Tag Archives: Liana Thompson Knight

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

Message given at Durham Friends Meeting, March 24, 2019

I’d like to begin with a story that may be familiar to some of you. In fact I think I have even heard this story in this Meeting room before. This is a story out of the Jewish tradition, that comes from the Hassidic masters:

Once, the Hassidic rabbi Zusya came to his followers with tears in his eyes. They asked him: “Zusya, what’s the matter?” And he told them about his vision, “I learned the question that the angels will one day ask me about my life.”

The followers were puzzled. “Zusya, you are pious. You are scholarly and humble. You have helped so many of us. What question about your life could be so terrifying that you would be frightened to answer it?”

Zusya replied, “I have learned that the angels will not ask me, ‘Why weren’t you a Moses, leading your people out of slavery?’ and that the angels will not ask me, ‘Why weren’t you a Joshua, leading your people into the promised land?’” Zusya sighed, “They will say to me, ‘Zusya, why weren’t you Zusya?’”

This story resonates deeply for me. I find it really easy to look around me at things that other people are doing—really good, deeply important things—and feel like, ‘well, that’s important, so I should be doing that, too.’ It takes constant work to remember that just because work is valuable and necessary, does not mean that it is my job to take it on. Perhaps I can support the people I see doing this work in some way, but I, myself, cannot do it all.

So what am I supposed to do? This is a question that has been following me around for many years now, and it resonates because I don’t have a full answer for it. And yet sometimes there are ways in which I am pulled. As Quakers, we believe that we can be guided by the inner light, if only we sit and wait for guidance. I have to admit that a lot of times, I feel like I am stumbling about in the darkness. However, sometimes, that inner light gives me a small glimmer, and occasionally that inner light shines a beacon in some direction.

One of the strongest leadings I have had recently is to pursue the Courage and Renewal work—Parker Palmer’s work—that I have spoken about with all of you before. It was out of that leading that I pursued Facilitator Training, and it is that leading that compels me to stand before you here today. And I think that the idea of leadings is useful today as we continue to consider Parker’s Habits of the Heart, from his book Healing the Heart of Democracy.

As a reminder, or super brief primer for those who have missed my previous messages, the five interlocking Habits of the Heart that Parker outlines in that book are habits that he identifies as being necessary to the healthy functioning of democracy. I believe that they are also necessary to the healthy functioning of society. 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 past messages, I have spoken about the first three Habits (that we’re all in this together, the appreciation of the value of otherness, and cultivating the ability to hold tension in life-giving ways); these habits Parker connects with the idea of humility. Today I would like to speak about the fourth Habit—the sense of personal voice and agency—which is one of the two Habits that Parker connects with the idea of chutzpah.

The first three Habits ask us to be open to the wisdom of others and to be respectful of others’ positions. The fourth Habit, along with Parker’s idea of chutzpah, acknowledges that I, too, have a voice and a perspective, and lifts up my need to be heard in counterpoint with other voices and perspectives, as part of the fabric of a functional democracy/society.

In his description of this Habit, the need to generate “a sense of personal voice and agency,” Parker writes, “Insight and energy [from holding tensions in life-giving ways, part of Habit 3] give rise to new life as we speak out and act out our own version of truth, while checking and correcting it against the truths of others. But many of us lack confidence in our own voices and in our power to make a difference. We grow up in educational and religious institutions that treat us as members of an audience instead of actors in a drama, and as a result we become adults who treat politics as a spectator sport. And yet it remains possible for us, young and old alike, to find our voices, learn how to speak them, and know the satisfaction that comes from contributing to positive change…”

Having grown up Quaker, I am grateful that I came of age in a religious tradition that honored personal agency. However, I have still struggled mightily to find my own voice. Part of this struggle comes out of being finely attuned to what I perceive others want from me and many years spent privileging those wants—other peoples’ wants—ahead of my own voice. Another part of it comes out of feeling small in a big world: In this world of so many people, why should anyone listen to me? In a society with experts who have numbers and statistics about any topic I can come up with, why should my opinion matter?

Our society by and large functions on the level of the intellect. Facts and figures are used to make decisions, and there is utility in those facts and figures. However, to find our sense of personal voice and agency, I think we are asked to speak from a different place than the place of intellect, though we may draw on our intellectual knowledge as we speak our truth. I also think we are asked to speak from a different place than the place of emotion, though we may feel or describe emotions when we speak our truth. I think the place from which the sense of personal voice and agency can arise most naturally is from the level of the soul, the inner teacher, the inner light.

Parker loves to lift up individuals who have found a way to align their individual wholeness with their role within society. He talks about these individuals living “divided no more” – no longer having a breach between their individual integrity, the stirrings of their soul, and the way they live and/or work. He talks about well-known individuals like Rosa Parks, and also about anonymous individuals, like a doctor who realized how torn he felt between his personal integrity as a doctor on the one hand and the quotidian sacrifices he was asked to make in his professional environment on the other. Rosa Parks, as we all know, sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott; the doctor went on to change procedures within his medical practice—procedures that directly impacted the quality of care he was able to deliver and helped him to better uphold his Hippocratic oath. For all of the individuals Parker references, he talks about how they find their voice through listening to where their inner teacher called them.

Given that a sense of voice and personal agency arises from the inner teacher, and that leadings also arise from the inner teacher, there is a strong connection between having a leading and developing a sense of personal voice and agency. Having a leading certainly lends itself to developing voice and agency. When I am pursuing a leading, I have clear ideas about why this leading is important. It is easier to speak up or speak out when I feel like I have clarity on why something matters to me.

But what about all those times when my inner teacher tells me that something is right or wrong, true or not true, moral or immoral without also having a clear leading to take action or live into this belief in some new way? Do I have to have a leading in some area to be able to cultivate this sense of personal voice and agency? I do not think that is the case. While having a leading can lend strength to my sense of personal voice and agency, having a sense of personal voice and agency does not require me to be pursuing a leading in the arena about which I have a truth to share. I do not have to be actively pursuing policies that will help make life better for women with small children to be able to share the truths I have experienced about what it is like to try to navigate career and family under the current policies held in our society. I do not have to be an expert on climate change, or a leader in what to do about it, to be able to express my truth that it is a topic of great concern to me.

“Zusya, why weren’t you Zusya?” Each one of us has within us a unique combination of truths that we could speak that come from the context of our individual lived experiences and the voices of our inner teachers. I do not have to try to be everything to everyone, I cannot solve all the problems, I can’t accomplish it all single-handedly. But I do have to listen for where I am called, look for where I can be of use, and lend my voice to those things that are within my realm. If I can do that, I will live into being Liana, I will speak with the voice that only Liana can speak with, I will act with the agency that only Liana can bring.

In closing I offer you three questions:

What truths has your life made evident that you give voice to?

What truths has your life made evident that you wish to give voice to?

What leading(s) are you living into?

“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?

“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?