“Developing Habits of the Heart, Part I,” by Liana Thompson Knight

Message given at Durham Friends Meeting, December 9, 2018

In worship last week, Keith Harvey brought us a message that began with a story about Jeremiah. He then gave us examples of Jeremiah figures from more recent times: people like John Woolman and Martin Luther King, Jr. Individuals who spoke their truth, even when the views they expressed went against the grain of society.

John Woolman is a figure whom Parker Palmer lifts up at the beginning of his book, Healing the Heart of Democracy. Parker explores how Woolman provides an example of how an individual can hold the heartbreak they experience due to the conditions of the world in such a way as to enable continued wrestling with an issue. Woolman, traveling among Friends to speak out against slavery, continued to speak his truth even when his perspectives weren’t immediately adopted by the community. The community, meanwhile, didn’t shut him down. Woolman influenced many Friends to free their slaves, and over the years his testimony contributed to a shift in perspective on slavery in the Religious Society of Friends.

Though society has changed since Woolman’s time, our polarized society has a desperate need to learn to embrace the kind of tension-holding that Woolman and the Religious Society of Friends exemplified in the 1700s. Quakers have done this tension-holding for over three hundred years in our consensus based system. Somehow we need to model that in our majority-rule based society.

Parker believes that individuals from diverse backgrounds can better hold tensions in society through developing what he calls the Five Habits of the Heart. Taken together, these habits embody what Parker terms as chutzpah and humility. By chutzpah Parker means knowing that I have a voice that needs to be heard and the right to speak it. By humility, he means accepting that my understanding of anything is always partial (and may not be as true as I believe), and that I therefore need to be willing to listen to the perspectives of others.

Within that framework, Parker outlines the five interlocking habits of the heart as:

  1. We must understand that we are all in this together.
  2. We must develop an appreciation of the value of “otherness.”
  3. We must cultivate the ability to hold tension in life-giving ways.
  4. We must generate a sense of personal voice and agency.
  5. We must strengthen our capacity to create community.

He links the first three habits—we are all in this together, an appreciation of the value of “otherness,” and the ability to hold tension in life-giving ways—with humility, and he links the last two habits—generating a sense of personal voice and agency, and strengthening our capacity to create community—with chutzpah. Yet each of the habits grows into and out of the others in a web of interconnection.

In today’s polarized political climate, with all of the challenges that we face as a society, country, and world, I often feel like developing my sense of voice and agency is the most important thing. Certainly being able to stand up for what I believe in is important. Just as John Woolman did, we each need to speak truth as we see it. At the same time, I need to be able to listen to others who see the world differently than I do—and to listen deeply, with a willingness to learn—especially when I think, or even know, that I am right.

Listening can be hard. Listening can be really hard. Even on the level of our closest relationships, listening can be hard. When I believe I know the truth about something—whether it has to do with politics or what happened last summer—and my partner has a different perspective, it is really hard to listen and not just try to convince him that I am right. Parker believes that most of our interactions play out this way—we listen in order to respond and in order to rebut. Sometimes in normal conversation we get so carried away with formulating our responses that we’re not even really fully listening.

Through my retreat facilitator training with Parker and other leaders from the Center for Courage and Renewal, I have learned how much listening can impact a relationship. And the kind of listening that is the most impactful is deep listening—listening with the intent to hear and understand someone. Deep listening is different than listening in order to respond with answers or opinions. It is really different than listening with the intent to frame a counter perspective or convince someone of something else.

Deep listening humanizes people. As I have sat in Circles of Trust (the retreat model developed by Parker), I have been privilideged to experience the humanity of total strangers through deep listening. Often, through deep listening, I am able to find pieces of others’ experiences that resonate with my own lived experiences. Always, through deep listening, I am able to find deep compassion for the human beings sitting in the circle with me.

So I see deep wisdom in Parker’s call to cultivate the habits of the heart that connect to humility as an integral part of the fabric of community. And so, today, I invite you to reflect on the first two of the habits of the heart.

Habit One: we must understand that we are all in this together. We are dependent on the same resources, linked by interconnected social and political structures and policies, affected by the same economic and environmental crises. This doesn’t mean that we all experience these things in the same ways, or that political, economic, and ecological change affect us all in the same way. Nor does it presume equailty in our experiences. But we are all affected, for better or worse, in interconnecting ways.

Before we get too grandiose and far-flung in our thinking, I want to bring us back to our own lived experiences to help us consider how we are all in this together on a more person-sized scale. So I offer you two questions:

When in your life have you connected with a stranger due to a shared experience?

Where in your life have you experienced people coming together across differences?

Alongside those considerations, I offer you Habit Two: we must develop an appreciation of the value of “otherness.” Though we are all affected in interconnecting ways, our lived experience is in smaller groups that have distinct ways of being in the world and that hold different perspectives and beliefs. This habit encourages us to practice hospitality and to embrace what people from groups different than ours have to teach us. Perhaps more than any other habit, this one requires us to practice deep listening. So the question I offer you related to this habit is: When in your life have you deeply listened to another’s story?

Recognizing our interconnectedness and valuing different perspectives, beliefs, and ways of being in the world aren’t in of themselves going to bring us to consensus on difficult issues. However, cultivating these two habits of the heart may help us to connect with people who are different than we are, to hear their stories, and to begin to identify the places where we might hold some amount of common ground. It is a beginning.

As we return to silent worship, I invite you to hold the three questions:

When in your life have you connected with a stranger due to a shared experience?

Where in your life have you experienced people coming together across differences?

When in your life have you deeply listened to another’s story?