Study Guide from Parker Palmer’s “Center for Courage & Renewal”
The human heart is the first home of democracy. It is where we embrace our questions. Canwe be equitable? Can we be generous? Can we listen with our whole beings, not just our minds, and offer out attention rather than our opinions. And do we have enough resolve in our hearts to act courageously, relentlessly, without giving up—ever—trusting our fellowc itizens to join with us in our determined pursuit of a living democracy?
-by author/activist Terry Tempest Williams
The human heart is the first home of democracy:
Q: What thoughts and emotions do these words evoke in you?
The politics of the brokenhearted:
Q: Does the phrase “the politics of the brokenhearted” resonate? What stories come to
your mind and heart?
Abraham Lincoln’s melancholy:
Q: What can Lincoln’s melancholy teach us about heartbreaking experiences? About
courage? About the human spirit?
The democratic experiment is endless:
Q: How do you think the democratic experiment is working today? Where do the risks
lie for “blowing up the lab?”
CHAPTER I: DEMOCRACY’S ECOSYSTEM
Democracy requires a certain relish for confusion:
Q: How do you respond to the “confusion” that arises when human diversity finds
creative expression in our civic life?
Creative tension-holding in democracy:
Q: What are some of the tensions you have observed and/or experienced in civic life?
How have you helped to hold them?
The suffering going on in America right now:
Q: What suffering do you see or experience in America right now?
CHAPTER II: CONFESSIONS OF AN ACCIDENTAL CITIZEN
Citizenship lite is not enough:
Q: How might you exercise more robust forms of citizenship?
The young Frenchman, Alexis de Toqueville:
Parker lifts up ideas from the book Democracy in America written in the 1830’s by the
young Frenchman Alexis de Toqueville. He lifts up “five habits of the heart” that are
crucial to sustaining “the invisible and visible infrastructure of democracy.”
Five habits of the heart:
Q: Do you have a story about how “we’re all in this together?”
Q: When have you walked across lines of difference and discovered a larger and much
more interesting place?
Q: When have you held a tension long enough that something more creative emerged?
Q: When have you discovered your power, voice and agency?
Q: What communities have taught you about connectedness?
CHAPTER III: HEART OF POLITICS
A farmer’s heart:
Q: Do you have a personal story about joining your head and your heart in support of a
=============Habits of the Heart============
First Habit of the Heart — “We are all in this together”
Second Habit of the Heart — “Appreciation of otherness”
Third Habit of the Heart — “Capacity to hold tension creatively”
Fourth Habit of the Heart — “Sense of voice and agency”
Fifth Habit of the Heart — “Capacity to create community”
=============Habits of the Heart============
CHAPTER IV: LOOM OF DEMOCRACY
A government designed to function like a loom:
Q: When has your ability to “hold tensions” made a difference?
CHAPTER V: LIFE IN THE COMPANY OF STRANGERS
The choreography of democracy:
Share a personal story—humorous, touching, unsettling, hopeful—about “life in the
company of strangers.”
Experiencing human diversity:
Q: Have you experienced the human diversity that makes America a more creative
society? How is your own diversity part of the story?
CHAPTER VI: CLASSROOMS AND CONGREGATIONS
The human quest for meaning and purpose:
Parker suggests that these “spiritual but not creedal questions” are important to explore
- • Do I have gifts the world wants and needs?
- • Does my life have meaning and purpose?
- • Whom and what can I trust?
- • How can I rise above my fears?
- • How do I deal with suffering, my own and that of my family and friends?
- • How can I maintain hope?
- • What does my life mean in the face of the fact that I am going to die?
Q: Where and when do you explore such “inner life” questions? How does democracy make
exploring such questions possible?
CHAPTER VII: SAFE SPACE FOR DEEP DEMOCRACY
Getting the news from within:
Q: Do you have places that help you to “get the news from within?”
CHAPTER VIII: UNWRITTEN HISTORY OF THE HEART
Personal and national mythologies:
In the final chapter, Parker suggests that obituaries rarely include the history of a
person’s heart, the “inner experiences” of despair and meaning.
Q: What national myths may be lies that we need to stop telling ourselves? What myths
may continue to call us to something better?
To stand in the “tragic gap”:
Parker Palmer quotes historian Jon Meacham: “How to live in a tragic milieu and yet
strive toward triumph—for while perfection may not be possible, progress is…” to
illuminate what he calls “standing and acting in the tragic gap” between current realities
and hoped-for possibilities.
Q: Have you struggled with corrosive cynicism? With irrelevant idealism?
From effectiveness to faithfulness:
Q: What important cause you have chosen to serve for the “long haul?” Who and what
has helped you remain faithful over time?