Reflections on Bainbridge Island and Parker Palmer
by Rev. Anne Sutherland Howard
As I was preparing to go off to Bainbridge Island, Washington in May for the "Politics of the Brokenhearted: Habits of the Heart and the Future of Democracy" retreat with Parker Palmer, a friend who's participated in some Courage work said to me, "It will change your life." She was right.
I am a longtime fan and avid reader of Parker Palmer, but this was my first Courage & Renewal event. I've come away with profound respect for both Parker and the program. Yes, I'm an unabashed fan, so forgive me if I gush a bit. And I say this after some 30 years of participation in conferences and workshops and church events designed to deepen the heart and strengthen the spirit.
I've come home with the great gift of being in the presence of Parker Palmer, and the equally great gift of learning a bit about the approach. And I came away with some new practices, some new habits of the heart.
First, Parker Palmer presented and presided with wisdom, kindness, and humility. He did not fill up the room with any kind of celebrity presence, but rather taught by making space for silence and for the words and questions and experiences of the gathering. Since returning home, I've given myself the summer project of re-reading each of his books, and I realize that much of what I heard in May I'd read long ago. What this tells me is that Parker has built upon his earlier convictions and honed them into timely truths, and he has done so in the company of others. We weren't there to listen to a guru but to be creative participants in discovering those habits of the heart that can renew our public life.
And of course, the process itself that so many of you know all about--holding silence, working with poetry as a "third thing," speaking in turn in small groups, attending to the one who is speaking, telling and hearing stories, going off to reflect and write (under the green cedars of Bainbridge!)--all of this allowed me to go deep and begin to discover for myself, while in the company of others, the practices that can renew our democracy.
It all begins with our heart; we tend to our democracy as we tend to our hearts. As Terry Tempest Williams says, "The human heart is the first home of democracy." One of the practices that allows us to tend to both is "being local": being present to one another in our public spaces, our schools and parks and neighborhoods. Parker spoke of the need for "rich, local, associational life," where we discover that being involved in public life means just what he wrote about in The Company of Strangers: being with others who are quite different from ourselves, and recognizing that "we are all in this together." I learned that "public life" is more than "political life" and unless we participate in public space, we cannot hope to renew the structures of our democracy. In that public space, we learn another key habit of the heart: how to hold creative tension, embracing contradiction, recognizing the both/and within ourselves and in others around us (i.e. we all have both "better" and "lesser" angels), and not jumping to "fight or flight," or a quick resolution of difference.
Holding creative tension, Parker reminded us, requires of us "supple hearts." We gain supple hearts when we allow our hearts to be broken open (not shattered in brittle pieces but widened into larger capacity) as we listen to one another and "hear each other into speech." What can result, of course, as we tend to our hearts and to each other, is wisdom, kindness, and humility. May it be so.