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Five habits of the heart: the work of Parker Palmer

July 23, 2016

I attended an Academy for Leaders retreat in WI this past week, sponsored by the Center for Courage and Renewal.  We had the pleasure of spending a day with Parker Palmer (Parker), the author of Healing the Heart of Democracy: The courage to create a politics worthy of the human spirit.  There are many glowing reviews of Parker’s book, so I won’t venture into that space.  However, I would like to share some important learnings from our time with him at the retreat.  Parker spent his day with us reflecting on his Five Habits of the Heart through the lens of personal stories.  I want to share and elaborate on some of the insights from his stories.

Learning from Parker is one of those experiences where you have to be in his presence.  So my descriptions will not do justice to his wisdom.  You can learn more by watching short video interviews with Parker on each habit of the heart (click here).  This would be a recommended way to learn because Parker has such a clear and compelling way to share his ideas and thoughts.

His five habits of the heart are:

  1. We must understand that we are all in this together.
  2. We must develop an appreciation of the value of “otherness.”
  3. We must cultivate the ability to hold tension in life-giving ways.
  4. We must generate a sense of personal voice and agency.
  5. We must strengthen our capacity to create community.

You can find a description of each habit of the heart in his book on page 45.

With regard to the first habit of the heart, Parker talked about the importance of being connected and knowing that through our togetherness we can accomplish great things, but that each person has to forge a unique path that fits a “life worth living.”  He posed this question to us: “what is it you can’t not do?”  The thing “we can’t not do” represents a window into our calling.  He suggested to us that while the journey to fulfill one’s calling might feel like swimming upstream at times, be protective of it.

His second habit of the heart was expressed through these words: “In learning to value otherness, we are learning to value the strength of diversity.”  He shared personal and interesting stories that illustrated for us what otherness meant to him.  He also suggested that we might be unable to connect to and understand otherness unless we could see ourselves as “other.”  If we see ourselves as the norm and everyone else as “other,” then it’s likely we will stand apart from them, seeing ourselves as superior.

I must first understand my own otherness. (Parker Palmer)

One way I thought about the second habit of the heart was through the lens of my “whiteness,” which could be perceived as a threat to an African-American person.  Unless I understand my “whiteness” deeply, I will not be able to deeply appreciate the value of their “blackness.”

yinyangThe image or metaphor that comes to mind with this second habit of the heart is the ying and yang symbol.  The concept illustrates how opposite or opposing forces are actually interconnected and part of a whole.  While each is distinct, the two can be integrated to represent wholeness.  For me, this helps illustrate what Parker meant by appreciating and understanding otherness.  While distinct, we are part of the larger whole of the human race.  It isn’t sufficient to merely understand the “other,” we have to understand how we are “other” as well.  When it comes to human cultures, no culture can be projected as the “norm.”  If our species is to survive for the long haul, then we must understand our otherness and work towards integration and wholeness.

The third habit of the heart has to do with being able to hold the tension between two polar opposites.  Our leadership team at Westminster has been studying the writings of Nick Petrie and working with him on a consulting basis.  In his work on leadership, he writes about the importance of navigating the tension between reflection and rumination, stability and change, or the work-life balance.  Handling each of these tensions requires an ability to “stand in the gap” between them, finding an equilibrium that promotes growth.

In his work on the third habit, Parker spoke about reclaiming the “beginner’s mind.”  His example was about coming fresh and new to a disagreement, not as an expert but as a beginner.  Often the beginner approaches the issue by hearing the other side, while the expert is more focused on framing the answer from a known point-of-view.  Approaching a tension from the beginner’s mind point-of-view might result in asking the question: what’s going on?  This open-ended question begs for more learning.

The fourth habit of mind has to do with developing and sharing our voice which leads to greater agency.  Parker writes, “expressing our version of the truth while checking and correcting it against the truths of others.” (page 45)  In his work with us he said: “The shaky voice is more trustworthy than the confident voice.”  The implication is that the authoritative voice is often closed to further learning, while the emerging voice is often eager to learn.  Parker encourages us to find our voice and use it for good purposes.  He writes:

And yet it remains possible for us, young and old alike, to find our voices, learn how to use them, and know the satisfaction that comes from contributing to positive change.

His fifth habit of the heart speaks to the importance of building community in all areas of our life.  However, building community does not happen independently of the other four habits of the heart.  A person needs to become self-actualized, understanding self and other, live into the tensions in life, be a team-player, and wisely use voice for inquiry and healing before building and living in community with others becomes a reality.  Parker writes:

It takes a village to raise Rosa Parks.  Without community, it is nearly impossible to exercise the “power of one” in a manner that multiplies.

He goes on to suggest that it took a community of people to convert her actions into social change.

While incorporating the five habits of the heart may seem like a long journey, Parker believes it is within the grasp of every person.  At the conclusion of the book on page 193 he asks a set of questions:

Are we faithful to the community on which we depend, to doing what we can in response to its pressing needs?  Are we faithful to the better angels of our nature and to what they call forth from us?  Are we faithful to the eternal conversation of the human race, to speaking and listening in a way that takes us closer to truth?  Are we faithful to the call of courage that summons us to witness to the common good, even against great odds?

He believes if we can answer these questions, using faithfulness as our guide, then there is hope that we can learn to live into wholeness in a “beloved community.”  (page 193)

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