In the fall of 2000, my friend Jack and I drove from Boston to Stanhope, New Jersey for the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival. It was one of my favorite experiences, and I was reminded of it when I came across the poster I bought (and never framed) cleaning up our office/studio here in Durham. I bought the poster because of the quote from a Rumi poem:
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
Tonight, as I’ve been sitting here trying to find a way to phrase what is going on in my head and heart around the responses to President Obama being a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, I came across a link to an article written by J. Parker Palmer while I was trolling my Facebook. Palmer’s The Courage to Teach and Listening to Your Life have been pivotal books in my life, so I followed the link to “The Politics of the Brokenhearted: Opening the Heart of American Democracy,” and found:
There are two ways for the heart to break. The brittle heart will shatter into a thousand pieces that are very nearly impossible to retrieve and reassemble. But if the heart is a supple, well-exercised muscle, it can be broken open rather than apart, giving us a larger capacity for both suffering and hope.
The broken-open heart is not the gift of a special few; life gives us many opportunities to exercise our hearts. I know many people whose hearts have been broken by the loss of something or someone they deeply love. They have lost jobs in a heartless market, homes in a corrupt economy, children to their own bad choices, elders to death. And yet many of these people, in the wake of their losses, have not become bitter and withdrawn. They have become more compassionate, extending their hearts to other sufferers and reaching out with forgiveness to the people who caused their pain.
If we can learn from such losses in our lives, the broken-open heart can become the source of what Lincoln called “the bonds of affection,” a sense of unity amid diversity. And that, in turn, will allow us to do what citizens of a democracy must do: engage with issues of great moment that require a collective and creative response.
The recent history of American political discourse (and by recent, I’m speaking particularly to the environment exemplified by the twenty-four hour news channels over the last several years)is not of creativity, or collectivity for that matter, but one centered around fear. For a people who consider themselves to be the most powerful nation on earth, we live frightened lives. And I don’t mean just because of September 11, 2001. On almost any issue, what we accept as discussion is for people to run to their opposite poles and take shots at each other, each of us bent on defending our position as though we are under attack. We don’t want to lose power, lose control, or just lose, period. There is no field in which to meet, only fox holes from which to fire.
I honestly didn’t know much about the Nobel Prize until I started reading tonight. I still don’t know much, but what I do know is the prize, in it’s hundred and eight year history has been influenced by politics (mostly local Norwegian ones, because Norwegians make up the committee), economics, humanitarian values, and personalities. It’s had its hits and misses. In its most recent history, it has given the award as a way of making a statement about what it hopes will happen (and hoping to influence outcomes) as much as rewarding accomplishment. By the time I got through with the article, I could see that their choice of our President fit their pattern over the years. That said, and even though I think the award is pretty cool, I thought they were a little premature in their choice.
Then I remembered being in Turkey a few years back. The very same CNN company that fills our screens with celebrity news anchors who love a good tirade had an international channel full of news: an hour on Asia, then Africa, then Europe, the South America . . . . Ginger and I were flabbergasted. The next day, we were on a bus tour with a group of international tourists and an Australian guy asked me why Americans didn’t seemed bothered by what was going on in the rest of the world and I said, based on the different news feeds I had seen, “They don’t know; our media chooses not to tell us.”
And so I wonder (I don’t know, but I wonder) if the Nobel Committee was offering an invitation in a way, or at least expressing hope that our willingness to elect Obama might mean we were willing to be a part of the world community and not determined to see ourselves as the exception. All the fray over this makes me think we don’t have a real sense of how the rest of the world sees us. We write off hostilities aimed our way by saying those people are jealous, or crazy. We often play the stereotype of the popular high school kid in most any high school movie who thinks everyone wishes they could be in their shoes. We are the country with the mot nuclear weapons who is determined for no one else to get them. (Yes, I understand why we don’t want Iran to have a bomb, and we have to come clean about the double-standard.) We would never think of letting anyone build a military base on our soil and yet we are quite comfortable building them all around the world. (Yes, I understand we feel we need to in order to protect our national interests, and we have to come clean about the double standard.) I’m guessing the rest of the world enjoys our continued emphasis that we are the most powerful nation on earth and they can’t live without us about as much as I would enjoy a Yankee fan getting in my face and yelling, “We’re Number One!”
I have to quote Palmer one more time:
The current sources of democracy’s danger are many and complex, and not directly traceable to one political party. They range from the dominance of big money to the divisiveness of religious fundamentalism; from the failures of mass journalism to the undemocratic dynamics of capitalism; from schools that ignore citizen education to political parties more concerned with their own survival than the survival of democracy.
But the root cause of democracy’s peril is that we, the people, fail to understand the meaning of our citizenship—and fail to use the means at our disposal when threats to democracy arise. Democracy fails when we withdraw from the fray, or stay in it while trusting and talking with only the people who hate what we hate. Democracy fails when we allow the differences between us to loose the irrational and violent angels of our nature, having never called upon the “better angels” that Lincoln tried to evoke in his First Inaugural Address a month before the Civil War began.
And yet the better angels have not abandoned us, and there are ways to call them out. When we are able to meet each other at the level of heart, of soul, of human identity and integrity, the barriers that blind us to each other’s humanity become thinner and the gaps that divide us become smaller. Heart, soul, identity and integrity, call it what you will: it is the “being” in human being, and it has no race or ethnicity, no creed or doctrine, no philosophical, ideological or political commitments.
We are bigger than our fear. We are more than our party affiliations. We are not Number One, but rather one of many. Let’s break our hearts open together.