Sunday, July 28, 2013

A gathering of spirits in Cedar Rapids

Author Parker Palmer commended community spirit to a large audience at First Presbyterian Church in Cedar Rapids last night. He urged the listeners to "imagine how we might live our political lives as people healing the whole," and not to become discouraged either by others' rage or the lack of tangible results.

(Parker J. Palmer, from

Palmer is the founder of the Center for Courage and Renewal in Seattle, Washington. Joining him on the program singer-songwriter Carrie Newcomer and pianist Gary Walters, making for an interesting mix in which Palmer's pithy observations were punctuated by Newcomer's songs (including "Better Angels," on which Palmer is credited as co-writer) and a couple instrumental improvisations by Walters. The evening concluded with Newcomer leading the crowd in two of her songs, "If Not Now" and "Peace Like a River." So we got the glow of a folk concert combined with the extended commentary of a lecturer who's clearly thought deeply about the problem of how we can all live together.

(Carrie Newcomer, from

For the record, the third song Carrie Newcomer sang was "Betty's Diner," which is included on this playlist of songs that evoke a spirit of urbanity.

Palmer focused his talk almost entirely on the audience, rather than on those unnamed persons who may not share our interests in building a civil community that approaches our aspirations.  He spoke of the importance of relationships, arguing "the more you  know about another person's story, the harder it is to dismiss or demonize them." Diversity, which the U.S. Constitution tends to encourage, means including all kinds of differences not just demographic. And by "including" Palmer stressed he meant more than "mere toleration." Differences are to be valued, because what we (Americans, humans) hold in common is more important. It is easy, maybe too easy, to see where others fall short of this appreciation; it is harder to see it in ourselves, but the more we try the easier it is to keep working for community and not get discouraged. One of the participants told the story of an Indian doctor running a vaccination project who said that if they vaccinated 10,000 people a day it would take 300 years to vaccinate the whole country. When asked "How do you do it?" he responded "One person at a time."

The ideal of community is challenged by individualism and outrage, which are everywhere abundant. Palmer suggested each of these are not forces in and of themselves, but symptoms of something else. He characterized individualism as an "illusion" given the reality of inter-dependence, jokingly suggesting that July 5 be designated Inter-Dependence Day. It's a place people retreat when the project of community becomes too challenging. (The same can be said for retreat into tribes of like-minded people. Parker said at one point, "You can learn a lot about people when you find out what they mean be the word 'we.'")

Outrage is a symptom of "broken-hearted" politics; across the political spectrum economic insecurity, cultural issues and war seem beyond our control. The key is not to react to the emotion or the illusion, but to recognize the pain that lies behind them. Telling our stories, especially if we can do it with humor and gentleness, creates bonds in a way that hurling our opinion cannot. Maybe someone's heart can be made "to break open" instead of in a million pieces.

Palmer did not discuss those who traffic in outrage, for surely it is quite an industry these days, maybe outgrossing some more traditional sectors of the economy. Maybe we can/should just ignore them?

In his concluding section Palmer listed a number of specific ways to work towards community: listening to children, exposing students to different beliefs, inquire instead of argue, if you're involved in a church ask if your congregation is truly safe for diversity, encourage workplace, and respond to hateful expression with gentleness and caring. We must, he concluded, live out our answer in the "tragic gap" between the harsh realities of this world and what we know to possible even--especially--when we know we won't see results in our lifetimes. But we should keep working anyway.

Some concluding thoughts from your humble author. Last week one of my Facebook friends posted, in response to vandalism at the Lincoln Memorial, "How can people do such things?" It put me in mind of a much-younger Robbie when we found some graffiti at our neighborhood park, asking me with a confused mix of emotions why someone had written "I hate --" on the equipment. I could come up with any number of answers, but perhaps it's best not to answer it at all. Perhaps it's best to leave the question hanging out there. We all know of the evils in this world, and the evil that people do, and over time we get more experience with it all. Maybe it would do us good not to try to understand it, to always be surprised by it, because we're spending our mental energies looking for the good in people. I believe I will try this, though it will require daily exertion to undo bad mental habits of many years' standing.

Thomas Merton wrote in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (1966: 158): 
In Louisville, at the Corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers.
Merton's enclave, where he had believed himself separate, was the monastery where he lived. For others it might be living in a large-lot suburb, enclosure in an ideological bubble, or being in the white middle-class. To build community we need to get out of our enclaves.

Reader, I too, even I, have at times felt the overwhelming feeling Merton describes. Palmer's essential argument is this feeling must be sustained, so that your love for humanity is not a momentary rush of passion but a long-term relationship. The challenge, that requires the daily exertion I mentioned in the last paragraph, is in time (sometimes not very much time) you realize that much of humanity does not want a long-term relationship with you. Some have no interest in developing community; some even think that ensuring economic opportunity, accommodating diversity, and environmental sustainability are foul ideas. Some people think that when your gay friends get married it is a body blow to our civilization. Others steal unguarded purses, abuse alcohol or drugs, or are mean to kids. They smile in your face, when all the time they want to take your place. Or they talk on and on, and on and on and on, always about themselves. The temptation to give up on the whole community thing is ever-present; faithfulness to community in the face of all this surely is strenuous.

I am reading The Duty of Delight by Dorothy Day (1897-1980). Page after page she records her self-doubts, her fears, her daily encounters with difficult people. And yet she persevered. She was a model of faithfulness.

P.S.--A couple weeks ago, I wrote a post entitled "Who Is My Neighbor?" that posed, though not very directly, the issue of whether the welfare of others is a practical problem or purely a moral (or religious) problem, either for individuals or communities. Palmer dealt with this question last night only in brief, so briefly in fact that I didn't catch what he said. I think it's a pertinent question, though, and will probably return to it in time.

SEE ALSO Emily Busse, "'Healing the Heart of Democracy' Emphasizes Community in Cedar Rapids," Cedar Rapids Gazette, 28 July 2013 []. 

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