I had the great pleasure of attending an evening presentation by Parker Palmer last week. He is an author, lecturer, and activist who has been an inspiration to me in my ministry, so I was delighted to hear he’d be speaking in Santa Barbara. It was well worth the trip, since he held me spellbound for over an hour and a half as he talked about his latest book, Healing the Heart of Democracy. I want to share one of his most pithy statements with you in this column.
“Partisanship isn’t the problem; demonization is,” he said in talking about the decline of civility in the political arena of our country. Having listened to political rhetoric every four years since I was a teenager, I recognize the wisdom of his statement. As we ramp up for another major election we need a way to discuss our differences without the rancor I’ve heard in the past few contests. And it is true for both sides of the “aisle.” Most of those running for office [from both major parties] choose not to just disagree with their opponents, but rather to vilify them. When we cut off the public debate — and certainly this practice does — everyone loses.
As I was driving home the morning after the lecture I realized that it isn’t just in the political arena that Parker Palmer’s statement is true. We need to remember and honor it in any part of our lives where there is the possibility of conflict [and isn’t that pretty much everywhere?] It is incumbent upon us to be open to difference of opinion as well as difference of process wherever we are. I think it’s especially true of our Unitarian Universalist churches where we claim that we are inclusive of diversity. We need to be able to state our opinions or preferences without worrying that we will be demonized for our differences. And we need to find ways in which to hear someone else’s idea — contrary to or different from our own — without deciding that the difference makes the other person unworthy.
Years ago [and I mean many years ago — when I was a pre-teen] my father was talking about an employee who reported to him. The other man had come to run an idea past my dad about the way he wanted to deal with a situation that had arisen. My father knew a better way to do it. When he told the family that he’d agreed to have the man handle it his own way in spite of this, I asked, “Dad, why not tell him to do it the better [more efficient or effective] way instead?” And my father replied, “Because, Karen, a person will always do a better, more complete job — will commit to what he’s doing more fully — when he’s doing it the way he thinks best.” For me, those have always been words to live by — they embody respect for the other person and a sense of humility that acknowledges that I don’t always know what’s best for someone else.
In the title of his book, Parker Palmer talks about “Healing the heart” and I believe that central to that process must be both love and respect.