The human heart is the first home of democracy. It is where we embrace our questions. Can we be equitable? Can we be generous? Can we listen with our whole beings, not just our minds, and offer our attention rather than our opinions? And do we have enough resolve in our hearts to act courageously, relentlessly, without giving up—ever—trusting our fellow citizens to join with us in our determined pursuit of a living democracy?
—Terry Tempest Williams (Epigraph from Parker Palmer’s Healing the Heart of Democracy)
I’ve been listening a lot lately. In this contentious and uncertain election season, I’ve been riveted and repulsed. I’ve felt my own stirrings of both rebellion and remove as arguments flare and people yell over one another; as true conversation becomes impossible in the face of so much bombast and frank violence. This season is hard on the heart. But then again, every season is hard on the heart.
I understand that a lot is at stake. Our political system is deeply flawed. Money and moneyed power owns our system. This disenfranchises LOTS of people. This leads to full-on disillusionment and a leaning away from politics and toward—what—something else…. Dictatorship? Anarchy? There are voices on either end of the political spectrum calling for revolution. But what I hear in the crackling silence between volleys is an unnerving cultural vulnerability. A turn away from listening.
I think it’s true, as David Brooks pointed out in a recent New York Times Op-Ed piece, our founding fathers chose politics, specifically Democracy, as an ordering principle of our republic, they laid a foundation for the messy work of compromise and its evolution within an evolving nation. Fundamental to this is a recognition of deep diversity, competing needs, agendas, and the aspiration that, even if not everyone gets every single thing they want, the democratic process offers the promise of listening to many voices and enacting policies that will uphold our constitution and support and evolve policies that impact lives for the greater good, not just in the interest of the privileged few. Our “process” requires engagement. It requires civil conversation. It requires the hardest work of both speaking and listening.
Some of the most cynical among us might say “Beth, that ‘civil-discourse train’ left the station long ago…, these times require something else.” And perhaps they would not be wrong. With all the injustices we see every day—where black lives, women’s and children’s lives, poor people’s and minority lives still do not matter, within our system—it is hard not to be cynical. It’s hard not to scream. The desire to shout—no, shriek and rail, is powerful.
At times like this, I think about my choice to work in small circles of light. When so much on the world stage seems to call for bigger actions and a fight that overwhelms my nervous system, I re-visit my choices about where I work to make a difference in this messy world.
I still consider myself a part of the sister and brotherhood of legions who spent years working on the front lines with disenfranchised people, the poor, children, the ill, the incarcerated, and within well-meaning systems meant to support them. I know their voices well. I’ve grown up, lived and worked with them, I’ve heard their stories and stood on courthouse steps with them. Some of us left that work in states of physical and emotional exhaustion. Some keep on keepin’ on and for this we should all be grateful, and I personally believe, find ways to stand behind them.
I have chosen the action of bringing women together in writing circles to tell their stories, to drop their assumptions and embrace the deep diversity among us. I continue to choose this work in the world with any group of people who wish not only to find their voice in the world, but to listen—to really listen to the other voices in the room and allow the words we both write and hear to transform us. Believe me, I’m well aware of the privileged position from which this choice of vocation has been afforded me.
Still, I choose what is in alignment with who I am and my native gifts as an awesome listener and facilitator—this: We gather around sacred things, poetry, a candle, flowers, the presumption of goodwill. We create containers to contain our best intentions, our fears, our habituated behaviors-in-search-of-softening where, together and alone we navigate the shadow and light of what makes, sustains, and challenges us to manifest our creative powers in the world.
These circles take place mostly (and purposely) far from the madding crowd. Quietly. For all that is aesthetically lovely, and peaceful about our settings, the community work of engaging with one another is also arduous. Over the years I’ve seen the work we do in our writing circles fortify the engagement each feels called to when she leaves. The listening ripples out. This is my activism, my finger in the dyke, my tiny contribution to fortifying against our present day cultural vulnerability.
Where my own confidence and fear meet up, where the yearning to remain invisible and the yearning to be seen tussle, where curiosity and dread dance together—these struggles amplify in times when the stakes seem high and when more voices of sanity are needed in chaotic times. These are my leadership paradoxes of the moment. I think we all need allies to keep on keepin’ on in spite of looming threats to the exceedingly messy work of democracy. I truly hope each of us can find her own way and voice this season. Still, don’t forget to listen as well.
Beth Lodge-Rigal for the Poplar Grove Muse
Listening, watercolor by Meganne Forbes