The Politics of the Brokenhearted...and Purposeless Wandering

The holiest thing we have to offer the world is a broken-open heart, emptied of fear and vengeance, filled with forgiveness and a willingness to take risks with love. --Parker J. Palmer

With penetrating insight, Parker Palmer speaks to the conflicts and contradictions of twenty-first-century life that are breaking the American heart and threatening to compromise our democratic values. Written 12 years ago, Palmer’s guiding wisdom in “The Politics of the Brokenhearted: On Holding the Tensions of Democracy” is as relevant and urgent now as it was then, perhaps more so. As part of our work to contribute to the flourishing of American democracy, we share this excerpt of Palmer’s essay. The full version is available to read, download, and share here.

There are many tears to be shed in America today, for reasons ranging from loved ones lost to war and terrorism to dark forebodings about the future facing our children. Many tears have been shed in private, and some have been shed in public, but many more are being suppressed, or so it seems to me.

The public equivalent of private grieving is a challenge for American leaders, who tend to be past masters of the “power of positive thinking”—partly because the public demands that they be forever strong and partly because they need to keep trying to convince themselves that they are. But American history is not without exemplars of public grief expressed in ways that serve national unity as well as personal therapy: elected officials could do worse than reread Lincoln’s second inaugural address every few weeks.

If the leadership rhetoric around our national heartbreak is all “cheerleading” and “rallying the troops,” we will continue fill a great aquifer of hidden lamentation that will sooner or later overflow and threaten to drown us. Have we not learned in the last few years that our national grief over Vietnam never really disappeared but was driven underground?

We need leaders who can let us know that they are capable of “weeping over the city” (Luke 19:41), that they understand the capacity to grieve as a sign not of weakness but of strength.

There is a third “practiced power” that I am learning more and more about, perhaps because it is one of the gifts of age. If our hearts are to be broken open rather than apart, we must claim periods of what Taoists call wu-wei— literally “purposeless wandering,” or creative nonaction, making space within and around ourselves so that conflict and confusion can settle and a deeper wisdom emerge.

Wu-wei is hard enough for born and bred Taoists, I am sure, but for Americans it is difficult in the extreme. Our can-do culture and our eager-to-impress egos want to show the world that we are in charge. We cannot abide the thought that when challenged, we might respond in a way that makes us look like witless, weightless wimps. So we do not wait; we act, even if our action simply triggers the next step in an endless and predictable chain reaction that ultimately brings more calamity down on us as well as others.

But deep down, we know that when we step back, breathe, allow our agitation to settle, and simply start paying attention, we often see new possibilities in situations that once seemed intractable. The wisdom traditions, religious and secular, have always claimed that only in this contemplative state are we able to touch the truth, whether truth be understood as the fruit of mental acuity or of mystical experience.

When we stifle our knee-jerk reaction to conflict, we are simply bathed in pain or fear or anger for a while—and that is exactly what we must allow ourselves to be. Our challenge is to absorb these terrible feelings so that they can be transformed in the alchemy of the heart rather than allowing them to bind us reactively to the logic of violence. On the other side of pain, fear, and anger, there is almost always a love that feels threatened; when we give ourselves space and time to follow our suffering to its source, we also give ourselves a chance to rediscover and reassert that love.

Are there public counterparts to the private practice of wu-wei? In our fast-paced, high-tech age, they will be hard to find. But because holding conflict creatively is essential to a democracy, we need to invest energy in creating trustworthy “containers,” private and public, where the tension engendered by conflict can reveal its creative potentials before “fight or flight” sets in.

In our private lives, we need safe relationships in which we can explore our inner turmoil, small-scale communities where we can get help from others in naming our illusions and absorbing and transforming our suffering. In such relationships, we must learn to resist the gravitational force of conventional culture, to resist especially the constant temptation to “fix” or “save” the other person. Instead, we must learn to listen deeply and ask honest, open questions, cultivating the trust that meaningful responses to suffering can come only from within the one who suffers.

In our public lives, we need to reclaim or reinvent the fast-disappearing public spaces of our increasingly privatized world.

In settings such as cafés, museums, city parks, markets, festivals, and fairs—settings that Ray Oldenburg has called the “great good places” of any society—strangers gather naturally in the course of their daily lives. We come to these places with private agendas, but as we relax and sip coffee or just enjoy the sights, we find ourselves becoming part of a public, experiencing the heart-opening potentials of pluralism. And as our public experience grows, we find the differences among us turning from a frightening and explosive brew into a renewing and resilient ecological diversity.

In these great good places, we do not interact directly with strangers but spend time in each other’s company in a way that reduces fear and enhances our sense of community: we start feeling at home with one another. Public spaces that are well designed (and well protected against other, more lucrative kinds of development) allow the heart to be slowly opened into greater capacity by the gift that more than any other can take us toward larger truth—the gift of “otherness” that has become, sadly, a source of fear for many Americans these days.

Read, download, and share “The Politics of the Brokenhearted: On Holding the Tensions of Democracy” here.