Five Habits to Heal the Heart of Democracy
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
“We the People” called American democracy into being. Today, the future of our democracy is threatened. How can “We the People” call American politics back to health at a time when, in the words of Bill Moyers, “we have fallen under the spell of money, faction, and fear”? One answer is close at hand, within everyone’s reach. We must return to the “first home” of democracy, which, as Terry Tempest Williams points out, is found not in a centuries-old document or in a distant city, but in the human heart.
A young French intellectual named Alexis de Tocqueville made much the same point when he visited our young nation in the 1830s, returning home to write the classic Democracy in America. In it, he predicted that democracy’s future would depend heavily on the “habits of the heart” its citizens developed, and on the health of the local venues in which the heart gets formed or deformed: families, neighborhoods, classrooms, congregations, voluntary associations, workplaces, and the various places of public life where “the company of strangers” gathers. These habits and the places where they are shaped form the invisible infrastructure of American democracy on which the quality of our political life depends. It is an infrastructure we have neglected at our peril, just as we have neglected its physical counterpart.
The heart is where we integrate what we know in our minds with what we know in our bones, the place where our knowledge can become more fully human.
When Tocqueville and Terry Tempest Williams speak of the human heart, they mean much more than feeling or sentiment. “Heart” comes from the Latin cor, so in its original meaning, it points to the core of the human self, that center-place where all of our ways of knowing converge: intellectual, emotional, sensory, intuitive, imaginative, experiential, relational, and bodily, among others. The heart is where we integrate what we know in our minds with what we know in our bones, the place where our knowledge can become more fully human. Cor is also the Latin root from which we get the word courage. When all that we know of self and world comes together in the center-place called the heart, we are more likely to find the courage to act humanely on what we know.