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

Message given at Durham Friends Meeting, February 24, 2019

When I last brought the message, in early December, I spoke about Parker Palmer’s Habits of the Heart, from his book Healing the Heart of Democracy. The Habits of the Heart are five interlocking habits that Parker has outlined in the belief that developing and practicing these habits can help individuals from diverse backgrounds better hold tensions in society. As a reminder, the five habits are:

  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.

In December I talked about Habit 1: that we must understand that we are all in this together, and Habit 2: that we must develop an appreciation of the value of “otherness.” Today I am turning to Habit 3: “We must cultivate the ability to hold tension in life-giving ways.” 

As a way in to thinking about that, I want to share with you a quote from Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Poet.” Rilke writes:

“Be patient toward all that is unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like closed rooms and like books written in a strange tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given because you would not be able to live them—and the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answers.”

These words have resonated for me ever since I first heard them, probably because I have spent so much of my adult life trying to find answers that have been hard to come by. In school there was an answer for everything, or at least, so it seemed. And so, as I have navigated the first nearly-20 years of adulthood, I guess it is not surprising that I get thrown off by questions and situations that don’t have an obvious answer.

Rilke’s call to “love the questions,” and to “live the questions” is challenging for me because it means embracing not knowing and embracing the lack of a clear answer. But it is also liberating. It is liberating to take a deep breath and believe with certainty – even if only for a few minutes – that I do not have to answer my questions today.

In my adult life one of the biggest questions that remains unanswered is a question about career path. I have always been a goal-oriented person, so my natural tendency in my 20s was to pick something and aim towards it with equal parts intensity and rigidity. On the cusp of turning 30, the economy crashed, and it seemed like all of my hard work towards a career crashed out from under me. All of a sudden I was left to consider what to do with a brand new degree in a field that simply wasn’t hiring anywhere in the country. For the first time in my goal-oriented life, I was really lost.

Finding my way again has involved a certain amount of re-learning how to be in the world and how to approach navigating a path forward. In many ways, I have been living a version of what Parker Palmer would call a “tragic gap.” Parker describes the “tragic gap” as being the gap between the way things are, and the way we know they might be. In my case, this was the gap between knowing that I had all the skills to be able to land a good job and the reality of being an unemployed newly-minted dramaturg.

Parker speaks often of “standing and acting” in the tragic gap—being able to hold the tension between reality and possibility in a way that can open up a new and different way forward. Standing in a tragic gap and holding that tension is hard. It means resisting being pulled towards either pole of the gap: not resigning ourselves to the way things are or giving into cynicism and disengagement on the one hand; not allowing ourselves to escape into excessive idealism or fantasies on the other hand.

The challenge of standing and acting in the tragic gap is as relevant in the ways in which we interact with society as it is in our personal lives. I know that there are many people in this Meeting who are probably standing in their own version of the tragic gap as they work on societal, political, and global problems: climate change, gun violence, immigration, education. The list could go on and on, the relevance of the idea of the tragic gap has no limits.

I think the idea of the tragic gap is also key to understanding what Parker means when he names the third Habit of the Heart as being: An ability to hold tension in life-giving ways. As he fleshes out his description of this habit, Parker writes, “Our lives are filled with contradictions—from the gap between our aspirations and our behavior to observations and insights we cannot abide because they run counter to our convictions. If we fail to hold them creatively, these contradictions will shut us down and take us out of the action. But when we allow their tensions to expand our hearts, they can open us to new understandings of ourselves and our world, enhancing our lives and allowing us to enhance the lives of others.”

This tension-holding, this standing in the tragic gap, is tremendously challenging. It means having to let go of preconceived notions of what is best, of what the path forward should be, of thinking we have the answer. Sometimes we may have the answer, but I think that holding tension in live-giving ways demands of us to let go of our answers for a little while and be able to live in the questions. When we can live in the questions, and love the questions, as Rilke exhorts his correspondent to do in ‘Letters to a Young Poet’ we expand our capacity for listening to other answers. In listening, to both ourselves and others, we may be better able to walk the line between the poles of a tragic gap, finding a new way forward.

Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai has a beautiful short poem that I think encapsulates this idea of living the questions, and I would like to share it with you. It is called “The Place Where We Are Right.”

From the place where we are right

flowers will never grow

in the Spring.

The place where we are right

is hard and trampled

like a yard.

But doubts and loves

dig up the world

like a mole, a plough.

And a whisper will be heard in the place

where the ruined

house once stood.

As we settle back into silence, I ask you three questions:

(1) What questions are you living at this time?

(2) In what place are you standing that will not allow flowers to grow?

(3) What doubts and loves help you dig up the world?

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