Tuesday, December 11, 2012

If Only We Would Listen: An Interview with Parker Palmer

On a busy day full of medical appointments and errands, I humbly submit to you the words of Parker Palmer, a Quaker writer whose words regularly inspire me. Palmer's reputation among the Religious Society of Friends is unmatched.

The full column is entitled If Only We Would Listen. Follow the link to read the whole thing, if you wish.

Alicia Von Stamwitz conducted the interview.

Palmer: [My latest book] began as a thirty-two-page pamphlet. In it I propose that what we call the “politics of rage” is, in fact, the “politics of the brokenhearted.” There’s heartbreak across the political spectrum, from one extreme to the other, and not just in this country. If Americans don’t understand that radical Islamic terrorists are heartbroken about what’s happening to their people, we’re missing the point.

Here’s an axiom that’s central to the book: Violence is what happens when we don’t know what else to do with our suffering. That applies on every level of life. When individuals don’t know what to do with their suffering, they do violence to others or themselves — through substance abuse and extreme overwork, for example. When nations don’t know what to do with their suffering, as with the U.S. after 9/11, they go to war.

Von Stamwitz: Have you been heckled for saying that?

Palmer: No. In fact, I’ve talked with military officers who say that the people who hate war the most are professional soldiers like themselves.

Our society is in deep denial about the costs of violence. We claim to support the troops, but when they come home, we don’t provide adequate medical and psychological care. Many of the homeless people in this country right now are veterans. We need an honest examination of war and its consequences before we say, “Let’s go get ’em.”

When people want to argue with me about issues, I try to say something like “Please, tell me your story. I want to listen. I know I can learn from your experience.” The more I’ve listened to people’s stories and gotten beyond knee-jerk reactions and ideology, the more I’ve found that suffering is an aquifer on which we all draw. That’s one place where we have something in common to talk about.

Von Stamwitz: What if someone doesn’t want to talk?

Palmer: There are people on the far Right and far Left who can’t join in a creative dialogue about our differences — say, the most radical 15 or 20 percent on either end. But that leaves 60 or 70 percent in the middle who could have that conversation, given the right conditions. And in a democracy, that’s more than enough to do business.

When I was researching Healing the Heart of Democracy, I learned that at the Constitutional Convention of 1787 — where, for the first time in history, people created a political system in which conflict and tension are not the enemy but the engine of a better social order — 30 percent of the delegates walked out before the final vote was taken. Serious conflicts are nothing new in our politics. Our job is to learn to deal with them creatively, which is the key to the democratic experiment.

But when I’m talking with people whose views I regard as wrong but not evil, I need to ask myself: Am I here to win this argument, or am I here to create a relationship? Research shows that when you throw facts at people to refute what they believe, it only hardens their convictions. But if you create a relational container that can hold an ongoing dialogue, it’s more likely that someone will change — and that someone may be you! Failing that, we usually just walk away and revert to talking to people who agree with us. What good is that?

Von Stamwitz: In several interviews you’ve referred to standing in the “tragic gap.” What is that?

Palmer: By the tragic gap I mean the gap between the hard realities around us and what we know is possible — not because we wish it were so, but because we’ve seen it with our own eyes. For example, we see greed all around us, but we’ve also seen generosity. We hear a doctrine of radical individualism that says, “Everyone for him- or herself,” but we also know that people can come together in community and make common cause.

As you stand in the gap between reality and possibility, the temptation is to jump onto one side or the other. If you jump onto the side of too much hard reality, you can get stuck in corrosive cynicism. You game the economic system to get more than your share, and let the devil take the hindmost. If you jump onto the side of too much possibility, you can get caught up in irrelevant idealism. You float around in a dream state saying, “Wouldn’t it be nice if . . . ?” These two extremes sound very different, but they have the same impact on us: both take us out of the gap — and the gap is where all the action is.

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