstrips legislative results. The word heartbreak may be infrequent in the literature of political science, but the human reality it points to is an engine of political life.

There are at least two ways to picture a broken heart, using heart in its original meaning not merely as the seat of the emotions but as the core of our sense of self. The conventional image, of course, is that of a heart broken by unbearable tension into a thousand shards—shards that sometimes become shrapnel aimed at the source of our pain. Every day, untold numbers of people try to “pick up the pieces,” some of them taking grim satisfaction in the way the heart’s explosion has injured their enemies. Here the broken heart is an unresolved wound that we too often inflict on others.

But there is another way to visualize what a broken heart might mean. Imagine that small, clenched fist of a heart “broken open” into largeness of life, into greater capacity to hold one’s own and the world’s pain and joy. This, too, happens every day. Who among us has not seen evidence, in our own or other people’s lives, that compassion and grace can be the fruits of great suffering? Here heartbreak becomes a source of healing, enlarging our empathy and extending our ability to reach out.

Broken-open hearts are in short supply these days, at least in politics. Formed—or deformed—by an impatient and control-obsessed culture, many of us do not hold social and political tensions in ways that open us to the world. Instead, we shut our hearts down, either withdrawing into fearful isolation or angrily lashing out at the alien “other”: the alien at home becomes unpatriotic, the alien abroad, an enemy. Heartbroken and heavily armed, we act in ways that diminish democracy and make the world an even more dangerous place.

The capacity to hold tensions creatively is the key to much that matters—from a life lived in love to a democracy worthy of the name to even the most modest movement toward peace between nations. So those of us who care about such things must work to root out the seeds of violence in our culture, including its impatience and its incessant drive toward control. And since culture is a human creation, whose deformations begin not “out there” but in our inner lives, we can transform our culture only as we are inwardly transformed.

As long as we are mortal creatures who love other mortals, heartbreak will be a staple of our lives. And all heartbreak, personal and political, will confront us with the same choice. Will we hold our hearts open and keep trying to love, even as love makes us more vulnerable to the losses that break our hearts? Or will we shut down or lash out, refusing to risk love again and seeking refuge in withdrawal or hostility?

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About the Author

Parker J. Palmer, founder and Senior Partner of the Center for Courage & Renewal, is a world-renowned writer, speaker and activist who focuses on issues in education, community, leadership, spirituality and social change. He has reached millions worldwide through his nine books, including Let Your Life Speak, The Courage to Teach, A Hidden Wholeness, and Healing the Heart of Democracy. Parker holds a Ph.D. in sociology from the University of California at Berkeley, along with eleven honorary doctorates, two Distinguished Achievement Awards from the National Educational Press Association, and an Award of Excellence from the Associated Church Press. In 2010, Palmer was given the William Rainey Harper Award whose previous recipients include Margaret Mead, Elie Wiesel, and Paolo Freire. In 2011, he was named an Utne Reader Visionary, one of “25 people who are changing your world.”